The research around the portion of I-35 that runs through Austin tells many local drivers what they already know.
Between US 290 and Ben White Boulevard, I-35 is the third-most congested roadway in the state for all traffic and the most congested in Texas for commercial trucks, according to a 2018 report from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
According to the same report, evening rush hour average speeds southbound on that same section of I-35 hover about 20 miles per hour, and more than 175,000 vehicles traveled on that stretch of highway daily.
“It’s a disaster in every sense,” said Sinclair Black, principal at architecture firm Black and Vernooy and an advocate for changing the design of I-35.
That “disaster” has been elevated to a national level. On April 3, national nonprofit Congress for the New Urbanism, which advocates for what it calls “vibrant and walkable cities,” released its “Freeways Without Futures” report, a list of 10 highways across the U.S. most in need of removal. This is the sixth “Freeways Without Futures” list CNU has released since 2008, and the first time I-35 in Austin has been included.
CNU Communications Manager Lisa Schamess said many cities across the country are experiencing similar challenges to Austin’s, including Denver with I-70 and Dallas with I-345.
“People have lived the highway era, and they’re tired of it. They are tired of being stuck in their cars. They’re tired of traveling long distances,” Schamess said.
Reconnecting the grid
The report focuses on a solution for I-35 from Reconnect Austin, a local effort started by Black and his daughter, Heyden Black Walker of Black and Vernooy, to bury the section of I-35 between Cesar Chavez Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard below ground, then cover those lanes with a new boulevard.
The plan represents a shift in thinking, according to Black Walker, that rejects the idea of widening roads to build a way out of highway problems. Instead of only adding more lanes to I-35, which drivers would soon clog, she said the Reconnect Austin proposal offers a more comprehensive solution for the city.
“Widening [highways]for ever and ever is not only hugely expensive, but it doesn’t work, and we need a better solution,” Black Walker said.
According to the “Freeways Without Futures” report, the Reconnect Austin proposal would open up 30 acres of new land currently under the I-35 frontage roads, which would have a potential valuation of approximately $3.3 billion. To fund capping the buried highway, the city would use an economic development tool called a tax increment financing zone, opening the area up for mixed-use development and potentially adding affordable housing units to address the city’s need.
Ben Crowther, who manages CNU’s “Freeways Without Futures” initiative, said 31 highways were nominated in 28 cities around North America, and Reconnect Austin’s solutions to consider economic development and underserved communities in its proposal was part of what propelled it to the national list.
‘A big bite from a big apple’
The Texas Department of Transportation is in the midst of a yearslong project to improve I-35 in Williamson, Travis and Hays counties.
The project has not been fully funded, and as money has come in piecemeal, TxDOT has so far focused on smaller projects away from downtown. According to TxDOT Austin District Engineer Terry McCoy, work on the corridor of I-35 between Ben White Boulevard and US 290 would account for about $6 billion of the $8.1 billion total project cost.
“Once we get into downtown, it’s not possible to do small projects. We’ve got to figure out how to take a big bite from a big apple,” McCoy said.
TxDOT said it is pursuing depressing I-35 throughout the center of Austin, and that proposal would be compatible with a locally funded cap that could cover the highway’s main lanes.
The Reconnect Austin vision goes further than what TxDOT has proposed, advocating for the frontage roads to be removed in order to create valuable property that could create tax income.
“When you do that, then you get whole blocks you can develop. And you can actually build valuable tax base that brings in money for the state, the city, the county and everybody else to benefit,” Black Walker said.
While TxDOT continues the process of searching for funding sources at the state Capitol and designing solutions through downtown Austin, the highway’s problems continue to worsen as the population in Central Texas grows. According to TxDOT, the 19-mile commute from downtown Austin to Round Rock could take as long as 2.5 hours by 2035. According to the CNU report, the agency’s planned renovations along with local support for an I-35 solution have created “a once-in-a-generation opportunity” for change.