TxDOT preparing for I-35 mobility

The Texas Department of Transportation is among several organizations collaborating to develop a 10-year I-35 Capital Area Improvement Program to offer drivers more travel options and decrease congestion on I-35 and intersecting streets from SH 45 N to SH 45 SE.

"What we're trying to develop is a road map [of] all the different improvements that we as a community feel are good projects and that are feasible, and that result in the desired objective," said Terry McCoy, TxDOT's deputy district engineer for Austin.

He said the goal is to provide feasible options to help decrease I-35 congestion by optimizing operational and safety benefits and minimizing construction costs. TxDOT is expected to have a final plan for Travis County by August.

On its 100 Congested Roadways list updated in December, TxDOT deemed I-35 from Hwy. 71 to US 183 the fourth most–congested roadway in the state, amounting to delays of 559,380 hours per mile.

Maureen McCoy, director of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, said representatives from regional transportation agencies have monthly conversations about progress on projects because each agency plays an integral role in planning. CAMPO is an independent government agency that discusses city and county transportation needs and works with these agencies to implement long-term plans.

"We are in constant contact with TxDOT because things are evolving so quickly," Maureen McCoy said. "This is probably the one time that I have seen such tremendous [regional] commitment to coming up with a workable solution."

State funds through Rider 42 are set aside for the most congested roadways. Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, chairman of the Rider 42 committee, said he is working with the City of Austin, the Texas Transportation Institute and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority on both short- and long-term projects to relieve congestion on I-35.

"Interstate 35 is the backbone of our region's transportation network, and in the portion running through Austin, the fourth most–congested road in the state," said. "Keeping traffic moving in this vital corridor requires many strategies, potentially including increased telecommuting and car pools, quick removal of vehicles involved in accidents, efficient on-ramps and off-ramps, and express lanes with fewer entrances and exits that give long-distance drivers a more dependable travel time."

Creating a road map

Mobility improvements on I-35 will stretch across Hays, Travis and Williamson counties. In a Jan. 14 presentation to the CAMPO board of directors, Terry McCoy revealed citywide short- and long-term improvements that collectively would provide substantial benefits over time.

"We want to stress that we are doing this as a community," Terry McCoy said. "It was a locally driven initiative."

TxDOT hosted workshops Oct. 30–Nov. 2 to seek community input for its plans, and participants included residents and more than 50 local, state and national experts. Preliminary projects indicated making safety a priority for multimodal improvements for freight trains, bicycles, public transit and pedestrians.

Other projects include ramp improvements, auxiliary lanes and the Future Transportation Corridor, which would create an additional set of lanes in the I-35 median, Terry McCoy said during the presentation.

"We don't want to take on any challenges that we don't absolutely need to," Terry McCoy told the CAMPO board Jan. 14. "We want to do this as quickly and as efficiently as possible."

Regional options

Maureen McCoy said the transportation industry is working on how to give people options that do not currently exist. By incorporating projects such as reducing toll rates on SH 130 and adding toll lanes on MoPac, transportation on I-35 and throughout the region will improve, she said.

Steve Pustelnyk, director of communications for the Mobility Authority, said the organization would most likely be responsible for carrying out any future express lane projects in the region.

"We really don't know a lot at this point about exactly what will be done in terms of major-capacity improvements," Pustelnyk said. "When I say major, express lanes are probably about as major as you can get on I-35. At this stage, it is probably not cost-feasible to rebuild the entire corridor."

He said that at this stage in the planning, the Mobility Authority does not yet know how it would implement express lanes, and one of the organization's challenges is identifying funding for toll lanes and other projects.

"The primary reason to do express lanes is to create a reliable transportation corridor in an otherwise unreliable transportation corridor," Pustelnyk said. "Really what we are doing right now is trying to keep up with growth."

Driving ahead

Terry McCoy said TxDOT will carry out its plan in five phases and is now in Phase 2. Future phases include assessing revenue options as well as public outreach.

Funds for the projects have not been finalized, but so far, he said there are three potential sources for I-35 improvements in Travis County: $17 million from the state's Rider 42 funds, $7.8 million from CAMPO's Transportation Policy Board, and $1 million from the City of Austin.

"We do have to consider that one possible solution is to fix the other roads around I-35. Because it is so difficult, that will have a meaningful impact," Terry McCoy said.