Agency's proposals would improve traffic flow at cross streets to interstate

The projects the Texas Department of Transportation has identified to aid mobility on I-35 in Travis County are meant to be short-term fixes, and area leaders still face the challenge of planning long-term solutions.

The section of I-35 from Hwy. 71 to US 183 ranked No. 1 on the state's most congested roadways list for 2013, up from the No. 4 spot in 2012, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, or TTI.

"We used to think all that bottleneck was caused by people driving through, and it really isn't," Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gomez said. "... It's really local traffic. That was surprising to me."

In August, TxDOT released its Mobility 35 implementation plan in Travis County between SH 45 N and SH 45 SE. The proposed projects, which include cut-and-cap options in downtown Austin, are estimated to cost a total of $1.2 billion to $1.9 billion in 2013 dollars.

"A lot of it is really thinking outside the box," said Terry McCoy, deputy district engineer for Austin. " Rather than a wholesale, full-scale expansion project where we're buying right of way and building a lot of new lanes, what we've tried to do is to squeeze every drop of improvement we can out of the right of way we have."

Short-term solutions

TxDOT's next step is to complete a planning and environmental linkage, or PEL, study to analyze an option dubbed the Future Transportation Corridor that would add one lane in each direction on I-35, McCoy said. The PEL study will determine what kind of lanes they would be, such as express or general-purpose lanes.

McCoy said the PEL study, which will be completed by early 2015, will also determine how the agency can divide the environmental coordination process.

"It's really a comprehensive look at what the impacts of the proposals are, both to the environment and to the community," McCoy said. "It's a really long, good look at making sure we've done our homework."

Improving mobility

Offering short- and medium-term solutions came out of a vote in the 82nd Texas Legislature in 2011 to earmark $300 million to improve mobility in the state's most congested corridors. Central Texas received about $31 million of these Rider 42 funds.

In August, TTI released an I-35 study with different scenarios for long-term solutions using data and modeling information from the 2035 long-range plan created by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the regional transportation planning agency.

TTI Senior Research Engineer Ginger Goodin said the goal of the study was to provide area leaders with insight of the magnitude of the problem as well as the causes.

"Our findings are that we should be looking at all kinds of strategies," she said. " We should be doing road and transit and demand management, and operating what we have much more efficiently."


TxDOT funded the development of the implementation plan using Rider 42 and TxDOT funds. The agency also received another $2 million from the Rider 42 funds for the PEL study. The city of Austin also provided $2 million for the PEL study because the city initiated the Mobility 35 program before turning it over to TxDOT.

"We know that all of this is important enough that we feel fairly confident that in some form or fashion that [construction] will be funded," McCoy said.

Gomez, who was appointed to a newly created I-35 stakeholder group that will analyze the Mobility 35 plan, said Travis County might ask voters for bond money to build some of the projects. Voters approved $90 million to build SH 130.

"However, it never really developed into being an alternative to I-35, so that's a little bit of a disappointment," she said. "It's possible that we will have to ask the voters what they think."