Austin: State to Add $4.3B to Interstate 35 Expansion Project
Featured Illustration (above): Texas Department of Transportation is considering removing upper decks from the downtown part of Interstate 35 as part of its plan to expand the freeway through the center of town. Image: Google Streets
By Edmond Ortiz
Austin (Travis County)–While the start of construction is at least a couple of years away, the planned expansion of Interstate 35 through central Austin is receiving a $4.3 billion infusion to cover cost on the addition of two non-tolled managed lanes.
Texas Transportation Commission (TTC) voted Feb. 27 to approve a plan to boost the I-35 Capital Express Project, which commission leaders say will help to alleviate traffic congestion in one of the worst traffic choke points in Austin. The state projects an increase of 116,000 vehicles/day on the Austin stretch of I-35 by 2040.
The new money will come from three sources: $3.4 billion in discretionary funds, $600 million from projects proposed by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), and $300 million from the 2021 Unified Transportation Program that TTC will act on this August.
Altogether, the new funding would provide the I-35 project a total investment of $7.5 billion. The CAMPO projects where money is being reallocated have not gone into the procurement process yet.
“The I-35 Capital Express Project is a statewide strategic priority project, not just for Austin, but the state of Texas,” commission Chairman J. Bruce Bugg Jr. said in a statement.
“If Austin wants to continue to be a beacon for business and a wonderful quality of life, then work on I-35 Capital Express needs to happen as soon as possible.”
With the newly approved money, Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) can move ahead with plans to build additional two continuous non-tolled managed lanes along 35 between U.S. 290 West/Texas Highway 71 and U.S. 290 East.
A map of the planned Interstate 35 Capital Express Project. Image: Texas Department of Transportation
The I-35 Capital Express Project is a major project in the state’s Texas Clear Lanes initiative, which is aimed at fast-tracking money for congestion-relief measures in key strategic areas statewide.
In the Texas Clear Lanes program, the I-35 Capital Express Project is described as unfolding – simultaneously – in two parts with construction in 2024 or 2025.
The section of I-35 from Texas Highway 45 North to U.S. 290 East will see the addition of one non-tolled managed lane in each direction along with operational improvements.
The section of I-35 from U.S. 290 west to Texas Highway 45 Southeast will see the addition of two non-tolled managed lanes in each direction and operational improvements.
Designs for I-35 improvements are far from final, and TxDOT is considering a few options, including possibly removing upper decks from the interstate between Airport Boulevard and Cesar Chavez Street.
“I-35 through downtown Austin is a state and regional strategic priority,” outgoing state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) said in a statement. “It must be. This proposal to invest an additional $4.3 billion in funds to address I-35 is the kind of bold investment we need.”
The newly approved funding for the I-35 project in Austin will not affect area projects currently in the procurement process.
The planned 35 expansion project has also spurred much discussion about whether there should be a reimagining of the increasingly congested freeway through the heart of Austin.
A conceptual of an Interstate 35 depressed underground in central Austin, with that area replaced with surface boulevards, bike lanes, walkways and park spaces. Image: Urban Land Institute
Urban Land Institute (ULI) and the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA) held a panel discussion in late February.
Speakers proposed rebuilding the downtown part of I-35 below ground, and replacing the area with pedestrian-and-cyclist-friendly pathways, tree-lined boulevards for small businesses, and caps for parks and open spaces.
Some speakers suggested placing I-35 underground would reestablish connections between downtown and East Austin that gradually disappeared in the postwar decades when Austin grew and 35 evolved from a two-lane road into part of the most used north-south highway in the nation.
ULI and DAA are partnering to provide TxDOT with an official, independent assessment of potential alternative concepts. Replacing new commercial and open spaces above a freeway has precedent.
Dallas developed Klyde Warren Park over Woodall Rogers Freeway for example. Atlanta developed the Fifth Street Bridge over Interstate 75/Interstate 85. Columbus, Ohio developed Union Station over Interstate 670.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform one of Austin’s biggest community barriers into a valuable regional asset for generations to come,” Dewitt Peart, Downtown Austin Alliance president and chief executive officer, said in a statement.
“While TxDOT’s proposal will lower the highway, it is up to the community to come together and develop a vision for what we’d like to see happen above and at surface level to create something that works for Austin now and in the future.”
A conceptual boulevard to be built above a depressed Interstate 35. Such a boulevard would be lined with trees and businesses. Image: Urban Land Institute
Edmond Ortiz is a lifelong San Antonian and a 20-plus-year veteran in local journalism, He previously worked full-time at the San Antonio Express-News, and has been freelancing for outlets such as the Rivard Report.