Proposal on I-35 rebuild

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Jose Chito Vela
Posts: 42
Joined: Fri Feb 11, 2022 8:16 am

Proposal on I-35 rebuild

Post by Jose Chito Vela »

Colleagues,

My staff and I have been reviewing TxDOT’s plans to rebuild I-35 through Central Austin. I greatly appreciate the improvements that TxDOT has made to the plan since its initial rollout. And I want to thank TxDOT’s Austin District for the productive and collaborative relationship they have had with the City of Austin in planning this project. But we have the opportunity to do something truly transformative with the I-35 rebuild and we cannot squander it. The current project is still fundamentally a highway expansion. We’ve seen this before on I-10 just west of Houston. The Katy Freeway expansion was a huge, expensive, disruptive project that worsened congestion, pollution, and travel times. We cannot make that mistake in Austin.
TxDOT’s project must heal the scar that I-35 tore through our city. For the project to accomplish that goal, it must do the following:

1. Physically connect East and West Austin by adding more crossings to I-35;
2. Create new opportunities and amenities for residents by lowering and covering as much of I-35 as possible;
3. Reroute 18-wheelers from I-35 to minimize fatalities and congestion.

In North Central Austin, we should completely lower and cover I-35 from at least Lady Bird Lake to US Hwy 290 East and reclaim that land for the people of Austin. Covering the freeway and centering the access roads above the lowered highway would create room for parks, much-needed housing, and local businesses. Lowering and covering I-35 would also block noise, light, and environmental pollution for the communities along the highway. This is not just a transportation and mobility issue. This is a public health issue.

Many other Texas and US cities have chosen to lower and cover their highways. TxDOT capped a quarter mile section of the Woodall Rodgers Freeway in downtown Dallas and created a beautiful urban park that has become an extremely popular destination. The project was so successful that construction has already started on another cap in Dallas on I-35E in the Oak Cliff neighborhood close to the Dallas Zoo. The State of Washington partnered with Seattle to bury the Alaskan Highway that runs through downtown. Boston completed its “Big Dig” project in 2007, reconnecting downtown Boston to the waterfront and creating more than 300 acres of open land in the process. In all of these cities, traffic improved, congestion eased, and pollution decreased.

Lowering and covering highways is also popular internationally. Madrid used this method to transform a riverside highway that cut through the center of the city into a beautiful park. In Seoul, record levels of congestion, noise and pollution led the city to remove a highway altogether. They used the space left behind to restore the area’s historic creek, creating a beautiful new linear park. The project was a huge success and led to a reduction in air pollution, an increase in local flora & fauna, and a 3.3 degree Celsius drop in average temperatures for several blocks around the creek. Other examples of highway transformations in the US and around the world are at the Congress for New Urbanism link below.

The project could be paid for through a Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) that captures the additional property tax value created by lowering and covering the highway. Lowering and covering the highway would also allow us to create more badly needed east-west connections along I-35. In District 4, from 51st Street to Us Hwy 290 East, you have to travel almost a mile between crossings. Biking or walking between east and west Austin is nearly impossible in this stretch, resulting in desperate people trying to walk across the highway at this location. Since 2018, at least five pedestrians have been killed and others seriously injured in this segment alone.

Even where the highway isn’t being buried or capped, we need to add more east-west connections and ensure that the design of I-35 does not preclude new connections in the future. Here are a few examples of distances between crossings in the city:

* 1.5 miles between the Rundberg and Braker Ln crossings in D4
* 1.5 miles between the 183 and Rundberg crossings in D4
* 1.9 miles between the William Cannon and Slaughter crossings in D2
* 1.8 miles between the Onion Creek and Hwy 45 crossings in D5
* 1.1 miles between the Riverside and Oltorf crossings in D3 and D9 (if the Woodland crossing is closed as currently planned)

This is unacceptable for a major American city. The problem is systemic. Only 9 crossings exist in the 11.5 miles between 290 and Hwy 45 North. The average distance from one crossing to the next is 1.16 miles. Right now, there are no plans to improve these huge gaps in east-west access. Only 5 crossings exist in the 8 miles between Ben White and Hwy 45 South. The average distance from one crossing to the next is 1.33 miles. Again, there is no plan to make this better.

We should also consider rerouting non-local 18-wheeler traffic to I-130 around Austin. Although 18-wheelers make up a small amount of traffic on I-35, they take a lot of space on the road and are involved in some of the worst accidents on the highway. Rerouting these large vehicles to I-130 would ease congestion and improve safety.

I will soon bring an item to Council so we can clearly share our vision for I-35 with TxDOT. District 4 will be heavily affected by the I-35 rebuild, as will many other parts of Austin. I stand firmly in support of an I-35 rebuild that, instead of widening and raising the highway, buries the highway, reduces its profile and adds more east-west crossings. I look forward to discussing this on the dais.

Chito Vela

Information about Klyde Warren Park in Dallas:
https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/ipd/project_pr ... _park.aspx

Information about the new Dallas project by the zoo:
https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/ipd/project_pr ... _park.aspx

Information about the Seattle project:
https://wsdot.wa.gov/construction-plann ... nt-program

Information about the Boston project:
https://www.mass.gov/info-details/the-b ... background

Other completed highway burial projects:
https://www.cnu.org/our-projects/highwa ... b-projects