AUSTIN (KXAN) — There isn’t a way to pay for this, yet, but one idea the Texas Department of Transportation has been studying for many years to fix the traffic problem on Interstate 35 is going underground.

This means travel lanes in the downtown area could be under the cross streets. There could even be parks or green space on top of the highway.

In 2016, TxDOT made this video that shows what that could look like:

The department’s I-35 Capital Express Central project proposes adding two non-tolled managed lanes in each direction in the downtown area.

In May 2019, TxDOT’s presentation to Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) showed how some lanes could be lowered below ground level.

At this time, according to the department’s website, construction has not been funded.

What can be built above and around the highway

With that in mind, the Downtown Austin Alliance is starting a community engagement process to see what should be built above and around I-35.

They said in a news release, “One of the first steps in the process is to engage the Urban Land Institute (ULI) to conduct an independent assessment of potential alternatives for I-35 concurrent with the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) evaluation of options to ease congestion on I-35, including removing the upper decks and lowering the highway between Airport Boulevard and Cesar Chavez Street.”

Heyden Black Walker with Reconnect Austin said, “TxDOT does a really good job of moving cars at high speed on a highway, but they’re not really charged with thinking beyond that high speed highway traffic.”

She said not only are the frontage roads dangerous for pedestrians, but the highway divides the city into half.

Dewitt Peart, the Downtown Austin Alliance’s CEO, said, “It is a scar on our downtown. It is a scar on our city.”

He added, “If you own a restaurant you would certainly like for people to be able to walk from the convention center to your restaurant in east Austin.”

Peart said ULI panelists will be in town later this month to “interview over 100 Austin stakeholders and tour the surrounding areas before developing its recommendations.”

They will present their findings at Huston-Tillotson University on Friday, Feb. 28.

Peart told KXAN if TxDOT actually lowers the highway below ground level, it opens up opportunities to make the area safer for people. He said you could build on top of the highway or make the cross streets more pedestrian and bike friendly.

Other cities that built on top of highways

One example they’re looking at is Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, a five-acre deck park over a recessed eight-lane freeway.

According to its website, the project cost $110 million through a public-private partnership. The cost contributors include:

  • $20 million in bond funds from the City of Dallas
  • $20 million in highway funds from the state
  • $16.7 in stimulus funds

The Downtown Austin Alliance is also looking at what Atlanta, Georgia and Columbus, Ohio have. In Columbus, developers built a retail complex on top of a lowered highway.

The Urban Land Institute will look at what makes sense for Austin.

Peart said, “Just make it safer, cleaner, more pedestrian friendly.”