AUSTIN (KXAN) — Following the Texas Department of Transportation’s presentation of design proposals for its $4.9 billion I-35 project last month, the city of Austin added its name to the list of public comments received on the proposed plan.
In a letter submitted to TxDOT, Asst. City Manager Gina Fiandaca outlined corridor safety, east-west connectivity and reduced displacement of residential and commercial spaces among core areas in need of amendments.
Robert Spillar, director of the Austin Transportation Department, told KXAN Thursday the city has been collaborating with TxDOT on this initiative for nearly a decade and supports the upgrade. With the magnitude of this project and ongoing concerns surrounding I-35’s congestion, he said the question isn’t whether to rehabilitate I-35, but what measures will have the strongest benefits and least displacements for residents.
“We agree that the current system is broken, it needs to be replaced — maybe we come to that conclusion for different reasons,” he said. “But the reality is, we all agree that what we have right now doesn’t work and, you know, we can do better.”
Under current designs proposed, Spillar said the city is looking to reduce the footprint and width of the total project, analyzing entrances and exits onto I-35 that could be removed in favor of protecting neighboring properties. Under the current proposal, about 194 businesses could be displaced; with the right tweaks, Spillar said the city is confident it can mitigate that impact.
“It’s also important for the public to understand that just the construction process alone may cause some displacement, the difference between displacements caused by the activity of construction versus permanent construction is just that,” he said. “We might displace a business that’s there right now, because it’s gonna be 10-year construction process, but we can put a business back, or we can help another business come back in the future if we don’t build something on top of that property.”
In the city’s requested changes, officials noted the longstanding division I-35 has presented to Austin’s eastside residents, disproportionately impacting non-white and lower income communities. At the core of that concern is the need for connectivity between the eastside and downtown corridors, with the city requesting bridges to enhance vehicular and non-vehicular transportation across the highway.
On these lids — or bridge-like structures covering the gap on top of a highway — parkland, recreational structures, community spaces and lower density buildings can be constructed. With the city’s goal of achieving a 50/50 split on single vehicle and alternative transportation use citywide by 2039, these connective tissues can facilitate better pedestrian mobility, he added.
“That’s how you reconnect and make amends. We’re never going to be able to totally wipe away a transportation corridor here. It is so important to the viability of Austin,” Spillar said, later adding, “We need to mitigate that impact of construction, which lids, and wide bridges, and lots of pedestrian and bicycle crossings and stuff can have.”