How does your voice impact TxDOT’s I-35 Central project?

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Department of Transportation is wrapping up its latest comment period for the $4.9 billion I-35 Capital Express Central project. Friday marks the last day the public can submit feedback to officially be entered during this period. As of Monday, TxDOT reports it has received around 2,800 comments with some of the main requests from the community for changes to the project design consisting of:

  • Design options for rerouting truck traffic to SH 130;
  • A design that features deck plazas, or caps, over I-35 through downtown Austin;
  • Requests to evaluate community alternatives (ReThink 35, Reconnect Austin, and ULI);
  • Climate change concerns and environmental impacts;
  • Better east-west connectivity
  • Improving pedestrian and bicycle safety throughout the corridor.
  • Overall support – recognition of this section of I-35 as outdated and requesting decisive action to accommodate the immense growth

The transportation agency selected Alternatives 2 and 3 to move forward for analysis in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Alternative 1 would be a ‘no build’ option, Alternative 2 would include the free HOV lanes and a lowered section. While Alternative 3 would include the same with an addition of a modification at Airport Boulevard and Woodland Avenue.

Officials added community input has led to some changes to the downtown plan including lowering the main lanes, removing the decks, widening east-west connections and enhancing frontage roads.

However, there have been times when communities did not agree with changes or impacts from projects and have filed a lawsuit. Some cases have led to federal transportation officials getting involved.

Most recently, several groups filed a lawsuit against TxDOT over the Oak Hill Parkway Project. It led to the tree clearing part of the project temporarily being put on hold. Then, in Houston, the Federal Highway Administration got involved in a TxDOT project asking the agency to pause.

In the past, TxDOT has gone as far as scrapping projects. In 2017, TxDOT nixed a plan that would add toll lanes to I-35 after lawmakers pushed back on the plans, and more than a decade ago, the Trans-Texas Corridor got canceled in response to the public outcry.

Project Vicinity Map (Source: TxDOT)

When it comes to the I-35 Central project running through downtown Austin several community groups have voiced their concerns. While the project is about eight miles long from US 290 East to SH 71/Ben White Boulevard there has been a lot of focus on what the downtown section of the project will look like. Some oppose TxDOT’s expansion plan because the additional lanes widen the freeway and keep the community separated. Instead, these community groups have said they want to see a plan that doesn’t displace neighbors, tackles climate change, targets safety and provide mobility options to connect Austin east to west.

This month, Walk Austin launched a petition opposing TxDOT’s plan. Around 1,600 have signed and filed a comment with TxDOT through the petition.

“The fate of I-35 is far from set,” Adam Greenfield, the Walk Austin board president and co-founder of ReThink35. “TxDOT wants to expand 35 and they’re going through the box-ticking exercise of doing it, but it’s really the question is really for the people of Austin and Central Texas, it’s up to us to answer that question.”

Greenfield’s ReThink35 is one of the community groups that developed a proposal. The design calls for I-35 to be transformed into a boulevard. The group has gone as far as developing a new version of the popular 1980s game Frogger highlighting I-35.

Rendering of the ReThink35 plan to transform I-35 into a boulevard. (Source: ReThink35)

TxDOT did request the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) look into community proposals from ReThink35, Reconnect Austin, and the Urban Land Institute’s cap and stitch design for the Downtown Austin Alliance.

Reconnect Austin wants to “bury I-35 through the urban core of Austin” from Lady Bird Lake to Airport Boulevard and “repurpose this vital corridor as public space and developable land.” Those behind the proposal say the plan would give way for the city’s massive transit overhaul underway: Project Connect and address air pollution.

A rendering of the proposed boulevard from Reconnect Austin. (Source: Reconnect Austin)

The Urban Land Institute Panel report is also focused on the same roughly three miles of highway through Central Austin from Airport Boulevard to Lady Bird Lake. The proposal calls for a ‘Cap and Stitch’ approach.

The Urban Land Institute Panel report defines caps and stitches. (Source: Urban Land Institute Panel report)

One example, the report suggests a cap between East Fourth Street and East Cesar Chavez Street and stitches at East Dean Keeton Street, Manor Road, East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, East Fifth Street, and River Street. Overall, the panel recommends placing caps and stitches should be built north to south at East 12th Street to East 11th Street, East Eighth Street to East Sixth Street and East Fourth Street to East Cesar Chavez Street.

The TTI study found the community proposals would “increase traffic volumes on adjacent city streets” and were overpriced requiring an additional $460 to $530 million to build.

2045 Evening Peak Volume Changes, according to TTI report. (Source: TTI)

TxDOT said, “while TTI found that the standalone community concepts would not be feasible, TxDOT has included numerous project elements from those plans in the Central project proposed design, such as lowered main lanes, removal of the decks, widening of east-west connections, and enhancements along the frontage roads.”

However, those behind the community proposals said the study did not account for the long-term, overall benefits the community alternatives would provide and are asking TxDOT to conduct a full study of the designs.

(Source: TxDOT)

Those who would like to comment on the I-35 Capital Express Central project can do so online or through the following.

(Source: TxDOT)

In the next steps, TxDOT states it will compile and respond to all comments and incorporate design revisions into the Final Environmental Impact Statement. Once ready, the transportation agency will release the Final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision marking the end of the National Environmental Policy Act process.

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