AUSTIN (KXAN) — The traffic in Austin is legendary, but a massive overhaul of Interstate Highway 35 may be on the horizon. The Texas Transportation Commission announced it now has a plan to fully fund the multi-billion dollar project.
On Thursday, the Commission, along with the Texas Department of Transportation, discussed a proposed plan to add $4.3 billion to an effort to add four new lanes on I-35 going through Austin.
“In recent years, I-35 through Austin has repeatedly been one of the worst chokepoints for drivers in Austin and Texas and the source for understandable frustration,” said Texas Transportation Commission Chairman J. Bruce Bugg, Jr. “The I-35 Capital Express Project is a statewide strategic priority project, not just for Austin, but the State of Texas.”
According to the Commission, the $4.3 billion will be added to existing funding previously approved. The total investment in the Capital Express Project will be $7.5 billion.
“Up till now, it’s just been happy talk because we haven’t had the funding,” said Bugg. “We now have a solution on the table. The time for talk is over. The time for action is now.”
The required additional money for the project is coming from three different sources. The first is about $3.4 billion from discretionary funding that the Commission would have to discuss. Second, over $600 million TxDOT had previously allocated to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization would need to be reallocated. Third, around $300 million would be considered by the Commission when it votes on the 2021 Unified Transportation Program in August.
“We’re very appreciative of the state recognizing this as a priority, and we appreciate the leadership of Senator [Kirk] Watson, and we’re looking forward to partnering with TxDOT,” said Ann Kitchen, Austin City Council Member and Vice-Chair of Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.
Watson who is retiring from the state Senate has filed several bills in the past to try to ease congestion on I-35.
He sent KXAN a statement, reading in part:
“At times, it has felt like an un-ending road to nowhere, but we’ve finally arrived at a place that will ensure the complete redesign and construction of I-35 through central Travis County, including managed lanes from the Williamson County line to the Hays County line. The significant investment being discussed tomorrow is long overdue, but it’s greatly appreciated.
Lowering I-35 through downtown Austin and removing the upper decks will be a transformational change for our community. This investment, combined with the an ongoing conversation being led by the Downtown Austin Alliance, provides the opportunity for us to address the needs of our neighborhoods while also improving mobility.
The proposal to invest an additional $4.3 billion in funds to address I-35 is the kind of bold investment we should all expect from our public leaders.“
Representative Celia Israel told KXAN she’s excited to see Central Texas finally received the resources it needs. “It’s a great day for those who care about safety, air quality and quality of life,” she said.
She said improving I-35 is critical, and she intends to make sure the final product offers people a regional solution.
At the Commission meeting Thursday, TxDOT officials said construction could start in 2025. Bugg said he wants to fast track the project as much as possible. Once construction begins, the project is expected to take four to five years.
Preliminary design proposals
TxDOT has not committed to a final design yet, but it has released some concepts it’s considering.
Its preliminary renderings released in the past showed multi-levels of travel lanes below ground level.
TxDOT has said, however, the project will add two continuous non-tolled lanes heading in both directions on I-35 between U.S. Highway 290 to State Highway 71.
“It is a huge transformation,” Kitchen told KXAN. “We’re looking at some opportunities to really change the way that major road operates. Of course, we need to continue to work with the community on the design, and there’s a lot of details to be worked out.”
Coincidentally, this week, the Downtown Austin Alliance is studying what could be built on top of the highway if I-35 were to be lowered.
“We couldn’t be happier that this is happening at this moment,” said Dewitt Peart with the Downtown Austin Alliance.
The DAA has partnered with the Urban Land Institute to see if parks or green spaces could be built on top of or around I-35 and how it could improve pedestrian safety if they’re walking from downtown to east Austin.
“Once you have the money identified, projects happen. We’re very excited about it. Once you have the funding, the project is a reality,” Peart said. “This is really good news. We are really happy about it, and it’s a much-needed infrastructure improvement to the region.”
New lanes on I-35 North and South
Two sections of I-35 are slated to get new lanes.
The northern segment stretches from Highway 290 East — by Koenig Lane — all the way to State Highway 45 North in Round Rock. TxDOT has plans to add one lane in each direction.
The southern segment from Ben White Boulevard down to SH 45 near Buda will include two new lanes in each direction.
These lanes will be non-tolled managed lanes. Construction on the $700 million project is expected to begin in 2022.