AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Department of Transportation is poised to begin construction on its Interstate 35 Capital Expression Central project near downtown Austin, following approval of the project announced Monday.

TxDOT released a final environmental impact statement and record of decision, marking completion of environmental clearance as part of the National Environmental Policy Act. With that decision delivered, TxDOT’s I-35 Central project is slated to move into its final design and review phase before construction is anticipated to begin in mid-2024. Tucker Ferguson, TxDOT’s Austin district engineer, told KXAN Monday the state agency is eyeing a project launch in either March or April.

The I-35 Central project is an eight-mile project track running from U.S. Hwy. 290 East to SH 71 and Ben White Boulevard.

Project components include the addition of two non-tolled high-occupancy vehicle managed lanes in each direction along I-35, the removal of the upper decks and lowering of the I-35 main lanes between Airport Boulevard and Lady Bird Lake, as well as between Riverside Drive and Oltorf Street.

Project designs also call for “boulevard-style segments” running through downtown, in addition to pedestrian and cyclist path improvements.

TxDOT leadership called the decision “an important step toward bringing much needed congestion relief to central Texas.” TxDOT first launched a multi-year feasibility, environmental and design review process on the project back in 2020.

“The Central project represents years of hard work to develop safety and mobility enhancements that will benefit all users,” Ferguson said in a release. “It is a project that has seen a tremendous amount of community input, and one that we can say is designed in part by the community and for the community.”

Some changes to the project were made based on community feedback. Lowering the main lanes between Airport Boulevard and Lady Bird Lake, the removal of the upper decks, the opportunity for deck plazas funded by the City of Austin and widened east-west bridges with bicycle and pedestrian paths all came from community input.

Property displacements

Under the updated final EIS, TxDOT officials noted right-of-way acquisition for the planned expansion would result in 111 displacements:

  • 59 commercial properties
  • 51 residential properties
  • 1 property that is currently vacated

Of the 59 commercial properties impacted, eight of those are earmarked for serving specific specific communities, such as providing services for children, lower-income community members, non-white residents and Spanish speakers.

The project would require an additional 54.1 acres of right-of-way to support the expansion efforts. Roughly three acres will be used for construction staging throughout the decade-long construction, as well as approximately 25 acres along Lady Bird Lake and its shoreline to help store and move bridge-related construction equipment.

When looking at displacements by neighborhood, the Upper Boggy Creek/Cherrywood area is reported to have the largest impact, with 22 commercial displacements and 25 residential ones. That neighborhood joins the North Loop, Windsor Park and Hancock areas as accounting for the majority of property displacements.

Ferguson told KXAN Monday the state agency is going through its right-of-way relocation program with displaced properties. That program will assist property owners with relocation efforts and offer just compensation as part of the forced move.

For owner-occupant displacements, TxDOT said it will provide property owners with a relocation notification package and assign a relocation assistance counselor to the property, Property owners have a minimum of 90 days from date of written notice before TxDOT would require access to the property, per the final EIS.

For tenant-occupant displacements, they will also be assigned a relocation assistance counselor and receive a booklet on tenant entitlements, Tenants also have a minimum of 90 days from date of written notice before TxDOT would acquire the property.

Residential displacements will require compensation to any person whose property needs to be acquired, with TxDOT adding it will provide reimbursement of moving costs and certain expenses accumulated during the moving process. TxDOT will also assist in finding comparable replacement housing for residential displacements, per the final EIS.

Non-residential displacements will receive a relocation assistance counselor’s help in assisting with relocation planning, with TxDOT exploring possible funding assistance for impacted properties via local, state and federal agencies.

Medical facilities earmarked for displacement include the CommUnityCare – David Powell Health Center, the CommUnityCare – Hancock Walk-In Care and the Austin Medical Building, which comprises several individual medical offices.

On the residential displacement front, the 24 units at The Avalon Apartments are slated for displacement, while the 22 units at the Village at 47th are impacted.

“I-35 is a critical corridor through Austin for those who live along the corridor, as well as those who commute for work or leisure,” TxDOT officials wrote in the final EIS. “There is a need and desire to preserve the character, community, and facilities in east Austin and to ensure the historically low-income and minority community residents remain.”

Esperanza Community expansion

With possible service interruptions for people experiencing homelessness courtesy of I-35’s expansion downtown, TxDOT is working to expand capacity at the Esperanza Community. The five-acre homelessness camp, located northwest of the intersection of U.S. Hwy. 183 and SH 71, provides access to health and safety amenities.

In June 2021, the Texas Transportation Commission approved a 10-year lease agreement between TxDOT and The Other Ones Foundation to operate the Esperanza Community. The current site houses 200 people, and TxDOT noted in the final EIS it is aiming to double that capacity.

“We’re looking at opportunities to duplicate that or replicate that in a location for additional folks who may be displaced by this project,” Ferguson said.

Officials react to final EIS, record of decision

Following news of the approval for TxDOT’s I-35 project proposal, several local and area leaders shared their thoughts on the advancement in the project. Austin Mayor Kirk Watson acknowledged a decade-long history of project development behind the I-35 Central expansion and celebrated the elimination of the upper decks of I-35 and addressing mobility needs.

“For more than a decade, we’ve worked with TxDOT and state leaders to design a project that addresses Austin’s mobility needs and reflects our values. We wanted to reduce congestion and increase mobility for cars and trucks as well as creating greater opportunities for efficient transit in managed lanes. We wanted to connect — to reconnect — our community both physically and figuratively by tearing down a concrete barrier that’s divided our home for generations. We wanted to improve safety and better accommodate light rail and bus routes downtown. We wanted to enhance bike and pedestrian use and reduce pollutants running into Lady Bird Lake.

We’ve achieved these goals, in large part due to the strong community voices that have focused on making this project better. We’ve achieved these goals by recognizing that we would never meet everyone’s concept of perfection and that there is no project of this nature and scope that can be perfect. But it will be a great improvement and much better than what we have.

The elimination of the upper decks on I-35 and the lowering of the main lanes from Airport Boulevard to Oltorf Street will have a transformative effect on our community. While that’s a positive change to what we have now, there is the opportunity to do even more to realize the full potential of this generational investment by capping large portions of I-35 through downtown. Our challenge now is finding a creative way to pay for it.”

Austin Mayor Kirk Watson on TxDOT’s final environmental impact statement, record of decision for the I-35 Capital Express Central Project

State. Rep. Gina Hinojosa (D-Austin) said in a statement Austin should be prioritizing “a robust public transportation infrastructure” as opposed to a highway expansion. In her statement, she did commend community-backed initiatives incorporated into the final project design, including:

  • Support structures for the development of an additional cap/deck plaza between 38 1/2 Street and Airport Boulevard
  • Affordable housing mitigation and business displacement assistance
  • Expansion of the Esperanza Community by doubling its capacity from 200 beds to 400 beds
  • Stormwater treatment ponds and runoff collection
  • Boardwalk segment over Lady Bird Lake near the Hyatt Regency Hotel “to connect to the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail”

“A rapidly growing Austin requires a robust public transportation infrastructure that does
not currently exist and that is, unfortunately, not the focus of TxDOT’s current project. For
this reason, I join the chorus of involved Austin constituents advocating for greater
investment in public transportation as opposed to a widened highway,” Hinojosa’s statement read in part. “Notwithstanding, I value the significant time and effort TxDOT has spent listening to our community to improve this project.”

State Rep. Sheryl Cole shared a statement on Instagram Monday acknowledging her reservations with the project. She referenced her work alongside other members of the Travis County Delegation, who’ve met with stakeholders and community advocates regarding the project.

She did note in her statement changes to the project “consistent with Austin values,” and credited Watson with work he’s done since his tenure in the Texas Senate. However, she cited continuous concerns on minority-owned business displacements, air and water quality impacts and safety related to the plan.

“There have been significant concerns expressed by community stakeholders regarding this project especially related to minority-owned business displacement, bike/pedestrian lanes, safety, improving air and water quality, urban design, and community engagement,” Cole’s statement read in part. “TxDOT has assured us that they are committed to rental relocation assistance within a mile of the original property for businesses that will be impacted by this project. TxDOT has continued to emphasize that there will be a large number of bike and pedestrian lanes in this project.”