AUSTIN (KXAN) — At Austin City Council’s work session Tuesday, representatives from the Texas Department of Transportation addressed proposed changes to Interstate 35 as part of the department’s $4.9 billion expansion project.
The I-35 Capital Express Central project is an eight-mile region running between Hwy. 290 East and SH 71 and Ben White Boulevard. Annual traffic along the track includes more than 200,000 vehicles, with 82% of vehicles driving along I-35 reported as local travelers, according to TxDOT documents.
Proposed changes include more than 15 widened east-west crossings, new pedestrian crossings at Capital Metro’s red line and future gold line, lower design speeds on frontage roads and enhanced corridor capacity.
Austin City Council Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison said in a tweet Tuesday the proposed plan provides a larger challenge for city leaders in meeting the needs of constituents in the areas of mobility, safety, climate and displacement prevention measures. The project was not voter-approved, unlike Project Connect, she said.
“The investments we make today are what we leave to our kids and grandkids tomorrow. We have to get this right,” she tweeted.
Austin City Council Member Greg Casar expressed his opposition to the proposed changes in a tweet Monday afternoon, arguing the proposal will create further division through its widening efforts.
“Widening I-35 won’t help traffic in #ATX,” he wrote in a tweet. “Instead, it will create sprawl. New lanes will get even more full than today.”
As part of his statement, Casar shared his support for Reconnect Austin, a grassroots initiative to re-envision I-35 as a “humanized boulevard reconnecting central neighborhoods to Downtown, State Capitol Complex, and UT Austin” while mitigating pollution concerns.
In an interview with KXAN, Casar says the proposal is not as pro-public transit or pedestrian access as other ideas proposed by residents and grassroots organizations. He said widening the roadway leads to greater sprawl, taking up a larger portion of the city while also leading to an influx of traffic and further division between the east-west corridors.
“For the folks that need to get somewhere in their car, let’s make that more efficient and safe, but then let’s also not widen the highway so much that we can’t create more jobs and more housing inside the city where walking and biking is feasible,” he said. “If we keep blocking that out, then we’re going into a self-fulfilling prophecy, of longer and longer commutes for everyone. And that just isn’t going to work.”
Casar said he hopes for a community boulevard concept that incorporates more jobs and housing opportunities within the city’s core, as well as features more non-vehicle modes of transportation. He said I-35 has long been a racial and geographic division within the city and a reimagined plan needs to unify, not widen and further divide.
In an independent study with Texas A&M Transportation Institute, TxDOT officials said Tuesday that community boulevard alternative proposals, including Reconnect Austin and ReThink35, would lead to a larger redistribution of I-35 corridor traffic onto surrounding city and neighborhood streets over time.
Council Member Mackenzie Kelly said Austin has changed extensively since during her lifetime living in the city. She echoed support for the proposal, echoing people will still continue to come to Austin regardless of whether or not the city takes action on the project.
“Interstate traffic needs to stay on the interstate,” said Tucker Ferguson, district engineer for TxDOT’s Austin district.
Ferguson said the project has received more than 4,000 public comments to date, with the public comment period remaining open through Sept. 24. He said the vast majority of questions centered around these community boulevard proposals, and added some of the pedestrian and shared use features, as well as questions about east-west connectivity, have been factored into the resulting proposal.
“Increasing capacity does not only mean adding lanes,” he said, adding: “It’s about how you use those lanes.”