Page Two

Anyway you cut it, I-35 is a major problem with no easy solution.

Page Two
No one loves I-35. To be more exact, I've never heard anyone say anything positive about the highway and have heard literally thousands of negative words about it. I know many people who will go far out of their way not to have to drive it -- back roads, side streets, large geographic detours. Our office overlooks the road; it often, at random times of the day, resembles a parking lot more than a modern form of mass transportation.

I-35 doesn't work. As often as not, it is clogged. It seems unusually dangerous. The recent improvements by TxDOT have made the road statistically safer but access more difficult. The surrounding roads are now even more dangerous (I'm thinking especially of the 51st Street overpass, which now seems to have been designed in a time of horses and buggies -- a stunning example of awful urban transportation planning).

A few decades back, I lived in South Carolina, near Laurinberg in North Carolina. Word was that in the Fifties, Laurinberg had been up for model American city, but its minority neighborhoods skewed the demographic too dramatically. The town leaders got together, and East Laurinberg was incorporated, splitting off the more questionable neighborhoods. Subsequently, Laurinberg was named as a model American city. Sadly, at the time, in some very perverse ways, it was.

Not nearly as explicitly, but with the same overall intent, I-35, though part of a national highway network system, was used to cement the deliberate segregation of Austin neighborhoods. Lest this seem like lefty paranoia, during the Thirties, I think, minority children living in the west-side Clarksville neighborhood were assigned to schools on the Eastside. There was no sophisticated busing plan to facilitate this. The motivation was to move a minority neighborhood across town.

The first time I drove I-35 was the day after Thanksgiving 1974, coming to Austin for the first time after visiting Houston. We headed north on the road, getting off at 381/2 Street, which seemed a very odd street designation to this Yankee. As we passed Memorial Stadium, a football game was getting ready to begin. Later, after breaking into a friend's house (don't ask), we saw Willie Nelson singing the national anthem on TV. In one of those horrible tricks of memory, I recall seeing Willie singing as we drove by the stadium, though that's not what happened. Still, I can't shake the image.

The road was finished in 1961, so major planning must have taken place in the mid-Fifties. The day I drove it, the upper deck had yet to open, but was well on its way to being finished. The road isn't that old, but it is that horribly inadequate.

Anyway you cut it, I-35 is a major problem with no easy solution. Even the most pie-in-the-sky mass transit enthusiast has to admit there is no system that can be completed or effective in time to make a difference to I-35 traffic. Any solution for that road is going to suck. It is going to impact negatively on neighborhoods and take so long to complete that traffic will be roughly as stagnant as it is now by the time the road is finished. Doing nothing, of course, is no solution. Road travel may not improve, but it sure can get worse -- much worse.

This issue we look at the road's history as well as the plans for its future. Given that it passes through heavily developed, heavily inhabited areas, any change is going to devastate the surrounding community. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place. On this one there isn't even a utopian solution that won't happen for political reasons. If anyone argues bikes, not cars (besides Amy Babich), I'm just going to tear up. Growth is a bitch. Even with a slowing economy, this city isn't going to stop growing, and when the economy begins to improve, look out.

So nothing positive to offer here, no clever editorial points -- just storms and more storms, black and deeper black, despair and resignation. Enjoy!

A screening of The Truth About Charlie, Academy-Award-winning director Jonathan Demme's (The Silence of the Lambs) new film, will be presented at the Paramount Theatre on Oct. 9 by the Austin Film Festival and the Austin Film Society. Demme will be here to introduce the film and do a question-and-answer session afterward: $15 for an orchestra seat -- which includes the party afterward; $10 for a mezzanine or balcony seat. The event benefits both AFF and AFS, with members of both getting a discounted ticket. Tickets are available through Star Tickets or at the Paramount.

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I-35, IH-35, Interstate Highway 35, Austin roads, Austin highways, Austin development, Austin Eastside, Austin central city, Austin traffic, Austin light rail, I-35, Texas Department of Transportation, TxDOT, I-35 51st Street overpass, Laurinberg, North Carolina, segrega

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