Opinion: Bring Back East Avenue – Downtown Is No Place for a 20-lane Death Machine

The case for running freeways around cities, rather than through them

Opinion: Bring Back East Avenue – Downtown Is No Place for a 20-lane Death Machine

As the state plows forward with its plans to widen I-35 through Austin, many of us would like to offer a time-tested observation: The core of a city is a lousy place for a freeway.

The state's highway department, now known as the Texas Department of Transportation, has known this for a long time. As you head up I-35 from Laredo, you'll pass by a series of towns that earlier versions of the highway ran straight through. You can still go through the center of those cities on I-35 today – but only on I-35 business routes, which run mainly on regular city streets. The I-35 freeway lanes loop around, avoiding the conflicts that come from blasting high-speed traffic through the heart of a community.

You'll find the same pattern across the state. The Texas stretch of I-35 alone has 11 business routes, with non-freeway lanes running through city centers while the freeway lanes loop around. When state highways do pass through urban areas, the speed limit often drops to acknowledge the urban setting.

Here in Austin, some of our major streets are officially designated as state highways. Most of these – like Burnet Road, Lamar Boulevard, Manor Road, and South Congress – have remained urban streets, or have become urban as they have been absorbed by city development.

East Avenue, which eventually became the route of I-35, was a different story. For those in power in the mid-20th century, East Avenue wasn't the center of the city; it was the edge. What lay beyond was, in the language of the 1928 City Plan, the "negro district," with facilities intended to draw the Black population so that the rest of the city could be solidly white. Running a freeway along this road was a heavy-handed way to fortify the barrier city leaders had been planning for decades.

As Austin has grown up around I-35, the freeway has performed about as well as you'd expect, meaning not well at all. Interstate 35 is by far the deadliest road in the city, accounting for about a quarter of Austin's traffic fatalities. Even from the standpoint of moving traffic, I-35 in Central Austin is a failure, consistently ranking among the most congested roadways in Texas.

TxDOT wants you to believe these problems can be fixed by adding lanes. But we know, from over 75 years of experience with highways, that adding lanes will only magnify the problems. It will also consume an even wider swath of the city: TxDOT is planning on condemning another 32 acres of land, wiping out more homes and businesses and taking the land off the tax rolls.

It doesn't have to be this way. Just as I-35 today goes around many cities, it could similarly go around Central Austin, and its current path could be redesigned as a business route running on regular city streets like East Avenue used to be.

This wouldn't require building a new loop; existing highways that loop around the city center, like SH 130, US 183, and SH 71 could simply be redesignated. This concept has been on the table for at least a decade: In 2011, an advisory committee appointed by the Texas Transportation Commission recommended redesignating SH 130 from Georgetown to SH 45 SE as I-35.

Every time a freeway has been removed from an urban setting, the results have been impressive; New York's West Side Elevated Highway and San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway are leading examples. Successes like these, along with heightened concerns about climate change and racial equity, have fueled a national movement in support of converting highways to boulevards. I-35 in Austin is now one of 15 highways featured in the 2021 "Freeways without Futures" report published by the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Running I-35 through the heart of the city wasn't just a hapless mistake; it was a deadly blunder with racist underpinnings. We now have a once-in-a-generation chance to rethink this decision. Let's get it right this time.

Chris Riley, a longtime resident of Downtown Austin, is a volunteer with the Rethink35 campaign. He served on the Austin City Council from 2009 to 2015, and currently serves as board president of Bike Austin.

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