Hitting the Bottleneck

Honk if You Loathe I-35

Hitting the Bottleneck

Everyone knows that I-35 is an accident waiting to -- honk! screech! kerplunk! -- happen. There's no argument there. But when, oh, when is Austin's most dangerous roadway going to see signs of relief? Apart from all the talk about how to fix the larger problem -- reconfigure I-35 from Georgetown to Buda, build SH 130, install light rail, create high-occupancy vehicle lanes, build more roads -- transportation officials have come forward with a quick-fix solution to one of I-35's most terrifying sections, the bottleneck of Central Austin. Forget about last year's over-the-top bottleneck plan that would have knocked out I-35 bridges, shut down sections of the freeway, and closed some key east-west throughways to neighborhoods and commercial businesses. Recognizing that the $5.5 million price tag of such an undertaking was worth neither the nightmare nor the negative publicity, the Texas Dept. of Transportation canned the plan and started anew. Clearly, bad press was the last thing TxDOT wanted at a time when the agency was trying to gain public support and input on Phase II of its Major Investment Study (MIS), the long-range improvement project planned for I-35 from Georgetown to Buda.

For the time being, TxDOT is prepared to move ahead on a scaled-down, $1.8 million improvement plan for the north-south bottleneck sections of I-35, from Hancock Center to Manor Road (see diagram).

How is TxDOT going to accomplish these changes without wreaking havoc during peak drive times?

"Lots of night work," says the agency's Charles Davidson, TxDOT's man in charge of the bottleneck project. He says nighttime work will require shutting down the right lane of the lower deck through the duration of the project, scheduled to begin in October and lasting eight to 10 months -- hardly a "quick-fix," although much quicker than last year's proposal.

But first, TxDOT wants to gauge how local drivers feel about the latest plan, and will solicit feedback at a public hearing scheduled for 6pm Thursday, Feb. 17, at the Joe C. Thompson Center on the University of Texas campus.

Interestingly enough, TxDOT officials threw out the old plan and came up with a new one during a soul-searching conference last summer called Value Engineering, or VE, which is the closest many engineers ever come to a group encounter session. The group drew up a list of "advantages" and "disadvantages" of the costlier bottleneck plan, and in the end realized that the negatives far outweighed the positives. Among the disadvantages outlined in an informal report:

  • "Work done under the bottleneck project may not be compatible with ultimate plans" for I-35.

  • "The "bottleneck project' will likely be under construction during the public input/presentation of the Phase II MIS. Traffic disruptions during construction of bottleneck project may create bad publicity for the Phase II MIS."

  • And, "If existing conditions must be addressed, can an alternative to the bottleneck project be found that does the same in a better manner?"

    For the latter, the answer was a resounding yes, so the engineers hunkered down and devised a new plan they believe will be more compatible to whatever long-range project the roadway undergoes in the next few years.

    Can't Grow Any Wider

    On the face of it, I-35 through the heart of town offers few options for improvement. Widening the freeway simply can't be done without eating into big chunks of Mt. Calvary Cemetery, the St. David's Hospital parking garage, Concordia College, and other private concerns, says Glenn McVey, a congestion management engineer for TxDOT.

    It doesn't help matters when you have hundreds of thousands of vehicles charging down the 1950s freeway each day, creating hazards that result in an average of five significant traffic accidents per day, according to public safety statistics. But even a minor fender bender can cause agonizingly long traffic delays for miles. Not surprisingly, a joint TxDOT/DPS accident study of I-35, between U.S. 183 and Oltorf, found that the highest number of smash-ups occurred on the freeway's lower level between 11th and 51st streets.

    While remote areas north and south of Austin may offer better right-of-way options for widening, planners have nowhere to go in the middle of town but up, or down. With that, transportation officials are revisiting a plan architect Sinclair Black presented a few years ago that proposed underground freeway lanes through the Central Business District to eliminate the physical barrier between East and West Austin. McVey says the Black proposal is being incorporated into another plan that calls for depressing the main north-south lanes, tearing out the northbound upper deck, and leaving the southbound upper deck in place to create HOV lanes for buses, vanpools, and carpools.

    "That's the plan that looks pretty attractive right now, and I think it's a viable option," McVey says. "But this isn't something that's going to happen in a couple of years."

    Nevertheless, the "depressed alternative," even in its nebulous state, appears to be the strongest option, given TxDOT's right-of-way limitations. Expect more fiddling on this plan over the next couple of months. McVey says it'll be April before TxDOT will have put pen to paper to lay out its proposal in writing. end story

    More information on I-35 is available on a new TxDOT Web site -- http://www.I35Austin.com.
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    I-35, Texas Department of Transportation, bottleneck project, Glenn McVey, Charles Davidson, Major Investment Study, High Occupancy Vehicles, HOVs

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