Taking the Slow Road

The I-35 improvement project is running way behind schedule -- in part because it keeps growing.

The I-35 project is one of several major highway projects currently under way in metro Austin -- including SH 130, SH 45 North & South, and rebuilding U.S. 183 and Loop 1 (MoPac).
The I-35 project is one of several major highway projects currently under way in metro Austin -- including SH 130, SH 45 North & South, and rebuilding U.S. 183 and Loop 1 (MoPac).

Even by the Texas Dept. of Transportation's own standards, the I-35 improvement project is running way behind schedule -- in part because it keeps growing. When it was initiated in 1987, the project area only stretched from Martin Luther King Boulevard south to Ben White. Now, it stretches from Georgetown to Buda, although the most extensive reconstruction of the current highway would be between Town Lake and 51st Street. Even with that expanded scope, TxDOT at one time expected it would have completed its study process by the end of 2000, received its federal go-ahead early last year, and would already be acquiring right-of-way.

The I-35 project was conceived before the 1991 passage of the federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA, pronounced "ice-tea"), which both revolutionized and institutionalized the standard how-to-build-a-highway process. (ISTEA has since been supplanted by TEA-21, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, which will itself expire next year.) Normally, when TxDOT wants to build or rebuild a road, they need to conduct a major investment study (MIS) to establish the "purpose and need" of the project and figure out which strategy would best meet that need. Once that's completed, TxDOT picks its "preferred alternatives" and does an environmental impact study (EIS) to see which alternative inflicts the least damage -- not just to the natural environment, but to disadvantaged communities and to cultural and historical resources. The EIS also explains how TxDOT intends to mitigate those impacts. Once all this is done and approved by both local and state authorities -- in our case, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) and the Texas Transportation Commission -- it goes on to the Federal Highway Administration, which takes its sweet time to issue a "record of decision" (R.O.D.) that gives TxDOT the final go-ahead to spend federal money, acquire right of way, and actually build stuff. This brings us back to the schedule.

When ISTEA was passed, TxDOT converted its I-35 project, already underway, to an MIS. But it's also doing the environmental impact study at the same time, instead of after the MIS is completed and approved. Currently, TxDOT says its documents (Phase II of the MIS, which would include the design details, and the draft EIS, with its mitigation measures) will be ready for review -- which includes a mandated public hearing and comment period -- by the end of this year. That's at least a year behind the official schedule. Based on past experience (such as with SH130), it's unlikely that TxDOT will get a R.O.D. from the feds before early 2004; the agency says it doesn't expect to begin construction on the new I-35 until 2010. Meanwhile, officials have also said that they don't plan to start work on I-35 until SH130 is finished, providing a bypass around Austin while the I-35 construction is going on.

  • More of the Story

  • Born to be Reviled

    Interstate 35's worst stretch is also its most politically organized -- and that's a problem for TxDOT.

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