Austin Contemplates How to Make I-35 Suck Less

The past, present, and future of the man-made barrier through the heart of our town

Illustration by Jason Stout

"We call it 'the Main Street of Texas' for a reason," says Randy Hopmann, director of district operations for the Texas Department of Transportation. "We all understand that the state is growing by 1,000 people per day, and they're bringing and driving vehicles, many on this corridor. We at the agency and the [Texas Transportation] Commission totally recognize the importance of I-35 not just to our state, but to the United States."

Hopmann's purview is the entire state; he's fielding the Chronicle's queries because the longtime TxDOT district engineer for Austin, Terry McCoy, has recently retired, just in time to miss the next great and groaning chapter in Texas' longest-running transportation network drama, What to Do About I-35. Specifically, what to do about I-35 in Austin, the corridor's problem child. "Our commission also recognizes the importance of I-35 to this city," Hopmann continues. "We know that the roadway here is the most congested in the entire state."

That may not be true at any given moment – the folks who rank these things, such as Inrix or the Texas A&M Trans­port­a­tion Institute, often couch their assessment of I-35 crossing Lady Bird Lake as "among" the most clogged highways in the state, or in the nation, or among comparable cities. But stepping back to take a look at the whole nation and the interstate highway system, it becomes clear that Austin's situation is rather singular.

Texas' other major metros, and many of Austin's peer cities nationally, sit astride the junctions of multiple major highways. The network was designed to create those nodes, often to the detriment of the existing urban fabric in those existing major cities. Austin is in a much smaller class of communities that lie between those nodes; that grew into major urban centers after the system was built; that sit astride major cross-country interstates (unlike, say, Orlando); and that sprawled along, rather than away from, those corridors (unlike, say, Las Vegas). Maybe Phoenix is comparable.

All that is to say that I-35 is also the Main Street of Austin, and of Central Texas. (Sorry, Congress Avenue.) Our growth, more so than the state's as a whole, is why I-35 is the way it is, and its reconstruction, which has been on TxDOT's to-do list for several decades, will impact us more than anyone else, both positively and negatively. Yet I-35 does not belong to us. If it did – if Austin voters and leaders had the power to decide what happens to the corridor – its next chapter would likely read differently.

Construction of the I-35 upper deck in 1973, taken from a vantage point very close to what is now the Chronicle offices

The Road Goes On Forever

Built along the path of Austin's old East Avenue – already the city's color line – I-35 as it looks today was largely completed by 1972, but within 10 years, TxDOT was looking to do more. The agency first commissioned a feasibility study for an upgrade of I-35 between MLK and Ben White in 1987, but they shut it down the following year after community backlash against the bigger and wider concepts then on the table. Yet more intense highway plans for Austin – with expressways along Cesar Chavez, the Drag, Lamar, 15th Street, and Riverside – had crumbled before then. The initial segment of MoPac, connecting U.S. 290 and U.S. 183 on the west side and forming the loop signified by "Loop 1," opened in 1981.

The modern era of federal highways began with the Intermodal Surface Trans­portation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA, pronounced "ice-tea"), which created regional metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to manage federal investments in state and local projects, and which also defined the planning path for those projects that's been institutionalized ever since. Under ISTEA and its progenies (NEXTEA, BESTEA, TEA-21, just a whole lot of tea), TxDOT worked on an I-35 "major investment study," or MIS – the first step in that path – all the way until 1994. The final act of that saga produced an I-35 reconstruction plan through Central Austin that we at the Chronicle watched with interest from our offices along the highway at 40th Street. (This reporter has also lived along the highway at 15th Street since 1993.)

That plan included adding high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes within the existing corridor, taking down the upper deck between MLK and Airport Boulevard, and lowering the highway below grade through Down­town, all of which have survived as design features in plans since. It also included taking a lot of property along the right-of-way, tying up traffic with years of roadwork, and spending billions that weren't readily at hand. Thus again broke out community brushfires that proved difficult to extinguish.

What was then the Austin Transportation Study and is now the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) was basically a city of Austin department, but other city planners, and especially the city's Historic Preservation Office, were poised to use the tools at their disposal – which for a federally funded project are considerable – to at least slow TxDOT's roll. Additionally, the MIS was developed on the assumption that Capital Metro, formed in 1985 with an explicit commitment to develop high-capacity transit, would have a light rail system up and running by the time I-35 work was done. This did not happen.

By this time, with George W. Bush in D.C. and Rick Perry in the Governor's Mansion, multiple conflicting storylines erupted with gusto in the I-35 Cinematic Universe. Perry and his handpicked TTC chair, Ric Wil­liam­son, unveiled their vision for the Trans-Texas Corridor: swaths of concrete and metal a quarter-mile wide, carrying cars and trucks and rail and pipelines and power lines, supplanting your dad's tired old interstate highway system. At the same time, smart people at the U.S. Department of Transportation as well as in cities like Austin and in the future Obama administration began to think and talk about tearing urban highways down entirely, reclaiming their rights-of-way for the cities they traversed, and replacing them with high-speed rail and other "alternative" transportation (which went hand in hand with non-carbon-based "alternative" energy).

The existing grade level of I-35 through Downtown was not established with urban design or consistency in mind – hence the main lanes go under MLK, over 15th Street, under 12th and 11th streets, and then over the street grid before crossing Lady Bird Lake. Between the grade changes, the ugliness of the elevated structures, the complete obstruction of east-west connectivity on multiple streets, and the constrained (and pedestrian-unfriendly) bridges and frontage roads, the highway does about as much damage as one could ask for. That’s why, for much of the long march toward an I-35 rebuild, growing priority has been placed on depressing the main lanes below grade and allowing for better complete-street connectivity across the top.

But depending on who’s doing the planning and how much money they feel like spending, the nature of that street-level environment could vary widely. The latest concepts developed by the Texas Department of Transportation, shown here – at right is a still from a video fly-through rendering – show an extensive below-grade cut that contains both main lanes and new “managed” lanes for transit, carpools, or tolling should current policy change, but only skimpy bridges at street level. This is actually backsliding from the concepts that emerged from TxDOT’s Downtown stakeholder working group, which included more extensive caps that could accommodate parkland (such as Dallas has done with Klyde Warren Park) on the 11th/12th and Sixth/Eighth street spans.

Don't Love the Way You Move

Both of those approaches got a lot tougher during the Great Recession and in the polarized political environment that followed, and neither offered a ready response to the particular challenge of I-35 – which, as Austin grew and grew and grew, became more gridlocked by the minute. TxDOT convened a statewide I-35 stakeholder process in 2008, with the current I-35 Capital Area Improvement Pro­gram, now known as "Mobility35," finalized in 2014. The agency and its Central Texas partners – particularly Williamson and Hays counties – have executed projects to unclog bottlenecks along the highway throughout that time, and a passel of toll roads have been built to provide theoretical relief to what could be even worse congestion. But the big centerpiece rebuild through the heart of Austin – what's been dubbed by TxDOT the "Capital Express Project" – has yet to truly begin.

CAMPO's Transportation Policy Board, chaired by Austin Mayor Steve Adler, took a deliberate step to kick-start the Capital Express back in May with a resolution committing the entirety of the region's available highway funding – a $400 million sum that would otherwise go to fund projects throughout six counties – to an I-35 rebuild. This was an explicit effort to get the TTC's attention as it decides how to spend the new road funds (just roads, and not toll roads) that, through two different constitutional amendments approved by Texas voters, are diverted from oil and gas tax revenue before they hit the state's rainy day fund. The price tag for an I-35 rebuild that adds two HOV or "managed" lanes, removes the upper deck and depresses the highway through Downtown, and fixes various other broken pieces is now about $8.1 billion.

As a matter of politics, the CAMPO vote was a big deal, bringing to a graceful end years of passive-aggressive bickering between urban and suburban stakeholders about who would benefit from an I-35 upgrade. From an infrastructure perspective, though, it's clear to everyone – not just politicos and engineers but also civilians – that $8 billion can only do so much, and that success must include getting some current and future I-35 drivers off that highway and out of their own separate cars. This is true whether you basically agree with Texas' multigenerational sacralization of the "freedom" of driving alone in a carbon machine, or find it repulsive.

And Steve Adler knows this. "I'd like I-35 to facilitate greater mobility choices for people in Central Texas," the mayor says. "We can do that with additional managed-lane capacity, as we have on MoPac, so we can ensure that buses can travel at 45 mph. If we can achieve that, that would significantly set the stage for [more] people to use transit. It will become a quicker, more effective, less expensive choice for many people."

Because Adler is the same mayor who 1) represents Austin as a global first responder to climate change and 2) leads the city whose just-adopted Strategic Mobility Plan calls for an unprecedented mobility mode shift in the next 20 years, he says I-35 "absolutely has to have better uses than one person per vehicle – choices that are both cheaper and quicker" for the individual traveler, be they local resident or long-haul trucker. He and the other local electees on the CAMPO board, along with TxDOT, would like to believe that the double managed lane currently proposed for the Capital Express Project can do that even if it's not tolled, since tolling, for now, is off the table. (Hopmann took extra-special care, on behalf of all of TxDOT, to make sure we emphasized that. No tolls.)

Without dynamic congestion pricing such as that now levied on MoPac's single express lane – whose troubled construction and high cost have substantially cooled many people's once hot enthusiasm for that concept – how the new I-35 lanes would be "managed" is still up in the air. They could be traditional HOV "diamond" lanes, whose effectiveness as a goad to carpooling has over time proved pretty marginal. Those would be shared by express buses, as Adler notes, although that transit service wouldn't be truly congestion-proof (and couldn't guarantee reduced travel time at all if only one lane were built, tolled or not). In a different political environment, they could be transit-only lanes for bus, rail, or the new and sexy robot-bus ("autonomous rapid transit") concepts that Capital Metro is exploring in its Project Connect effort, which under the political status quo does not include I-35.

As far back as 2003 local urban design professionals have explored the possibility of building an even more substantial cap that basically encloses I-35 through the city center, and exploiting the air rights over the highway to extend and connect the Downtown and East Austin urban fabric. Architect Sinclair Black, one of the founders of the Reconnect Austin initiative, envisioned Sixth Street’s crossing of I-35 much more robustly than does TxDOT, with not just public space and (of course) sidewalk cafes and bars, but new real estate that adds to the tax rolls and helps defray the cost of all this infrastructure. As recent years have seen development of this type and scale right up to the edge of I-35 on both sides, this vision looks a lot more feasible than it did 10 years ago.

Ain't No Highway Wide Enough

The other big and hard part of an I-35 rebuild – bringing down the highway to sit at or below grade through the city center – sparks a number of what-ifs and why-nots among the interstate's friends and neighbors. While Austin's segregation long predates I-35, the inescapable visual and physical barrier it creates between East and West cannot help but be an offensive symbol of the city and region's persistent inequities.

Removing (or at least reducing) that barrier – and with it, maybe, those inequities – has been a more or less explicit objective of Adler and other local leaders such as state Sen. Kirk Watson and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who've invested their political capital along I-35. "I'd like to see I-35 buried through Downtown, with a cap over it, and with public uses on that cap such as parks that benefit the community, and I'd love to lower the upper deck," says Adler. "Those aren't just physical barriers but also impediments to the flow of traffic."

The core concepts TxDOT has shown the public since 2014 have included caps of one sort or another that could support park space, or at least more accommodating and walkable streets with better east-west crossings than the frightful ones Austin's lived with for decades. Projects like Dallas' Klyde Warren Park have made this approach pretty trendy nationwide, even as TxDOT tries to avoid mission creep and stay out of cities' local land use spats.

However, Central and East Austin have boomed all the way to the feeder road during Mobility35's decade of life. In an Austin that includes billions of dollars' worth of development, from Mueller to University Park to the UT campus and Dell Medical School (and the Brackenridge Hospital site) to Saltillo to Rainey Street, the cost-benefit equation has changed, and settling for nicer bridges seems to many like a half-measure.

Perhaps the person most in touch with what I-35 could be, if we thought outside the concrete box, is Heyden Black Walker, an urban planner at Black & Vernooy, the firm founded by her father, Austin architectural titan Sinclair Black. Father and daughter are the champions of the Reconnect Austin initiative, which envisions not just below-grade mainlanes and caps but enclosing the highway entirely, extending the existing urban fabric right across it.

As an example, Walker points to TxDOT's current cross-section concepts for what is now the double-deck stretch between Airport and MLK; to stay within the current right-of-way, the agency would cantilever the frontage roads over the mainlanes and then tunnel the new managed lanes beneath that. "If you're taking on that expense to hold multiple 18-wheelers, why not just cap the whole thing?" she asks, noting that doing so might be less expensive than what TxDOT's outlined. "Then you would have all of UT Athletics connected at grade; you can expand the fan experience and create the festival atmosphere and have more real estate to build on. UT would benefit tremendously from that."

Most observers now agree that the double-decking of I-35 in the early 1970s was a mistake; while it allowed TxDOT to move more cars and trucks through the pinch-point created by the UT campus, it creates congestion at either end as uncertain drivers bottleneck when negotiating the splits, which themselves waste a bunch of valuable right of way. (The widest point on the I-35 right-of-way through Austin is where the decks separate at MLK Boulevard.) However, TxDOT has leaned toward designs that preserve a multi-level approach to moving vehicles north of Downtown, including cantilevering the frontage roads over the mainlanes and, in the latest study concepts, tunneling the new managed lanes underneath the current roadbed.

Urban design pros and transportation advocates, however, note that this stretch of freeway is physically comparable to those in places like San Francisco and Oakland (where double-deck structures were damaged or rendered unusable by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake), where simply removing the highway entirely and turning it into a boulevard – much like the original design of East Avenue – has proven effective not only for placemaking but also for managing traffic. That’s a hard sell for the I-35 mainlanes themselves, since it is a cross-country interstate. But Heyden Black Walker of Reconnect Austin notes that if TxDOT is contemplating cantilevering the frontage lanes, it might as well cover up the whole thing, and allow traffic – not just cars, but people – to move far more effectively throughout the area. Reconnect’s conceptual rendering of a covered highway/boulevard combo serving the UT Athletics complex on the campus’ eastern edge – currently straddling I-35 – suggests a grid that can play host to a street party (as UT is trying to do now by closing Trinity Street) but also more easily distribute game-day traffic.

For years, Walker has been a patient, dogged, and often lonely stakeholder in TxDOT and CAMPO's engagement process. "TxDOT is telling everyone it's too early to talk about the details or meet with them," she says of the Capital Express concept, "but there's a lot of critical detail. If buses are supposed to use the non-tolled managed lane into Downtown, whatever that is, then there'd need to be a ramp into Downtown. Where is that and what does it look like?"

As for being too early, TxDOT is currently in a procurement process for the next phase of Capital Express engineering, which means there are in fact more details – just none that are ready for prime time. (In case you're wondering, normally you can't get such things through an open-records request until the contracts are signed.) Hopmann stresses that there is still much, much more public engagement to come in order "to get guidance not just on what the roadway should look like, but how to build it," including how best to manage the enormous and, for many, terrifying impact of roadwork at this scale.

Meanwhile, what was out-of-the-box a few years ago is now on the ground in cities around the U.S. that have rebuilt or flat-out removed their urban-core freeways. The latter option for Austin would involve making what is now SH 130 into the interstate, and what is now I-35 into a local highway that could be turned into a street-level boulevard. Switching the designations (and the tolls) on I-35 and SH 130 was proposed during TxDOT's statewide I-35 process 10 years ago and has gone nowhere since.

Cities that have already pulled off freeway removal projects include San Francisco, Seattle, Milwaukee, Portland, Rochester, Vancouver, Madrid, and Seoul; efforts similar to Recon­­nect Austin are active in Buffalo, Dal­las, New Orleans, Chicago, and elsewhere. "There's momentum and a chance to bring in national-level expertise and find out what we really can do for $8.1 billion," Walker says. "I don't think we've gotten there yet."

For his part, Adler notes that the I-35 rebuild could create some of that expertise in Austin and leverage the city's brainpower and interest in social investment. "We want to be able to gather and accumulate data and make that open and available," he says, "[so that] if and when we actually spend $8 billion, we're doing so in a way that creates the greater mobility sources, mode shift, safety, and environmental gains we need."

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