Austin at Large: Ain’t No Highway Wide Enough
TxDOT abandons any pretense of new thinking about I-35. It’s time to stop them.
Several friends and fans contacted me urgently this week: "TxDOT's going to bulldoze the Chronicle! You're in danger!" As part of its current "virtual public meeting" at a computer near you, the Texas Department of Transportation released schematics – big long aerial views of the corridor – for its three alternatives, one of which it has abandoned already, for rebuilding I-35 through Central Austin: what the agency calls the Capital Express Central project. And sure enough, there we are, under layers of proposed new concrete and asphalt at the address formerly known as 4000 N. I-35, where we've been since the early 1990s. So yeah, we know. We been knew, as the kids say. The plans for I-35's future have waxed and waned over the years, but the Chronicle offices have never been truly safe.
The last time TxDOT got this far, with detailed schematics, in its quest across the generations to "fix" I-35 was back in 2002. Back then, we ran an awesome story about it by Dave Mann (later to shine at The Texas Observer and Texas Monthly and now American Public Media), in which he goes over the schematics with the lead TxDOT engineer, who points to various places on the large paper maps, mostly on the Eastside, and says, "They hate me, and they hate me, and they hate me too."
They were looking at a proposed highway cross section of 12 lanes, which would open in 2020 and be instantly outdated, as Austin's rapid growth (now confirmed in the rearview mirror by the 2020 census) would produce traffic demands that, in TxDOT's view, would take 18 lanes to satisfy. They planned to make up the difference with the Texas 130 toll road, which has since been built, and with express lanes on MoPac, which have since been built, and with enhanced local transit that had been narrowly rejected by voters in 2000 and would wait 20 years to be approved last year as Project Connect, and with commuter rail along the I-35 corridor all the way to San Antonio, which was at about the same place in its planning journey that the CapExCentral is now when it got killed in 2016.
The cross section for the two remaining CapExCentral alternatives, at the same place where Mann and the engineer were pointing to, near the Chronicle, is 20 lanes.
The Worst-Case Scenario
Texas Transportation Commission Chair J. Bruce Bugg vowed publicly in 2020 that the CapExCentral would go "no wider and no higher" than the current I-35 profile. Instead, the agency would dig deeper, tunneling its new "managed" (but not tolled or transit-only) lanes and depressing the mainlanes, removing the unsafe upper deck that looms over the Chronicle, and maybe building a couple of extra-wide bridges Downtown that the city could decorate with park stuff, as a treat. They seemed excited by the prospect, and it was on that promise that Austin convinced all the other cities and counties in the metro area to give up all their free transportation money for the next few years to entice Bugg's TTC and its state paymasters to commit to the $8 billion I-35 rebuild. We were assured this was the best-case scenario.
So, that was bullshit. The CapExCentral, as I mentioned, kicked off with three alternatives, the first of which lined up with Bugg's public promise. It's now been dispatched as too hard and too expensive, along with concerns about emergency access and response time that other tunnelized highways everywhere in the world can mitigate but that are suddenly fatal flaws in a concept TxDOT has been pretending to support for years. The other alternatives – the only two choices left, according to the state's best transportation minds – are barely distinguishable from one another. They're just going to widen the highway, because that is all TxDOT knows how to do, surprise.
But what about those cool, smart ideas for turning I-35 into a boulevard, or capping it completely so we can restore the urban fabric connecting Downtown and East Austin, or even just creating better versions of the Downtown bridges TxDOT has proposed – the visions brought forth by the Rethink35 and Reconnect Austin community coalitions and the partnership of the Urban Land Institute and Downtown Austin Alliance? None of those visions and the concepts that spawned them are new. We've reported on them for years; Mann covered some of them, in their embryonic form, back in 2002. One of his successors at the Observer, Megan Kimble, produced another awesome piece earlier this year, in partnership with The Nation, that gave Austin's I-35 crisis some needed national exposure. We been knew for decades that I-35 is racist and toxic and unsafe and obsolete, and that better approaches to mobility and infrastructure have been available to us this whole time and have now gone mainstream across the country, and that repairing past damage done by I-35 to Austin for all these years through such approaches, and averting future miseries, was the only reason this city should be on board with the CapExCentral project. Briefly, faintly, it looked like maybe, just maybe, TxDOT was getting it.
The agency did a cursory review at the Rethink, Reconnect, and DAA/ULI visions, came up with minimally plausible reasons to reject them, and now would like to get on with the concrete. So it's up to us to stop them – not work with them, not mitigate the damage, not convince them of the error of their ways, but defeat them, in court, at the Capitol, in D.C., on the streets. Austin's a big and important city, beloved by many who live here and many who don't and many who might someday, precisely because we champion alternatives to the 20th-century mindset that imprisons TxDOT. We are allowed, right now, to be furious, to break things, to do what is needed to demand to be heard. We've shut down I-35 before. Let's see what we can do now.