Austin at Large: More Land, or a Big Ditch?

If we’re really going this far on the reimagined I-35, we might as well go all the way

I-35 at Eighth Street in TxDOT's plans, either with or without caps (Courtesy of TxDOT)

My old friend and colleague Sinclair Black, a grand duke in the aristocracy of Austin architecture, is the founding father (literally) of Reconnect Austin, the longest-­running community initiative to reimagine I-35 as it runs through Central Austin. It's because of Reconnect's influence and knowledge base that the Texas Department of Transportation felt any need at all to dramatically modify its plans for what it calls the Capital Express Central project – rebuilding I-35 from U.S. 290 East (the Manor Expressway) down south to U.S. 290 West (Ben White Boulevard). Many billions will be spent on this.

Reconnect, whose main mover is Sinclair's daughter Heyden Black Walker, also a design professional, has been patient with TxDOT. Sinclair himself has never been patient with anything that distracts or dilutes his visions for Austin, most of which have proved to be prescient. (Wide sidewalks Downtown? A reinvention of Waller Creek? Bars and clubs west of Congress? They all kinda have Sinclair's fingerprints on them.) So he's revved up the Reconnect engine to make one more direct demand of TxDOT and the city of Austin to get behind the initiative in its totality – what he describes as "civilizing I-35."

One Thing Atop Another

That vision is usually distilled as "cut and cap" – depress the I-35 mainlanes, cover them with a constructed cap, make that space useful to the public, and convert the current frontage roads into a boulevard design that's safer for pedestrians and motorists. At least in broad strokes, TxDOT's current favorite alternative does those things, which prior versions of CapExCen­tral did not. "Public opinion prevailed in 2020 when TxDOT read the tea leaves and declared the highway would be depressed after all, but with no definitive plan," Re­con­nect writes in one of its position papers – a cost analysis of its vision vs. TxDOT's, in which Reconnect's comes out cheaper.

Why? Because to Sinclair, the obvious solution is to build that boulevard (serving as the access road) on top of the cap, and make the expensive dirt now used by the access roads available for development, and use the tax revenue from that development to pay for the cap (a situation where a tax increment financing district is the right move), and not need to acquire even one li'l stitch of new right-of-way.

TxDOT has consistently rejected this idea, for reasons both obvious (they don't want to be obligated to do and pay for things, especially in Austin, that it thinks aren't relevant to its mission or politically possible) and obscure; their preferred plan places the boulevard on the west side of the highway, some of which land they'll have to purchase. Sinclair's not going to stop pushing back on this until TxDOT caves or God takes him away, one or the other.

Building From Both Ends

A problem with Reconnect's vision is that it only addresses the very center of the CapExCentral – north of the river, from Airport Boulevard south to Festival Beach. One can argue that this is a distinct enough section – serving UT-Austin, the Capitol Com­plex, Downtown, and now Rainey Street, and removing the benighted upper/lower deck split – that it should be the focus of its own engineering and environmental studies.

But segmentation is how TxDOT got us into a position where no, we really can't just remove I-35 entirely and build a boulevard instead (the vision of Rethink35, the newer but often more visible community initiative on this matter), because the rest of the highway – the CapExNorth and CapExSouth, from the U.S. 290s out to the Texas 45s (basically the Travis County line) – is already being built to specifications that the Central is going to have to accommodate. It sucks, but complete highway removal may require going back quite a few steps in what's already been a 30-year endeavor. (Megan Kimble, formerly of the Texas Observer and a close follower of the I-35 saga, wrote a great piece for Grist about how TxDOT created this scenario.)

Within the section addressed by Recon­nect – which includes the offices of the Chronicle, in the Hancock neighborhood – TxDOT's plans leave other dangling threads. Another friend and thought leader on planning around here, Jim Walker (no relation to Heyden), is the president of the Cherrywood Neighborhood Associa­tion, which includes the stretch of I-35 across the highway from Hancock. His neighbors also want to know why, if TxDOT is going to go as far as it proposes to cap I-35 – creating acres of new land – it does not continue that cap all the way north to Airport, so they too can have new parkland or whatever goes on these caps, if not the access roads. (That's a whole 'nother column.)

TxDOT says no can do, because it needs exit ramps there to get people to Mueller and Highland to the north and St. David's Medical Center to the south. But it's already completely redesigned the highway twice. How is this actually a problem it can't solve? And why does leaving a neighborhood stranded on the wrong side of a very big ditch seem like a preferable alternative?

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