I-35 is broken.
If you use the highway frequently near downtown during peak hours, you’ll understand that this is less a matter of opinion, and more an invitation to explore just how much of its brokenness can be fixed through design alone.
Urbanists, at least the optimistic ones, will tell you that the actual solution to our city’s continuing nightmare of highway congestion is via holistic methods — increased mass transit adoption, flexible work hours, ride-sharing, and other cultural changes confronting entrenched practices of transportation engineering that center upon the comfort of the automobile above all else. But in a world where a non-trivial percentage of the population believes a new building planned with no parking spaces signals the kickoff of an Illuminati plot to send us screaming back to the Dark Ages, design solutions might be our only shot at refining this particularly troubled stretch of interstate.
Reconnect Austin, a volunteer organization led by architect Sinclair Black and backed by his firm, Black + Vernooy, has a vision for improvements that could potentially both alleviate the highway’s increasing traffic woes and stitch the city’s east and west sides back together.
But with the Texas Department of Transportation currently midway through an environmental review of two potential design concepts, both lacking the features Reconnect considers to be so crucial to Austin’s future, the group’s mission seems more daunting than ever.
Once TxDOT completes this review in early 2018, construction is targeted for 2020 — the start of what urban planner Heyden Walker, who is also Black’s daughter, calls a “long list of hugely expensive missed opportunities.”
What is Reconnect Austin’s plan?
In short, the organization supports burying I-35 below ground level from about 12th to Cesar Chavez Streets via the “cut and cap” method — excavating down to install the highway below ground, and building a concrete “cap” over the highway that could support additional streets — effectively turning the interstate downtown into a tunnel topped by its own frontage roads.
Drivers who needed to get around the central city would use these surface roads, which would be built to the city’s “Great Streets” standards, while those with destinations further north could take the tunnel portion of the project, thus bypassing much of downtown in the process.
This design would more effectively route vehicles that were simply passing through downtown, rather than dumping commuters on the same overworked lanes serving the folks who only need to go 10 blocks or less. The underground portion of the design could also elegantly integrate commuter rail lines on the inner sides of its lanes, with escalators or stairs giving easy access to the surface-level plaza above. The tunnel would include a ventilation system to filter exhaust from the air, and newly-planted trees on the surface would offset pollution further.
In the end, Reconnect’s proposal ends up returning the highway to its roots before the construction of I-35, when it was known as East Avenue. The design, as implied by the name, reconnects the surface streets previously blocked by the elevated portion of the highway, bridging the gap between East and West Austin — a feature the organization believes to be critical to the city’s future.
By moving frontage roads to the cap directly over the highway, the design frees up about 30 acres of developable land downtown, increasing density by providing developers the opportunity to build on either side of the surface boulevard’s wide sidewalks. The proposal also features traffic circles at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Dean Keeton Street — we prefer to call them “roundabouts,” of course.
This brings us to the two design concepts currently under consideration by TxDOT.
The first involves adding additional elevated lanes to the highway, laid out in these videos illustrating just how much “upper deck” would be created, with massive tracts of unused space beneath. It’s hardly inviting.
The second plan does bury I-35 in similar fashion to Reconnect’s vision, but with key differences — it doesn’t move the frontage roads or fully cap the highway, preventing much of the development the organization believes is necessary to join the city’s two sides back together in earnest.
Heyden Walker explains the organization’s key concern is that despite the popularity of its plan with the city — after its presentation to the Downtown Commission in April, the committee voted 6-0 to offer a letter of support in its favor — TxDOT will simply not grant the Reconnect proposal the same weight as the two other designs it’s considering, or involve the local public enough in the decision.
Despite the fact that developments of this variety are funded by state taxpayers, the choice will almost certainly never appear on a ballot, instead being decided based upon the agency’s own research. Walker points to recent analysis suggesting that state agencies tend to hire consultants that will generally support the research conclusions the agency already prefers, shutting out public accountability from most of the process.
“Until Austin decides to have a community conversation about how the I-35 corridor is designed, that corridor will continue to ignore the issues that Austin is working to solve.”
— Heyden Walker, Reconnect Austin
Statements by TxDOT regarding the future of the project seem to indicate the agency is aware of the public’s concerns and the design features highlighted in the Reconnect plan. It’s simply unclear how much influence, if any, the group’s proposal will eventually have.
Perhaps an even more significant open question: How much influence should Austin have on the final product?