Last week, we heard a surprising announcement from the Texas Department of Transportation and State Senator Kirk Watson regarding plans to significantly redesign Austin’s downtown stretch of Interstate 35, part of an $8 billion long-range plan — apparently dubbed Capital Express — intending to add two toll lanes to both sides of the highway all the way from Round Rock to Buda.
Details are scarce and TxDOT hasn’t released renderings or any other illustrations of the proposed changes, but we know the design would remove the upper deck of the highway between Martin Luther King Jr. and Airport Boulevards, instead excavating additional lanes beneath the highway’s existing frontage roads in a three-level design through the downtown stretch of I-35, similar to the LBJ Express project recently completed in Dallas.
Since the complexities of transportation planning kinda make my head spin, I’m kicking this topic over to an all-star panel of transit-minded Austinites instead. Here’s their take on the news — it’s kind of like The Onion’s American Voices column, except a little less funny. Hit it!
Transit-obsessed journalist covering Travis County politics for the Austin Monitor
Naturally, state law and anemic local leadership preclude those otherwise swell outcomes. So in the interest of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the planet-killingly awful, let’s look at the potential upsides.
- The apparent plans to demolish the highway’s elevated decks: +1.
- TxDOT’s willingess to ditch its vision of stretching the elevated highway all the way past Cesar Chavez Street: +1
- The distinct possibility that Capital Metro might have to abandon its dreams of making a Texas freeway an honest-to-god transit spine at the expense of inner city service: +1
- The prospect of plowing $8 billion — more than twice Austin’s latest annual budget — into a regional highway expansion while our central city still only has, like two sidewalks: -9,000
Of course, these are just the latest in a series of vague proposals for a project that TxDOT has been threatening to inflict on us for more than 15 years, and who knows what sort of final recommendations we’ll end up with when the latest round of environmental studies are completed next year?
Transit blogger and former member of the City of Austin’s Urban Transportation Commission
So we’re all supposed to be showering Kirk Watson with grateful praise after the content-light press release this week about I-35. You know, the one where we don’t have upper decks any more, have two toll lanes in each direction (with none of those dumb inline bus stations Capital Metro was going to be suckered into paying for), and somehow three levels of cantilevering probably next to the eminent-domain-proof cemetery and further downtown. If this seems a little vague, that’s because the plan itself is vague; nobody’s really shown cross-sections that seem achievable or a construction plan that’s doable without completely shutting down the highway. So call me a skeptic for now.
But more importantly — even if we actually build this thing the way Kirk Watson wants it, what does it actually do for Austin? By that, I don’t mean “Pflugerville” or “Round Rock” or “Georgetown” or “San Marcos Leanna Buda Kyletown”; I mean actual taxpayers of Austin, who — thanks to the way highways are funded — already excessively subsidize suburban commutes. While there’s no way to tell for sure, I think I’ll bet on relatively few entrances to the toll lanes (like on Mopac), which is a good idea operationally, but means that residents closer in than the far edges of the city likely can’t use the facility at all. I’ll also bet on a slightly less annoying situation where the decks are now, and this is probably not coincidentally due to the fact that Kirk Watson lives within earshot of upper deck noise — as, fair disclosure, do I.
Are we going to see a cap over the whole thing; better frontage roads; more crossings; more actual streets? If you ask me to bet on it: No, not a goddamn chance. And this won’t help transit for Austinites at all — Round Rock recently conned us into a sweetheart deal with Capital Metro, and they and their southern compatriots would also be the only ones to see a non-trivial benefit for bus travel. So if you’re an Austin taxpayer, I can sum this up in four words: Same pig, new lipstick.
Heyden Black Walker
Urban Planner, Black + Vernooy Architecture & Urban Design
Lowering I-35 will give the Austin community the opportunity to cap the highway, adding critical city streets to move traffic, great streets to connect communities with quality urban spaces for all modes of transportation, and affordable housing next to our central city jobs.
It is exciting to hear that the upper decks will be removed from MLK to Airport Blvd. The proposed design has not yet been released, but we understand TxDOT will do everything they can to restore connectivity across the highway. TxDOT has had over 100 community meetings with neighborhoods, community organizations, and the University of Texas, so they are well aware how important it is to reconnect the walkable neighborhoods on either side, as well as the east and west campuses of the University of Texas.
Removing the upper decks, adding lanes for transit, and lowering I-35 through downtown Austin all represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The devil is in the details, which have not yet been released.