Another look at I-35 expansion

From Slate:

Built on top of tree-lined East Avenue, the road opened in 1962, cutting off Black and Mexican-American East Austin from Downtown. Like urban renewal projects in other American cities, the road’s destructive legacy has recently been reconsidered in racial terms.

But unlike with similar projects in Syracuse and New Haven, the question in Austin is not how to tear down the highway but how to expand it. Those cities are not growing; Austin is. Just as the Texas capital embarks on its generational transit investment, the state is planning to spend almost $5 billion to expand eight miles of I-35 through Downtown to a whopping 20 lanes wide. Four new “managed lanes” (for high-occupancy vehicles or other restricted uses) will join the mainlanes and frontage roads, stretching the highway’s width to nearly 600 feet in places, and erasing almost 150 properties.

With their latticework of ramps, bypass lanes, and flyovers, the blueprints have the look of one of those historical timelines that shows warring empires dividing and combining in endless permutations. It’s a testament to America’s highway designers that this tangle, hard to follow with one finger, will one day be navigable at 70 miles per hour.


Last month, the mayor and nearly the entirety of the Austin City Council signed a letter addressed to the I-35 team at the Department of Transportation with some requests: Change the design to narrow the right-of-way. Build more crossings. Make frontage roads into pleasant local streets. Design, fund, and build highway decks—suspended parks over the road—to knit together neighborhoods that were severed in 1962. And delay the project until Austin can complete its transit lines.

“It’s something we have to do something about. It’s deadly, it’s dirty, it divides our community,” said Natasha Harper-Madison, a City Council member who has denounced the plan. “I-35 is the poster child for our car-choked congestion problems, and their solution is just to make it bigger. They tell us the life span is 75 years. That means 2100. When I think about 2100, I don’t see a sprawling Houston, but a city that helps people move around without cars.”

There are alternate proposals, such as the one drawn up by the Urban Land Institute at the behest of Downtown interests. That design proposes a narrower right-of-way, cantilevered frontage roads, highway decks to support green space, and new housing alongside it all. A similar highway cap, Klyde Warren Park, opened in Dallas to much fanfare in 2012.

A local group called Reconnect Austin wants to bury the highway entirely and build a surface-level boulevard, in the style of Boston’s Big Dig. Divert intercity traffic to State Highway 130, a road built east of Austin two decades ago for just this purpose. Give the city’s transit network a chance to make its mark, they argue, before you undermine its offerings with a brand new (free) highway.

See here for the background. I wanted to highlight this article for two reasons. One was because it referenced an Austin Politics report that showed how TxDOT’s predictions for future traffic on I-35 are basically the same as they were 20 years ago, and that the levels of traffic they were predicting then have not come close to being accurate. Makes me wonder what a bit of similar investigation into claims about traffic on I-45 would yield.

The other is for this diagram, taken from TxDOT’s renderings for the proposed expansion, and included in the piece:

I’d say I’ve never seen anything more ridiculous than that, but then I have seen TxDOT’s plans for I-45, so. Anyway, check it out.

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4 Responses to Another look at I-35 expansion

  1. David Fagan says:

    “Four new “managed lanes” (for high-occupancy vehicles or other restricted uses) ”

    Nice way to say ‘Toll Road’.

    This article references how the giant toll road 130 was built to alleviate these problems, and apparently it didn’t. If fact, the southern portion of it was shoddily made and the management company went bankrupt due to lack of use of 130.

    19 Days and counting….

  2. Jules says:

    The same social justice issues are going on with the proposed Texas Central high-speed rail. The difference between the proposed HSR and I-35/I-45 is that it has not yet been built and can be stopped or changed. Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer and Professor at Rice (he teaches sustainable development and environmental law) lays it all out nicely in his request for a Supplement Environmental Impact Statement to Buttigieg dated September 29 of this year. From his request:

    “In particular, FRA eliminated a number of route alternatives out of hand because they were not considered to be “economically viable.””

    “The Project would disproportionately impact minority and low-income communities.”

    “Rather than conduct a methodological analysis of alternative sites for the Dallas terminal, Texas Central made an agreement with a local developer who donated the site for the terminal. FRA did not evaluate any alternative terminal site in Dallas, in direct contravention of EO 13985 and in violation of NEPA.”

    “FRA merely blindly adopted Texas Central’s grossly exaggerated ridership projections. If, in fact, these projections cannot be met, vehicles will not be diverted from Interstate 45 (I-45) and none of the supposed benefits of the Project will be realized, at great economic and environmental expense.”

  3. Jules says:

    “Makes me wonder what a bit of similar investigation into claims about traffic on I-45 would yield.” Just one of the reasons Texas Central’s ridership claims are ridiculous.

  4. C.L. says:

    Never underestimate the Houston driver’s willingness to pay $X/mile on a toll road to (1) avoid the headache of local assclowns weaving in and out of traffic, getting off the freeway then immediately back on, and firing guns at ya, and (2) to get down the road quicker.

    As to why Texans are still paying tolls on 130 (Rick Perry’s public private partnership baby), that’d be a good question to ask the GOP-dominated legislature. As soon as the developer went bankrupt, Texas taxpayers were supposed to get the road back free of debt. Instead Austin brought in a new owner…and we get to pay tolls on 130 up until 2062.

    “A coalition of anti-toll and conservative grassroots groups are asking Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to insist the new owners comply with the original contract by making needed repairs at no extra cost to Texas taxpayers and determine why Texans did not get the highway back, allowing it to become toll-free. In the meantime, Texans will continue to pay tolls to a group of foreign investors for a generation.”

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