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.