Austin: What a remarkable place to work, play…live…
Our town’s charm results from the confluence of a great location and extraordinary vision: the historic downtown street grid, with Congress Avenue as the main street of Texas; anchored by the State Capitol and UT; and adorned by Lady Bird Lake.
Right now we, as a community, have a unique opportunity to shape Austin’s future for generations. To address the ever-increasing congestion on I-35, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) will soon be reconstructing the downtown section. We have a voice regarding how they will proceed.
One option under consideration is to spend millions reconstructing I-35, elevated over our surface streets, much like it is today. Many have strongly objected to doing so. Why reinforce the elevated I-35 that has historically been a cultural, economic, social and racial barrier in Austin?
Another option is to depress the main lanes below street level, with east/west bridges and several “caps” on top of the main lanes. This isn’t a radical idea. TxDOT recently partnered with the City of Dallas to construct a cap over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway. At street level, on top of the cap, they created Klyde Warren Park, connecting downtown Dallas to the Uptown neighborhood. It instantly became a regional playground. Similar projects have been completed or are under active consideration by many other cities across the US.
TxDOT actually considered this idea for Austin years ago, but failed to move ahead. So much has changed since then! The Waller Creek Tunnel and District, the Health District, an expanding downtown residential population, intense development interest and, of course, critical congestion levels. This new reality demands more than just a short-term traffic solution. If we are to capitalize on these exciting changes, any truly long-term solution must also consider the economic, social, and urban design opportunity at hand.
Reconnect Austin applauds TxDOT’s proposal to update I-35’s 1950s highway design so that it increases capacity and reduces congestion. But we suggest building upon TxDOT’s “depressed lanes” alternative: construct a complete cap over those depressed lanes between Lady Bird Lake and MLK Boulevard. With this “cut-and-cap” approach, the end result is a boulevard (much like the original East Avenue that was displaced by I-35) that covers expressway lanes below ground level carrying traffic moving uninterrupted through downtown, and local traffic using the surface boulevard and street “grid.”
Reconstituting the original grid distributes traffic evenly and increases the number of connections into downtown by 60%. It would Reconnect Austin with tree-lined Great Streets, creating a safe, civilized, walkable/bikeable urban space that becomes an integral part of the fabric of Austin, much like today’s 2nd Street.
Reconnect Austin also proposes reducing the current right-of-way which, in turn, would unlock about 30 acres of under-utilized, high value real estate between Lady Bird Lake and MLK Boulevard for mixed-use projects. This boulevard concept does not require such a wide right-of-way. Based on a conservative 25-year build-out projection, this idea could support over 7,000 residents, create about 48,000 jobs, yield $3.2 billion in new tax base, and generate an estimated $1 billion in recurring, new property tax revenue. Other benefits include reducing noise and air pollution, helping revitalize Waller Creek, setting the stage for the Medical District, and reconnecting Austin in a way that makes I-35 a better neighbor for all.
As one of many potential revenue sources to help pay for construction costs, the redeemed land under existing frontage roads could be sold, leased or developed in joint ventures. The mechanics of creating value are in TxDOT’s playbook entitled “value extraction activities.” But without the cap that unlocks the potential value, there will be no value to extract, i.e. NO CAP, NO BENEFIT.
Many voices, from professional organizations to neighborhood associations, have chosen to write letters to TxDOT requesting that this concept receive further study. We invite you to join us in requesting that TxDOT include Reconnect Austin: Cut-and-Cap as an alternative to be studied thoroughly, including the social and economic benefits.
Let’s seriously consider how we can Reconnect Austin and make I-35 a better neighbor for everyone.
Voice your opinion of TxDOT’s proposals at their virtual open house, beginning June 24th at www.Mobility35.org.