Blast from the Past

The Texas Department of Transportation is working on a plan to sink I-35 below ground level through downtown Austin. 

That has city engineers asking a unique but simple question: Can we build anything over it? 

City officials hope to get an answer by February. City planners are asking the City Council to authorize a feasibility study to determine whether it’s possible – and worthwhile socially and financially – to build “massive bridge-like structures spanning the freeway lanes that could support any variety of structures or even parkland.” 

Austin essentially wants to know whether it can turn a canyon of roads into a partial tunnel. 

For years, the Downtown Austin Alliance has lobbied TxDOT to sink I-35 through downtown, says Charlie Betts, executive director of the alliance. 

“It’s ugly, dirty and loud,” Betts says. “I-35 is a major disruption in the heart of our community, and it’s a physical and psychological barrier that separates east and west Austin.” 

If the interstate is dropped below ground level, city officials say, these wide bridge-type structures could create an even more seamless split between the bustling Central Business District and Central East Austin, on which the city is spending millions of dollars to rejuvenate. 

City planners say they are far from determining exactly what would be built over I-35, but the motivation behind the feasibility study is to provide more developable land downtown, says Jana McCann, the city’s manager of urban design. 

Ideas already thrown out by city planners range from parks to a major intermodal station � a place where buses, trains, cars and bikes could exchange passengers. 

The city is a long way from deciding anything. TxDOT only recently began studying how � and at what cost � the interstate will be lowered between Town Lake and 51st Street. 

TxDOT plans for I-35 to have 12 lanes about 23 feet below ground level. TxDOT’s project manager, Charles Davidson, says construction won’t begin any sooner than 2010. Once started, it could take at least eight years to complete. 

The City Council was scheduled Sept. 26, after Austin Business Journal press deadlines, to hire Austin-based Land Design Studio to perform the feasibility study at a cost of $59,000.

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