Sinclair Black – “Seeking a Community Alternative” May 2021

SEEKING A COMMUNITY ALTERNATIVE

23 short paragraphs to describe the problem & opportunity to reinvent I-35

Proposed by Sinclair Black, Co-Founder of Reconnect Austin

Austin, you have a problem. Why not transform a huge problem, I-35, into a huge opportunity? This opportunity will not present itself for another 60 to 80 years. The “community alternative” proposed by RECONNECT AUSTIN for the reinvention of I-35 is based upon one basic principle, transforming this disastrous corridor into a wonderful park-like boulevard. This results in creating new urban land for literally billions of dollars in new tax base to pay for Austin’s portion of the cost. With TIF, tax increment financing, the project as envisioned pays for itself in the short term but continues in perpetuity to pay for those amenities that make Austin a great place to live. Following are just some of the principles and obvious advantages of transforming I-35.

Failed Public Policy 

Purpose and Need is a formal statement baked into federal policy of the Department of Transportation (DOT).  The statement is used to justify every highway project placed into the project mill. This statement always says the same thing, “this highway has problems, and we need to fix them.” The answer then is obvious, at least to them, i.e., just spend billions of taxpayer dollars to cure problems their agency created in the past by rebuilding the highway and widening it. The world’s best example of the failure of this concept is the Katy Freeway in Houston. Now TxDOT Austin wants to repeat that disaster in the I-35 corridor. The project mill has become a project treadmill…. rebuild and widen again and again.  Remember the famous truism, “there is no problem any city in the world has that is not the direct result of failed public policy.” 

Citizens: Purpose and Need 

PURPOSE: Remove the physical, social, economic, and racial barrier that has been the tragic legacy of I-35 since its construction. 

NEED: Re-integrate the I-35 corridor into the city fabric, reconnect Austin and create billions in tax base. 

MEANS: Depress the main lanes, narrow the ROW, and reconnect the city grid with EAST AVENUE PARKWAY. All of this can be achieved with the creation of a tax increment finance zone and a new special purpose Development Commission. 


SEQUENCE: 

  1. Create the tax increment zone for the entire corridor and all adjacent land benchmarking current taxable value which is presently ZERO on 136 acres of TxDOT land.  
  2. Implement the designation switch, which was recommended by a TxDOT study, and allow traffic to rebalance before construction begins. Trucks are relegated to SH130 whether they like it or not.  
  3. Temporarily widen the existing access roads to carry more traffic and rethink the use of three major arterials just west of the corridor in downtown.  
  4. Remove the existing freeway main lanes and proceed to reconstruct them below grade through Downtown, UT, and North Central neighborhoods. 
  5. Cap the entire Corridor from Town Lake to just past Airport Boulevard and create a surface Boulevard with in-line stations at the centerline for buses and future rail. 
  6. Implement the new DA (direct access) lanes below and remove the temporary access roads at the surface. Proceed to reclaim the redundant ROW. 
  7. Identify the development opportunities for rebuilding the city fabric on the new land, with the clearly stated goal of creating an enormous new tax base to generate revenue in perpetuity.  
  8. Create the Development Commission that would oversee and coordinate all progress, based on a detailed Critical Path schedule, just as many other cities have done.  
  9. Recruit qualified private sector developers for the many new development opportunities created on the reclaimed land and identify tax base opportunities. 
  10. Coordinate all development activity, both public and private, including access rights, open space opportunities like WATERLOO GREENWAY, construction disruption, and manage all North/South and East/West traffic during the construction process. 

A Possible Future for Austin

Imagine if you were in an entirely new district in Austin. Not in suburbia, not away from downtown but in an integral part of downtown. Such a district is proposed in the I-35 corridor. A 20-block Parkway with wide walkable sidewalks on both sides and thousands of trees to help with global warming. Through traffic below and only local traffic on the reinstated grid. Now imagine the uses of such a reinvented district. Affordable housing, market rate housing, workforce housing, student housing, a new location for Austin Community College, grocery stores, pharmacies, gyms, and flexible space for the innovation district. Both sides of the Boulevard could be as exciting as Second Street has become. Dangerous traffic would be gone, pedestrians would be everywhere, in the shade, and residents could walk to almost all necessities and amenities to support a very high quality of life. 

Sprawl, Congestion, Safety 

 I entered the University of Texas in Austin in the spring of 1958. I have watched that highway (I-35) built, tweaked, rebuilt repeatedly, always with a claim of increasing safety. What actually increases are the cost, the number of lanes, the endless sprawl that the highway promotes and the congestion that results. The most rapid of these increases within the corridor however is the number of crashes and deaths. At this point, the I-35 corridor accounts for 25% of all deaths in the entire City of Austin i.e., 325 sq miles. Vision Zero is a stated goal of the city as well as for TxDOT, but there is little or no evidence of that concern in the current proposed alternatives. 

Racial Divide…. Must End 

The decision to locate the I-35 corridor intentionally created a physical, economic, and racial divide that still exists today. The location decision was not the only local, state, and national policy steeped in racism, but it is clearly the most permanent monument to and the symbol for segregation. In this time of widespread numerous cries for social justice, this monument to our racist history needs to be erased. It is time to erase that barrier and RECONNECT AUSTIN after more than 60 years. 

Public Space for People: EAST AVENUE PARKWAY 

The PARKWAY scheme, as proposed by RECONNECT AUSTIN, does not pretend to be a highway plan, just as TxDOT plans do not pretend to enhance the quality of urban life. Citizens of Austin must step up and demand the removal of Austin’s greatest liability, to be replaced by what could be one of Austin’s greatest assets. 

Taxes You Pay and Lose Forever

Since we are all very concerned about the taxes we pay, here is a little bit of insight. You pay income tax and property tax separately. The income tax collected by the federal government is redistributed to various agencies like TxDOT. TxDOT then spends your tax money on projects in your city and in other cities. The federal tax you pay is higher in order to pay for things like highways that have little or no benefit to you. With this situation, the property taxes are higher because a certain portion of the tax potential has been compromised by the presence of a highway that you did not ask for, it’s a no-win situation. RECONNECT AUSTIN proposes the creation of literally billons of taxable value. TxDOT’s proposals are all about cost on cost, RECONNECT’ s proposal is all about tax income in perpetuity from new development. 

Actual Access 

Over the years, as citizens have demanded a civilized and reinvented I-35, the “highway department” alias TxDOT, has insisted that they will never give up the access roads or any of their excessive right of way. Their reasoning is that if they give up anything, they can’t have it back. TRUE. The agency is pathologically committed to the idea of access roads, as they understand them.  Fair enough, how about four forms of real access, not just a redundant highway. 

  1. Consider an urban Parkway at grade as part of the existing downtown street grid, i.e. “Great Streets.”  
  2. Collector distributor lanes should be reimagined as DIRECT ACCESS lanes located underground with traffic separated by destination i.e., either downtown by way of the next three ramps or beyond via the main lanes. Speeds would be lower in DA lanes and no lane switching, with short ramps directly to the surface. 
  3. Local rail service at grade and commuter rail service below grade with in-line stations, located along the center line of the I-35 corridor. The one and only uninterrupted path through Central Texas, connecting Hays, Travis, and Williamson counties. 
  4. The highway planners have never considered the parallel North/South streets that could distribute traffic throughout downtown. 

Massive Investment for Short lifespan  

Longevity is the expected lifespan of something. In the case of an elevated freeway, that lifespan is expected to be 40 years. I-35 has lasted for more than 60 years. Hence the need to rebuild it before it falls, a very real concern of the DOT. The underground freeway proposed by RECONNECT AUSTIN could last 400 years especially if it is sunken, capped and constructed by poured in place concrete. In this case, the freeway is no longer compromised by vibration and weather, two of the forces that shorten the lifespan of precast concrete elements.  

Long Distance Mobility at the Expense of Local Access 

The phrase “improving mobility” appears in virtually every sentence ever published by DOT, i.e., TxDOT in Austin. Mobility can be defined as the ability to get from somewhere you do not want to be any longer to somewhere you think you may want to go. “Access” on the other hand is the ability to get from someplace you are to somewhere you need or want to go, such as work, school, the grocery store, or Starbucks. Mobility implies the use of an automobile while access can be automobile or bicycle, and always implies walking. Mobility is often achieved at the expense of access. For example, I-35 provides North and South mobility at the expense of the urban grid i.e., access to everything the city offers. You gain access by leaving the highway to enter the urban grid, the ultimate provider to access. 

The “Sunk Cost” Tactic 

Probably the most effective tactic employed by all DOTs is a policy known as the “Sunk Cost theory.” If you start two projects at a distance from each other the argument then becomes, “Well, we spent all that money and now we have to connect the projects.” Of course, that’s exactly what TxDOT is doing with their three-part I-35 rebuild. Since there is little opposition North or South of Central Austin, TxDOT proposes to move as fast as possible on both ends to justify the central segment project. 

The Great Sidestep

TxDOT has been planning the I-35 “Capital Express” project through Austin for decades. During their first virtual scoping comment period, between November 12th and December 31st, 2,300 people, including myself submitted good faith comments and ideas for an improved design i.e., the “community alternative.” Naturally, we expected a good-faith response from TxDOT but that did not happen.

On March 5th, just before round two of comments started, TxDOT published their response to the comments from round one. Their response insults the intelligence of all the citizens that took their time to comment. TxDOT’s official response can only be labeled the “Great Sidestep,” or the most completely duplicitous display of manipulation that one can imagine. Their response was nothing more than a collection of prefabricated responses describing the plan that they have had for years. They freely quoted other agencies’ policies as if they supported their plan. Any specific issue raised, such as lowering the design speed, they quoted a number of guidelines and promised to study the issue. If you believe that, they have a freeway to sell you. 

Bypass to Cure Congestion? 

SH 130 E. Austin was sold to the voters as a bypass for I-35, as well as a rail corridor. Highway planners quickly nixed the idea of rail. SH 130 was constructed by a private company which used tolls to return their investment. This obviously created a disincentive to use SH 130 and an incentive to continue to use I-35, leading to massive congestion problems we live with today, including the streams of trucks that choose not to pay the tolls.

Public Opinion?

TxDOT is required by federal law to listen to the general public through what they call public comment periods. The federal law does not provide the detail on how to conduct this process, so the highway planners set the required comment periods with very short time frames in order to limit the public’s ability to participate. Involved citizens who are concerned about the welfare of the community are almost always members of organized groups with bylaws dictating meeting times and voting processes. In other words, it takes a lot of time for citizen groups to comment.  Is this just another example of voter suppression and denial of public opinion?

Congestion, Congestion, Congestion! 

Complaining about congestion has become a regional pastime. This complaint almost always refers to I-35. In a massive study conducted by federal highway officials and TxDOT (Texas Transportation Institute) looked at 100 cities in the US and analyzed traffic over a 24-year period, only to find out that adding more lanes never reduced congestion. More lanes only promote more cost and more sprawl, and therefore more congestion.

The “Scoping Scam”

Highway planners have spent years designing and redesigning I-35, usually with yet another consultant. When they have decided what they choose to do and designed the highway then but only then, they ask for public help in determining the “scope.” The last time they tried out a plan for I-35, a few years ago, they got a tremendous amount of public input, mostly negative. Since they did not appreciate public opinion, they simply declared a new start and threw it all out. If you do not like their plans TxDOT will simply announce that they have decided to give your money to Houston.

A Real First Step 

The first step for a huge project as required by federal law is a purpose and need statement to justify what they already intend to do. The published “purpose and need” statement by TxDOT has one metric: seconds saved over long distances. When in reality, metrics of a community should be based on enhancing the quality of life.  For instance, metrics could consider lives NOT lost in the I-35 corridor, property values NOT diminished by the noise pollution, intellectual development NOT compromised by pollution from I-35, housing and urban economy NOT lost to scaleless and banal highways. And most importantly, our once in a lifetime chance to do our part for global climate change is NOT lost. 

Land Use: Compact, Connected and Robust

The segment of I-35 from the river to Airport Boulevard MUST be capped. The cap allows the reintegration of Austin with East Austin. The cap also allows for the major problems of air and noise pollution to be solved once and for all. By sinking the freeway and capping it through downtown, the Medical District and the University of Texas and by combining access roads into a civilized urban boulevard thereby creating a human scale, walkable, mixed-use PARKWAY, Austin would enjoy several billion dollars of enhanced tax base to pay for the cap with a tax increment bond. That bond would be easily paid off in less than 20 years, and the investments would flow from the taxes forever. The tax base could provide for all forms of community enhancement: parks, playgrounds, schools and great streets. 

Urban Design First

All large-scale high impact projects should originate as urban design visions. Urban design visions require consideration of hundreds if not thousands of often competing issues. Traffic engineering on the other hand considers very few issues beyond saving time for a few drivers at the expense of many in the community.  Traffic engineering is an integral part of urban design, but it is only one issue for consideration and only in the context of the universe of other issues. Traffic engineering routinely ignores the universe of urban issues. Who in their right mind would engineer a building for which there was no need or design?

Where is Rail? The Only Solution to Regional Transportation

The Texas Highway Department was converted by name only to the Texas Department of Transportation, meaning ALL forms of transportation. This expanded role is routinely ignored by TxDOT while consistently blocking other agencies from considering and implementing efficient and long-term cost-efficient systems like rail transit. The fact that traffic engineers are not educated to design rail systems, is no reason not to pursue rail as a significant solution to the problem of congestion, ultimately the only solution. The I-35 corridor offers the best opportunity we will ever have to commit to regional rail, there is no other equally good opportunity. 

Listen to the Urban Land Institute

Urban design as a discipline deals with a vast universe of concerns: human, economic, technical, and political. Regarding I-35, TxDOT policies are carefully designed to limit all concerns beyond moving traffic leading to federally funded disasters in cities. Virtually every city in the US has groups of citizens trying to fight the unresponsive heavy hand of the department of transportation or “DOT.” TxDOT is the Texas branch of the federal department of DOT. The recent weeklong charrette conducted by the national organization Urban Land Institute recommended a two-level planning process beginning with a locally generated urban design plan, “the community alternative,” before moving later to an implementation phase by TxDOT. Remember, thoughtful design always comes before construction. TxDOT is first and foremost a construction agency. 

Freeways Without Futures                                                                                                   

President Dwight D. Eisenhower experienced the autobahn system in Germany in 1945. By 1952, as President he signed The National Interstate & Defense Highways Act.  He fully understood the value of the national highway system linking cities and industries as a critical part of advanced planning in case of war. Highways were an essential part of the national defense system linking cities, he also understood that that same highway should not exist INSIDE the urban fabric. The highway industrial complex did not pay any attention to former President Eisenhower’s understanding of cities and moved as fast as possible to put highways through urban areas. This of course explains why most cities are now trying to roll back the incredible damage done to cities by urban highways. Imagine how much human capital is wasted trying to reverse the mistakes of the urban highway system under the banner of the Department of Transportation, i.e., DOT.

Scale: Human or Otherwise

Human scale is that elusive and magical quality that a person experiences when they feel immersed in their surroundings. Most countries in the world manage to create human scale environments in the absence of the automobile. American cities have yet to figure this out. This of course is why people travel to other places, primarily Europe. Very few places in Austin exhibit human scale, among those places that DO exhibit human scale would be the University of Texas campus, Congress Avenue, and the relatively new 2nd Street District in downtown. The absence of human scale is pervasive especially within the I-35 corridor. Applying the successful principals of 2nd Street District to the I-35 corridor would transform it from a hideously scaled, destructive liability into a world class linear park known as EAST AVENUE PARKWAY.