“Since it was built about 50 years ago, Interstate 35 has been an enormous physical and psychological barrier through downtown Austin. Partly elevated, partly sunk, it’s the dividing line between what locals refer to as “east Austin” and plain old Austin. It’s also a major NAFTA trade corridor that carries 250,000 vehicles a day, and is considered one of the most congested freeways in the country. I-35 is due for repair, and naturally TxDOT has proposed a traditional rebuilding and widening project.

“Because the freeway is so widely used, tearing it down just didn’t seem  practical, Black said. The plan is partly inspired by a similar project in Dallas that capped the Woodall Rodgers Freeway. Now above the highway people play chess and ping-pong at the Klyde Warren Park, which opened last year. There are many other precedents, said Black, like Millennium Park in Chicago, which sits on top of rail yards.

“If TxDOT builds just another freeway using a bucket of tax money, it becomes just another recurring expense,” said Black. “If they take our approach … it becomes a recurring asset.”

This event is free and light snacks will be available.
There is a cash bar and menu.
The meeting will be in the North Dining Room of Sholz Garten.

Could the ambitious vision to “cut and cap” Interstate 35 through Austin be the key to transforming downtown and reclaiming up to 30 acres of land at the heart of the region for people, rather than solely for cars?

CNU-CTX Director Emeritus and longtime Austin urban champion Sinclair Black and a growing group of community allies, believes this is so. This effort to “Reconnect Austin” has been gaining momentum as efforts to rework this section of I-35 are currently being explored.

This month, we have an incredible opportunity to hear from a diverse and insightful panel at our CNU-CTX Cafe Urban on this hot topic. Our speakers will look at the potential of I-35 through downtown from an urban design perspective and explore just how this transformational project can impact Austin’s built environment for generations. Speakers include:

  • Peter Park, City Planner, Teacher and former Planning Director of  Denver, Colorado and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he helped implement the removal of the elevated Park East freeway.
  • Patrick Kennedy, Partner in Space Between Design Studio and Founder of A New Dallas, which is working toward the removal of IH345, an elevated highway in downtown Dallas.
  • Alan Holt, Principal Planner, Urban Design Division, City of Austin, who has focused his career as an architect on creating healthy, vibrant communities through participatory planning and urban design.
  • Sinclair Black, architect, author, educator and urban designer, who has received widespread recognition for his efforts on behalf of Austin’s natural and man-made environments.
Don’t miss this chance to gain some key insights into what it would take to realize this vision and how other communities have overcome obstacles.

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.

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has opened their Virtual Open House.

This is your opportunity to let TxDOT know how you would like the urban core of I-35 rebuilt (from Lady Bird Lake to MLK).  They have two alternatives to comment on:

1.       Rebuild the Urban Core of I-35 much like it is today, where the main lanes are elevated over our surface streets.

2.      Rebuild the Urban Core of I-35 with depressed main lanes, with bridges and caps across, at surface street level.

We at Reconnect Austin are advocating for a full cap that truly reconnects Austin and fully restores the fabric of our city.  The Reconnect Austin alternative is not posted on TxDOT’s Virtual Open House.  However, we urge you to advocate for the depressed alternative they are currently showing.

It is critical that TxDOT hear from our community at this time.  If TxDOT hears from YOU that Austin prefers the depressed alternative, we will be closer to creating the best solution for Austin.

To view TxDOT’s alternatives for the Urban Core follow this link: http://www.mobility35openhouse.com/Location/Segment5/Location.aspx                    

Please forward this message to your membership, your friends, your social network, and your co-workers.  We need as many people as possible to follow the link and let TxDOT know what they believe would be the best choice for Austin.

Ignacio Garcia, “Underground highway would have built-in safety features,” KXAN, June 26, 2013

A dramatic scene played out on Austin’s busiest roadway Monday when flames engulfed a tractor trailer on Interstate 35 near Riverside Drive. Witnesses described explosion and large flames shooting out a trailer loaded with pork bellies.

Eight hours later, the roads finally reopened.

New plans to move a section of the interstate have raised several questions, including what would happen in the event of a large fire in the tunnel?

“An accident inside a tunnel would make things a little bit more difficult, but no more difficult I would assume than what we had yesterday when we had to block off the entire southbound lanes,” said Palmer Buck with the Austin Fire Department. “We just have to work on contingency features if we did have a wreck in that facility how we’d move traffic around.”

Those are the challenges the fire department would have to consider as cut and cap supporters move towards burying a stretch of the interstate to create a tunnel that would add 30 acres of parks, stores and office space above.

“If you’re underground you have to have standard pipe systems that we can hook up to,” Buck said, “as well as some other protection systems and exits, if they are trapped in the tunnel, to exit out of.”

Safety was one of the topics in Tuesday’s open house at Akins High School as Austinites met to discuss future highway designs of the busy interstate. The idea of a “depressed” highway design is one of two being discussed.

“They could be built to have caps on top of them, not for the entire segment but for pieces of it,” said Kelli Reyna with TxDOT. “You could have caps on the depressed sections.”

(TxDOT’s) Reyna says all safety infrastructure for emergency services would be built, including built-in escape routes underground. “They are depressed main lanes, but the frontage roads would remain on the sides of the roadway,” she said. “That’s so that you can continue to have access onto and off of I-35.”

The cut and cap plan idea is still years away, but firefighters say they’ll be ready for whatever happens, whether it’s a capped tunnel or open road.