December 30, 2020
I-35 Capital Express Central Project
Attn: Project Team
1608 W. 6th Street
Austin, TX 78703
RE: Capital Express Program Comments
As elected leaders in Austin and Travis County, we are grateful to the Texas Transportation Commission (TTC) and Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) for including full funding for the I-35 Capital Express North, Central, and South projects in the most recently approved Unified Transportation Program (UTP). These projects represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to achieve several regional and local transportation goals. We recognize that this funding could have been programmed for critical projects in other cities, and we thank you for providing Austin and Travis County with an opportunity for a safer, more efficient, and reliable I-35.
We have collectively heard a variety of ideas, questions, and concerns from our constituents and community stakeholders regarding the Capital Express program, and provide the following comments that are applicable to all three projects.
It is vital that improved safety for all users be recognized as the primary Purpose and Need for all three Capital Express projects. I-35 is among the most dangerous roadways in the state and is by far the deadliest roadway in Austin. Within the past five years, over 5,300 traffic accidents have occurred on the segments of I-35 in Austin. Austin Strategic Mobility Plan Designing for Safety Policy 5 is to minimize the safety risks of highways by working closely with transportation partners to ensure that the safety of vulnerable roadway users is a primary consideration in the design and operation of new highways and retrofits of existing highways. City of Austin taxpayers have recently committed tens of million dollars of local funds to reduce traffic deaths and serious injuries in our city, and while much progress is being made, we cannot meet our goals until safety on I-35 dramatically improves. We are heartened by the TTC’s own ambitious goals to reduce deadly crashes in Texas by half by 2035 and to zero by 2050. With so much consensus regarding the need to reduce traffic fatalities, we believe the Purpose and Need statement should be revised to reflect safety as a priority.
Increasing Person-Carrying Capacity
The Austin Strategic Mobility Plan Roadway System Policy 3 is to increase the person-carrying capacity of the highway system by collaborating with TxDOT, CTRMA, CAMPO, Capital Metro, and other agencies in the region to increase the ability of the highway system to carry more people by managing new and existing capacity. We recognize that the existing highway system, including I-35, does more than just carry vehicles; it moves people. Unfortunately, the number of people it moves is not enough, as most of those vehicles are only carrying a single person. Without significantly expanding the highway system we will not be able to carry more vehicles, but we know that it is not possible to expand these regional roadways enough to adequately serve the projected demand in the limited space that exists. It is imperative that we use strategies that increase the person-carrying capacity of the highway system to move more people and not just vehicles. We believe strongly that the addition of new, non-toll managed capacity will not sufficiently accomplish this goal. The use of dynamic pricing for toll-managed lanes on North MoPac, and the resulting dramatic increase in transit use, should serve as a model for what is possible on I-35. To that end, we appreciate the assurances received from our District Engineer that the I-35 projects will not be funded with Proposition 1 or 7 funds, nor will the environmental process be conducted in a manner that precludes a later decision on the use of tolls to manage new capacity on I-35. We recommend that the Purpose and Need statement be revised to reflect increasing person-carrying capacity as a priority, and the range of alternatives to be analyzed include the use of dynamic toll managed lanes with appropriate access for managed lanes to major trip generators in downtown and central Austin.
Prioritize and Enhance Commuter Transit
In addition to considering dynamic tolling to maximize person-carrying capacity on I-35, prioritizing transit is critical to achieving local goals for I-35. Austin Strategic Mobility Plan Public Transportation System Policy 2 is to enhance commuter public transportation service by supporting commuter public transportation service from outlying neighborhoods and surrounding communities into and out of Austin activity centers utilizing managed lanes. Commuter transit service has the potential to be more productive and time-competitive by prioritizing transit on Austin’s highways using flexible and managed lanes. Commuter routes are often limited due to their less frequent yet more direct “one-seat rides.” However, we have seen transit ridership increase by more than 65% for routes using the express lanes on MoPac, where the speed and volume of the lanes are managed and public transit users ride toll-free. We recommend that the Purpose and Need statement be revised to reflect enhancing commuter transit as a priority, and the range of alternatives to be analyzed include designs that allow for maximum efficiency of transit, including direct connector ramps for transit and park and ride facilities, and that are fully aligned with the Project Connect System Plan, including the planned park and ride in the vicinity of Slaughter Lane.
Removing I-35 as a Physical and Social Barrier
The construction of I-35 resulted in the further isolation and segregation of communities of color on the east side of Austin. Austin Strategic Mobility Plan Equity Policy 1 is to acknowledge and learn from the negative effects of past transportation and land use decisions by recognizing that historically, communities of color, low-income communities, and people with disabilities have been most negatively impacted by transportation and land use policy and infrastructure due to barriers leading to a lack of representation and institutional power. We are heartened by early indications that TxDOT will consider design concepts which would remove I-35 as a physical and symbolic barrier by depressing main travel lanes, removing elevated sections, and reconnecting portions of Austin’s surface street grid. We recommend that the Purpose and Need statement be revised to reflect removal of I-35 as a physical and social barrier as a priority, and the range of alternatives to be analyzed include designs that allow for decks to be added over depressed sections, which could serve as parks or opportunities to serve other community needs, thus further mitigating the negative effects of past transportation and land use decisions. Further, we share our community’s concern with proposed new elevated sections for Capital Express South and a possible elevated scenario for Capital Express Central. We recommend the range of alternatives to be analyzed include designs that minimize the construction of any new elevated sections, as these may repeat mistakes of the past by erecting new barriers separating parts of our city, with disproportionate burdens placed upon low income residents and communities of color.
Again, we thank the Commission and TxDOT staff for the commitment to this program of projects. We share the goal of maximizing the safety and effectiveness of our transportation system and appreciate your consideration of these comments.
Steve Adler, Mayor
Natasha Harper-Madison, City Council Member D1
Ann Kitchen, City Council Member D5
Paige Ellis, City Council Member D8
Alison Alter, City Council Member D10