CNU – Letter to TxDOT 09/21

September 21, 20201

I-35 Capital Express Central Project
Attn: Project Team
7901 N. I-35
Austin, TX 78753

To whom it may concern:

On behalf of the Congress for the New Urbanism, a national nonprofit that champions walkable urbanism, I would like to submit the following comments on the I-35 Capital Express Central Project.

Everyone in Austin agrees that Interstate 35 doesn’t work. The highway was built to act as a physical barrier between downtown and communities of color in East Austin, and is the city’s most dangerous corridor for pedestrians. It is clear that in its current form I-35 serves no one particularly well and as the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) considers what to do next, it needs to take any expansion of I-35 through Austin off the table and instead seriously study as part of its EIS the community-oriented alternatives put forward by Reconnect Austin, Rethink35, and the Downtown Austin Alliance and their benefits for the quality of life for Austin residents.

TxDOT appears adamant that there is only one solution for I-35’s woes, a $4.9b highway expansion to up to 20 lanes, but has provided little justification for the necessity of this project. Current TxDOT alternatives hinge on traffic forecasts that consistently overestimate actual levels. And TxDOT’s own engineers recognize the project will do next to nothing to improve travel times or relieve congestion, as it’s become widely accepted that highway expansion creates additional travel demand that will absorb any new road capacity. At the August 31st briefing of Austin City Council, TxDOT District Engineer Tucker Ferguson admitted as much and instead tried to claim that the project is about “moving more people than vehicles.” The community-oriented alternatives that Reconnect Austin, Rethink35, and the Downtown Austin Alliance are the best routes to achieve that goal, not an expansion of the highway.

When considering alternatives, TxDOT needs additional metrics to evaluate alternatives, including how each alternative affects pedestrian and bicyclist accessibility and safety, the integration of public transit networks, the contextual alignment of land use and transportation networks, local economic development, and air quality impacts along the corridor. Metrics like these are a true measure of the quality of life impacts an alternative will have.

Each of the three community-oriented alternatives represent a vast improvement over TxDOT’s proposed expansions in these quality of life metrics. Reconnect Austin’s solution keeps I-35 within its current footprint, depresses 3.4 miles of it (from Holly Street to Airport Boulevard), and covers it with a cap. On top of the cap, Reconnect Austin proposes a new boulevard consistent with Austin’s Great Streets Master Plan, which includes generous space for pedestrians, cyclists, and dedicated transit lanes– all in line with the goal of “moving more
people than vehicles.”

Reconnect Austin’s plan has a lot of merit. It separates local traffic from through traffic, eliminating the need for the overly-wide frontage roads that facilitate cars getting on and off the highway. Through the combination of capping the highway, shrinking the street on top of it to a more fitting size, and eliminating frontage roads, Reconnect Austin’s plans reclaim over 130 acres of land for development, of which 24.4 acres would be directly adjacent to downtown. The opportunity to reclaim this land and create an affordable housing supply, immediately adjacent to jobs, would reduce the number of commuters on the road.

Rethink35 proposes removing 8 miles of I-35 altogether and replacing it with a boulevard that includes regional trains, bus lanes, protected bicycle lanes, and wide sidewalks and incorporates anti-displacement measures for nearby communities. Inspired by previous freeway removals, Rethink35 points toward climate change, traffic crashes, automobile dependency, and induced sprawl as to why I-35 should be removed. Through traffic can be rerouted to SH 130, outside of Austin’s core.

The Downtown Austin Alliance proposes caps at several key locations to create blocks- long park spaces, similar to the Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, which has been a tremendous boon to the city’s economic development.

All three of these coalitions recognize I-35 in its current form as a liability for Austin and seek different ways to create assets along the corridor that provide community benefits.

As TxDOT considers what to do with I-35, it needs to stop thinking about the highway in a vacuum and instead should focus on how its investments can achieve multiple goals simultaneously. Austin’s citizens have made clear their desires for the future of transportation and it is not more highway building. On the 2020 ballot, Austinites voted overwhelmingly to fund Project Connect, a $7.1b initiative to greatly expand the city’s public transit, and to invest $460m in walking, bicycling, and safer streets. Project Connect is also notable in that its budget includes $300 million in anti-displacement funds and so provides a template for keeping residents in place when infrastructure investments increase a neighborhood’s amenities, like a highway cap. With I-35, TxDOT’s should follow Project Connect’s lead and make sure its actions work in concert with Austin’s own plans for its future by committing to no further expansion of the highway and studying these three community-oriented alternatives as part of the projects’ EIS.


Ben Crowther
Program Manager
The Highways to Boulevards Initiative
Congress for the New Urbanism