September 23, 2021
Mr. Tucker Ferguson
TxDOT Austin District
Ms. Susan Fraser
TxDOT Austin District
Mobility 35 Program Manager
I-35 Capital Express Central Project Team
Re: I-35 Capital Express Central project
To Whom it May Concern:
Please accept the following comments I am submitting on behalf of The Congress for the New Urbanism Central Texas Chapter (CNU-CTX) Board of Directors.
CNU-CTX is the local chapter of The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). Our mission is to support building places people love in Central Texas and it is informed by The Charter for the New Urbanism. We also make reference to CNU’s semi-annual publication, “Freeways Without Futures”, which has featured I-35 through Central Austin in the last two releases of that report.
That report on I-35 in Austin states:
Everyone in Austin agrees that Interstate 35 doesn’t work. The highway was built to act as a chasm 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, Austin residents have begun questioning whether there’s a better solution than simply rebuilding and expanding the highway.
We of course agree that I-35 in its current form fails the community in multiple ways. However, we cannot support an effort to rebuild the highway until TxDOT’s current proposals are significantly improved and recognize the generational opportunity to transform the corridor into something far more useful and beneficial to the community.
What Should be Studied in NEPA.
We think that at a baseline the following should be included in any NEPA study and failure to do so will undermine the legitimacy of that study:
- Alternatives put forward with strong community backing: Reconnect Austin, Rethink35,
and the DAA/ULI proposals.
- A thorough exploration of environmental justice impacts of the freeway (historic and as
proposed) and plans for mitigation for past racist actions.
- A feasibility analysis examining engineering and finance mechanisms that would allow for a designation switch routing the primary I-35 route around the city on SH-130, SH 45 and US 183 allowing for a surface business route/main street on the existing I-35 corridor through central Austin.
- Through traffic, NAFTA traffic, and all trips (whether local, regional, or extra-regional) with destinations outside of the Austin urban core should be encouraged (through tolling and other mechanisms) to use bypass routes around the city rather than using the existing I-35 corridor through the dense and over utilized sections of the existing corridor.
- Evaluate local noise and air pollution impacts, including a study of any health-related impacts on the residents who live close to the freeway that might result from an expansion of the freeway.
- This must include a baseline study of existing conditions, as well as a robust study of future impacts.
- Consider contributions to climate related impacts and consistency with adopted City of Austin climate related goals memorialized in the Austin Community Climate Plan.
- Determine overall impacts to Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) in the Central Texas region against a no-build scenario.
Design Considerations for a Rebuilt I-35
Any rebuild scenario should adhere to the following:
- The resulting infrastructure should conform to Texas Transportation Commission Chairman J. Bruce Bugg’s statement on February 27, 2020 that “our commitment is no wider and no higher… What we’re trying to do is disrupt local businesses as least as possible.”
- We cannot support any ROW expansion that displaces people’s homes and livelihoods; replacing productive land uses with transportation infrastructure that will have negative impacts of noise, local air pollution, and climate impacts and that facilitates more sprawl development.
- Traffic with origins and destinations outside of Downtown and the central core should be encouraged to use US183, Mopac, and SH 130, and the use of I-35 for through travel should be discouraged.
- Designed in such a way to accommodate and facilitate City of Austin plans for transit and other multi-modal paths that cross the corridor.
- Any capacity expansion should be limited to a single additional managed lane in each direction.
- Speeds on the main lanes, bypass lanes, entrance and exit ramps should be context sensitive to being in a tight urban area and slow enough to shorten and reduce the impacts of entrance and exit ramps, clear zones and other design features necessary to accommodate cars safely at speed.
- Surface features such as frontage roads and cross bridges and/or caps (“stitches”) should be designed as normal city streets with appropriate design and desired operating speeds for dense urban environments and meeting City of Austin Great Streets standards through the downtown sections.
- The operating and design speed of surface streets, throughout the entire length of this project, should be no more than 30mph.
- Frontage roads should provide parallel parking at curb edge to buffer traffic.
- Frontage roads should include a street tree furniture zone with street trees planted in the ground every 20’ to 30’ on-center.
- Shared use paths adjacent to frontage roads should meet a 12’ standard.
- Bicycle / low speed e-device and pedestrian facilities should be separated.
- Clear zones are not appropriate on surface streets in an urban context and should never be included in any design that has clearly set a goal to enhance multi-modal connectivity and active transportation options.
- Turning radii should be tight to slow turning traffic and slip lanes should not be used.
- Stitches should have landscaped planter barriers and decorative fencing between sidewalks and depressed through lanes below.
- Stitches and caps should be able to accommodate buildings such as park pavilions, band shells, plazas and food truck pads.
- Connectivity across the freeway should be improved with:
- More frequent connections between East and West Austin.
- Improved infrastructure that accommodates all users safely and comfortably across the corridor.
Comments Regarding the TxDOT Proposed Alternatives
The following are specific comments regarding those alternatives TxDOT will take (or not) into the NEPA study.
Alternative 1. We believe Alternative 1 should have been afforded more opportunity for public input before it was eliminated from the study. The public was never given an opportunity to voice comments regarding this alternative prior to its elimination from contention.
Alternative 2. While Alternative 2 is preferable to Alternative 3 much more could be done to improve on the schematics and reduce the adjacent property impacts. We have the following specific comments with regard to the proposed design of alternative 2.
- The lanes through the upper decks to 51st should be cantilevered on both sides of the freeway in order to avoid the takings and widening of the highway through that tight and important section to minimize impacts to adjacent neighborhoods, University of Texas and St. David’s Hospital among other businesses and community assets.
- The treatment proposed by TxDOT for I-35 between Manor Rd. and Dean Keeton, which significantly narrows the footprint of the highway, should be used through the urban core, north central neighborhoods, and downtown.
- The proposed stitch / cap on either side of 6th and 5th Streets should have the highest priority for uses that tie the adjacent activity districts together.
- Retaining walls between 4th Street and Cesar Chavez should be engineered so as to be able to accommodate a future potential expansion of the Convention Center on a cap structure.
Alternative 3. The noise and visual impacts of the elevated fly-overs in Alternative 3 are not warranted by the slightly reduced property impacts without full mitigation.
An Austin Vision for Austin
We submit these comments for the record and encourage TxDOT to work closely with the communities that abut the freeway, City and County officials, and the Travis County State Delegation who are elected to represent the interests of City of Austin residents, and with all the major stakeholders throughout the urban core to improve upon the ultimate design of I-35.
We quote from Freeways Without Futures:
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 should follow Project Connect’s lead and make sure its actions work in concert with Austin’s own plans for its future.
We could not agree more. A robust and responsive community engagement process is the best way for TxDOT to build support for a massive restructuring of this corridor and we encourage TxDOT to consider how Project Connect built that support such that voters ultimately approved it by a healthy majority.
We stress that this is a generational opportunity to remake a critical corridor through the heart of Austin and that all stakeholders should take a long view about what we want the city to be, and not be beholden to prior well-intentioned but ultimately misguided and mistaken notions about the future of our community. For the community vision for our city we invite the readers of the letter to consider (in addition to the voter approved investment into Project Connect) the following adopted plans and initiatives by the City of Austin as helpful guideposts for reimagining what the I-35 corridor could be:
- The Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan (grow as a Compact and Connected city)
- The Austin Strategic Mobility Plan (50/50 mode share)
- Vision Zero Action Plan (eliminate transportation deaths and serious injuries by 2025)
- Austin Community Climate Action Plan (net-zero community-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 2050)
A Final Note on Phasing.
Reconstruction of the freeway will be massively disruptive for many years. Project Connect is in the NEPA study currently headed for final design and will be under construction in approximately 5 years. We believe it makes sense to allow for the Blue and Orange lines to be complete and functioning as a system prior to beginning construction on I-35. This would mean having a functioning high-quality high-capacity transit system to give people an alternative to get around the city while the freeway is under construction. Phasing the projects in this manner would also allow more time for the city, TxDOT, advocates, and other stakeholders to come together on a project that builds consensus and unites the community, instead of dividing it.
Mateo S. Barnstone on behalf of The Board of Directors
Executive Director, CNU-CTX