CoA Staff Letter

The full version of this letter, including all attachments, can be found on the city’s website here.

September 24, 2021

Mr. Tucker Ferguson
Austin District Engineer
Ms. Susan Fraser, Mobility35 Project Manager
Texas Department of Transportation
7901 North IH-35
Austin, Texas 78753

RE: I-35 Capital Express (CapEx) Central Project, Austin, TX
City of Austin Comments on August 2021 Open House

Dear Mr. Ferguson and Ms. Fraser:

Thank you and the staff with TxDOT Austin for your work on the I-35 Capital Express Project. On behalf of the City of Austin, we want to express our appreciation to the Department and to the State for addressing what is one of our most pressing mobility and social equity challenges in Central Texas. Even as we continue to work through our differences in opinion on critical design elements, we recognize the value of this project.

We believe that a limited access highway within the I-35 Corridor is vitally important to the on-going success of Austin and the region. We are firmly on record as to the need for a major transformative project that connects our region to national and worldwide markets, while also providing the connective structures to knit our divided communities back together. We stand ready to continue our collaboration with TxDOT but are anxious for a strong commitment to meaningfully review certain design elements discussed herein.

This communication builds on the first and second Scoping Responses we have shared with TxDOT on Dec. 29, 2020 and Apr. 9, 2021, respectively. Below you will find key areas of concern that the City of Austin needs addressed in the I-35 CapEx Central project, along with additional comments included as attachments:

  • Purpose and Need
  • Safety – Along and Across the Corridor
  • Direct, Indirect and Cumulative Impacts
  • East-West Connectivity
  • Reduce Displacement by Narrowing the Footprint
  • Air Quality Concerns
  • Transit Priority and High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) Operations
  • Actively Manage HOV lanes
  • Incorporate Technology Solutions
  • Utility/Drainage Concerns

Purpose and Need

It is important that the City of Austin and TxDOT be aligned on the mission of the I-35 Cap Ex Central rebuild project. In our second Scoping response letter dated Apr. 9, 2021, we respectfully requested additional items in the Purpose and Need statement to broaden the scope of the project, namely, to add:

Reasonable modifications and equal access to communications will be provided upon request.

  • The need to address/enhance people’s health and safety within the corridor, and
  • The need to acknowledge and address the existing and historic role the facility plays in negatively impacting Austin’s communities of color and the natural environment.

We have seen no changes in the Purpose and Need in the latest TxDOT document, the “Draft Alternatives Evaluation Technical Report” August 2021. We believe the above items are critical to the success of the project and support of our community and again request TxDOT include them in the project Purpose and Need.

Safety- Along and Across the Corridor

In recognizing the importance of I-35, we also understand that the current design is broken – it no longer meets the needs of Central Texans. Its design is antiquated, leading to unacceptable increased safety risks. From our own data, we know that I-35 is one of the deadliest state roadways in our region. We agree with TxDOT that a modern freeway is needed. Our Austin Transportation Department engineers have provided numerous suggested solutions to improve safety design and standards that go beyond traditional highway design for urban areas including intersection design, design speeds, bicycle/pedestrian access and frontage road usage. We look forward to continued teamwork in this area.

Direct, Indirect and Cumulative Impacts

We know that Federal law requires mitigation of direct project impacts. The I-35 corridor has also created numerous indirect and cumulative impacts over its lifetime. Construction of a new highway will exacerbate some of these indirect and cumulative impacts to East-West connectivity, the surrounding community and air quality. We believe TxDOT is also responsible to mitigate these issues as well.

  • East-West Austin Connectivity

In addition to our desire to incorporate improved safety, management, and transit options in the design for the IH-35 CapEx Central, we remain concerned that the future I-35 will continue to be a barrier for residents, cutting off East Austin from the key employment, educational, and entertainment opportunities in Central/West Austin. The I-35 corridor has had a generational community effect in terms of the physical and psychological barrier between east and west Austin. The long-term impacts of physical separation, reduced access to better jobs and opportunities, and increased air and noise pollution along the highway have helped perpetuate a lower wage earning, less healthy population east of the highway. The attached map is a rough estimate and visualization of Areas of Persistent Poverty along the I-35 corridor, using USDOT metrics (data source: 2014-2018 American Community Survey). Although some demographics of the area are changing, the marginalized intergenerational community remains and wishes to preserve its cultural identities and histories that have been pushed aside by the highway.

Replacing the existing at-grade and elevated upper deck structures with a depressed freeway design still presents a physical divide. Austin believes it important to reconnect our neighborhoods both east and west of the divide and make sure that people have numerous opportunities to cross the future corridor, on foot, on bicycle, using transit, as well as via automobile. We need assurance that the preferred alternative aligns with the City’s Downtown Austin Plan goals of developing supportive, positive, and sustainable development with art and placemaking opportunities.

To achieve these goals, we believe sufficiently wide bridge structures or caps should be included in the definition of the base alternatives as mitigation for impacts as part of the project’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) EIS. The ability to allow the cap to be repurposed for public benefit with structures and/or community gathering places should be included. For TxDOT to be successful, we believe that at the very least the supportive structures for future caps and wide bridges need to be constructed by the project to address the direct impacts we anticipate from the base project and the indirect impacts caused to the surrounding neighborhood due to the anticipated construction process. TxDOT estimates construction lasting up to a decade. The cumulative effect of the construction and probable displacements will create long-term economic hardship on the surrounding community that must be mitigated.

In addition, preservation of active transportation connections and corridors planned within the IH-35 corridor is essential. The Austin Transportation Department provided a list of pedestrian, bicycle, trail, and park greenbelt connectivity crossings via letter on January 19, 2021, and a map of “Bicycle and Pedestrian Crossings” to TxDOT for the IH-35 Capital Express North, Central and South projects via letter on May 25, 2021 (both attached). We believe these projects will improve the safety of people along and across the corridor. These crossings would reduce connectivity gaps, remove mobility barriers for lower income populations, and mitigate hot spots for pedestrian-involved crashes. The City requests continued coordination with TxDOT to assure the design of the Capital Express Central, along with North and South projects, include these proposed future crossings.

  • Reduce Displacement by Narrowing the Footprint

Scars remain in the community from the original highway construction displacing black and brown communities to the east and cutting off communities from opportunity. TxDOT must design the I-35 Central project to prevent displacement of community members to the greatest extent possible. TxDOT has identified 147 parcels that are affected within the current alternatives. We look forward to a more definitive study on the potential residential and commercial minority and low-income displacements on a per person rather than parcel basis. Austin believes it is imperative that the width and impact to the remaining community be minimized to reduce the direct and indirect impacts to these historically impacted communities.

In addition to the long-term economic and health impacts, the proposed construction, relocation, and disruption to the community will be a major upheaval for nearly 10 years going forward. Access to our central employment centers (the University of Texas, State Capitol Complex, and Austin Central Business District) is also a primary concern for the City of Austin. Reconstruction of I-35, regardless of the design, will likely be impactful to our community for nearly a decade, so maximizing access to these employment centers during and after construction is critical to Central Texas.

Austin Transportation believes there are multiple ways to reduce or eliminate much of the proposed takings and improve operations through engineering design, such as cantilevered frontage roads, portal ramps, and reviewing operational needs for individual ramps, main lanes, and bypass lanes. etc. The ramping issue is the linchpin to many other design elements, such as the ability to reduce the number of frontage road lanes and achieve a more urban context for speed and safety. By reexamining the volume projections and volume/capacity analysis assumptions and processes included in Traffic Forecasts and Modeling for the four managed lanes and general-purpose lanes with the supplemental collector-distributor lanes we believe we can further refine the needs of the project. For further detail, see ATD’s letter to TxDOT on Build Alternatives and potential design concepts, September 13, 2021 (attached).

We request that State and City design engineers work to fully analyze the opportunities presented by these concepts to further narrow the corridor. We request that together we thoroughly analyze all viable design alternatives that could reduce the need for additional right-of-way and displacements. The current design proposals by TxDOT displace too many potential properties. These impacts, and all direct and indirect/cumulative impacts, identified through the NEPA process should be mitigated as part of the project.

A cantilevered approach to reduce the footprint combined with capping the structure to reconnect communities should be considered necessary mitigation to remedy direct impacts of the project. A cap should be implemented to facilitate access to social and job opportunities and express cultural and historical features important to our community to remedy the indirect and cumulative impacts caused by the corridor.

  • Air Quality Concerns

While we have been fortunate as a community to remain in attainment for federal air quality guidelines, Austin is still on the brink of failure into non-attainment. Those communities closest to the I-35 facility, particularly black and brown communities, for decades have borne the worst effects of a congested highway and long-term and cumulative exposure to transportation air pollution at their back door.

As the new widened facility will induce high traffic volumes to the area, a serious and substantial study is needed to determine the health effects the current and proposed new facility has on the health of area residents within the airshed.

Relying on Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards for air pollution reduction is not sufficient when the overall amount of traffic will increase. We request the project, operations and ancillary facilities be designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Austin Transportation believes that many of the technical solutions we have offered will greatly aid healthy communities and pollution reduction, including:

  • A reduced footprint and cantilevered and capped highways that filter pollutants,
  • Tree plantings for shade, aesthetics, and pollution reduction,
  • Safe east-west access that promote non-motorized crossings, and
  • Direct portal entrances that can reduce frontage road and city grid congestion
  • Prioritized transit access and supportive facilities to encourage high occupancy vehicle use

Transit Priority and High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) Operation

Through our Austin Strategic Transportation Plan (ASMP), Austin has adopted a 50-50 transportation modal split by 2039. The adopted ASMP, as well as the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) adopted Regional Mobility Plan seek to reduce trips throughout the region. To meet the long-term future needs of the Austin region, it is critically important that we improve transit access into central Austin, incentivizing the use of higher occupancy forms of transportation over the single occupant vehicle. The current design of two HOV lanes in each direction through downtown is concerning. HOVs are typically destined for the primary employment destinations in the region. The current design is one geared for through-demand. Please share analysis that show the viability of this concept.

We also believe that investment in critical transit enhancements within the corridor are essential to the success of the TxDOT project. Ramping and remote park-and-ride facilities that encourage travelers to convert from private single-occupant vehicles to higher occupancy vehicles and into the automated rubber-tired fleets of the future are critical to the success of Central Texas. An expanded I-35 will generate higher numbers of trips. The City of Austin believes this direct impact can and must be mitigated using every tool available, including construction of transit facilities in conjunction with the overall project.

If the facility is to be managed only by vehicle occupancy, the City of Austin requests that one of these HOV lanes be used as dedicated access to the downtown arterial grid system, reducing the number of through-HOV lanes to one in each direction. We also request that a full operational analysis by HOV industry experts be conducted to provide improved information on the long-term sustainability of such an HOV concept, including an analysis of enforcement procedures and costs. Will the State enforce the vehicle occupancy requirements, or will this cost fall to local law enforcement agencies? This is important because it creates an unfunded mandate and direct impact on local law enforcement agencies that must be mitigated by the State as the proponent for this project.

Actively Manage HOV/HOT lanes

If the current four-lane managed lane design is to be maintained, then we request that the management of the central managed lanes be designed as HOV/Toll or HOT lanes and allowed to convert at an appropriate time based on the operational characteristics of the facility. We understand by previous communication that TxDOT Austin is currently restricted from looking at toll-managed solutions. We request that this limitation either be removed or that a HOT lane alternative still be evaluated, assuming initial operation is managed as HOV only but expressly allows for conversion in the future. We remain concerned that a 2+ HOV designation will lead to overcrowding of the facility resulting in inefficient transit operations and that a 3+ HOV designation will lead to a perceived underutilization of the facility. Only with a future toll option can we expect efficient future operations.

As previously communicated, when CAMPO supported regional funding of $1 Billion for the I-35 Cap Ex project it was with a commitment that preservation of a future tolling option be maintained. We request that the EIS expressly maintains this capability.

Incorporate Technology Solutions

We implore TxDOT to not only assure that the facility meets the latest geometric requirements, but that the future freeway also incorporate technology and design principals that maximize the ability to manage the facility in real time. The new facility should include technology management capabilities that allow real-time dynamic management of travel demand on the central managed lanes; the ability to adjust and harmonize speeds variably so that traffic compression waves can be managed; and the future freeway must be able to accommodate and incentivize future modal investments in automated vehicles, rubber-tired transit, low emission vehicles and other yet to be defined emerging technologies.

Utility/Drainage Concerns and Coordination with Project Connect

Austin Water and Austin Energy have documented concerns about conflicts related to current infrastructure and future projects in memos attached to this letter.

The City is far along in its plans for the Waterloo Greenway and the operation of the Waller Creek tunnel. If the preferred alternative design conflicts with these projects or with the city’s stormwater management system, early coordination is needed with our Watershed Protection Department. With future updates to Atlas 14 in mind, please consider how flood mitigation strategies can protect assets and the broader community.

The City, along with Capital Metro, is making a major investment in high-capacity transit. These plans too, are far along and we ask TxDOT to coordinate with the region to assure these investments are not delayed.

Commitment to the Best Project

The I-35 Capital Express project is a once in a community lifetime opportunity to deliver a truly transformative solution to the current I-35 challenge. We know that this highway is not only the main street for Central Texas, but it is the main street for the State. Please consider all viable alternatives as part of the NEPA process. Design the future I-35 project to minimize real impacts to our community. Configure the future I-35 project with long-term sustainable operations in mind, directly imbedding within the design and the EIS technologies, and management capabilities that allow this project to be sustainable. Mitigate direct and indirect impacts suffered by our community by collaborating with the City in realizing the ability to reconnect east and west/central Austin, building the superstructure necessary for caps and wide bridges.

We want to work with TxDOT, regional and state leaders to make sure this is a project that all Texans can be proud of for generations to come.

Sincerely,

Gina Fiandaca
Assistant City Manager
Mobility Services
City of Austin

Cc:

Steve Adler, Mayor of Austin
Austin City Council Members
Spencer Cronk, Austin City Manager
Robert Spillar, P.E., Director, Austin Transportation Department
Al Alonzi, FHWA Texas Division Administrator
Ashby Johnson, Executive Director, Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization
Judge Andy Brown, Travis County
Laura Huffman, President and CEO, Austin Chamber of Commerce
Dewitt Peart, President and CEO, Downtown Austin Alliance