Cost Analysis: TxDOT vs. the Community

Who among us doesn’t appreciate a bargain, especially if what you spend your money on is far superior to any alternative? Such is the situation with the “rebuilding of I-35” as an even wider “car sewer” that has been proposed by TxDOT. Compare TxDOT’s ham-fisted plans for I-35 to the “community alternative” that was conceived through years of meetings by a group of concerned citizens.

TxDOT refused to consider sinking the main lanes through Austin at first. That is, until politicians started to pay attention to public opinion about the idea of removing the barrier that has existed between East Austin and downtown, along with UT, since It’s tragic construction in the 1950s. Public opinion prevailed in 2020 when TxDOT read the tea leaves and declared that the highway would be depressed after all but with no definitive plan.

The idea of Austin creating a development plan on the land presently wasted by the “access roads,” i.e., “frontage roads” that provide direct high-speed access to the highway was routinely rejected by TxDOT.

The “community alternative” advocacy groups posited that if you simply replaced the “access roads” from both sides with a beautiful boulevard above the main lanes, you could use the new land on both sides for private development, creating up to $6 billion in tax base.

This simple and logical move would create a permanent fund in new tax base to pay for the reconnection of the grid as well as the total rebuilding of that corridor, curing 70 years of destruction. In other words, transforming Austin’s greatest liability into one of Austin’s greatest assets. With smart planning, the whole thing pays for itself with tax increment financing.

Although TxDOT was forced to concede that they would indeed sink the main lanes, they steadfastly refused to agree to any changes to the frontage roads. At that point, community advocates stood up and recommended that the frontage roads be combined into a beautiful tree-lined boulevard directly on top of the sunken main lanes. Utilizing the same footprint twice results in zero new “land cost.”

The idea of a humanized boulevard was so attractive that TxDOT quickly announced their latest great idea: a “boulevard.” Unfortunately, they plan to put it on the west side of the right of way (R.O.W.), eliminating the primary source of the proposed value creation within the corridor. But wait – it gets worse. This proposal would push the highway further into East Austin (north of 32nd Street) and create no opportunity for much-needed economic development, creating the barrier of all barriers.

What follows is a detailed analysis of the cost-based approach. Most of the numbers are factual and assumptions are noted.

  1. TxDOT is currently analyzing three alternatives. Beyond No Build, TxDOT’s Alternative 2 and Modified Alternative 3 are harmful to the city but dressed up as “improvements.” The Reconnect Austin proposal is derived from a concept that deals with community and people’s welfare, i.e., the “community alternative,” created by the people, for the people.
  2. The corridor is 3.8 miles long, from south of Lambie to just north of Airport Blvd., i.e., halfway to 51st Street.
  3. The following quantities are common to both concepts: Area/Length/Boundaries/Unit Cost, etc.
  4. TxDOT assumes the existence of very limited caps, which TxDOT calls “stitches.” R.O.W. width for these “stitches” varies wildly, as does cost.
  5. The community concept assumes a full cap for the 3.8-mile length and a R.O.W. that is set at 204 feet.
  6. The TxDOT scheme assumes NO change to frontage roads whatsoever and minimal changes to ramps that TxDOT has previously declared unsafe.
  7. Reconnect Austin assumes that the frontage roads disappear and re-emerge in two forms: (A) the boulevard on the cap functions as an access road, and (B) “collector-distributor” (CD) lanes below the main lanes connect to east/west streets through “portal ramps” with assumed comparable costs.

Overall, we can assume that this will be a “joint venture” between TxDOT and the City of Austin, not the usual process where the city has no voice and TxDOT simply plans to extort the taxpayers of Austin. Such a joint venture should assume that TxDOT has all the money they need to build their sunken highway with portal ramps and that the cost of repairing the historical damage to the corridor can be paid for through tax increment financing.


  • The taxpayers of Texas deserve to know the real cost of TxDOT’s plans to rebuild I-35 higher and wider, i.e., even more destructive than it is now.
  • Austin has not received any credible statement of cost in dollars and certainly no accounting of social, environmental, and most important of all LOST OPPORTUNITY COSTS.
  • The community alternative speaks to all direct as well as indirect costs, but more importantly the endless opportunities it will provide for a greater city.
  • Such a huge investment in our city’s future deserves a much closer look to determine the direct costs of each plan in two categories ONLY: land and construction.
  • A quick look at the two concepts clearly indicates the community concept costs less and does a great deal more. For starters, TxDOT’s plans call for a much wider R.O.W., requiring considerably higher costs. It also contains a plan to buy 142 private properties on the east side via “eminent domain.”
  • To date, TxDOT has reluctantly agreed to two concepts because of public opinion:
    • Depress the main lanes, although they continue to quibble about the distance.
    • Combine the current frontage roads into one so-called “boulevard.” Yet, they say they won’t put the “boulevard” on the cap where the land is a much lower cost per square foot, but rather on the west side of the corridor, where the land has the maximum value to the taxpayers. This of course leaves the open ditch (“THE CHASM”) as the new and improved barrier between downtown and East Austin, eliminating future development potential in this corridor.
  • Since most people understand dollars more easily than concepts, this paper will only deal with “hard costs,” i.e., dollar comparisons. The quality-of-life issues will be dealt with separately.


  • The length of the corridor is 3.8 miles for both concepts.
  • The R.O.W. for the Reconnect Austin concept is always the same: 204 ft. This concept utilizes alternatives to TxDOT’s frontage roads.
  • The R.O.W. for TxDOT’s concept is assumed to be 408 ft on average, with assumed access roads.
  • The Reconnect Austin section shows 2 retaining walls.
  • TxDOT sections vary wildly but show an average of 6 retaining walls.
  • The Reconnect Austin concept requires NO ADDITIONAL R.O.W.
  • TxDOT’s concept requires an additional land acquisition of 142 properties.

The following table summarizes and compares well-documented issues of construction.

Reconnect AustinTxDOT
Land Acquisition Cost$0$558,000,000
Excavation Cost$68,614$101,902,250
Retaining Wall Construction Cost$18,057,600$54,172,800
Cost of Caps & Stitches$1,483,791,000$1,090,248,875
Cost of All Lanes ($ per lane mile)$60,800,000$76,000,000


The Reconnect Austin concept is built on the twin goals of community benefit and the creation of a tax base to support the quality of life for Austinites now and in the future. TxDOT assumes they are building the cheaper version of this project, but the table above shows this is untrue. TxDOT’s concept is more expensive, requires the taking of land, and offers no significant return on investment. The Reconnect Austin community concept is cheaper, a better investment, and puts the people of Austin first.

This op-ed can be downloaded here.