NCINC – Letter to TxDOT 04/21

James M. Bass
Executive Director
Texas Department of Transportation
125 East 11th Street
Austin, Texas 78701

Susan Fraser, P.E., CFM
I-35 Program Manager
Texas Department of Transportation
P.O. Box 15426
Austin, Texas 78761-5426

Tucker Ferguson, P.E.
North Austin Area Engineer
Texas Department of Transportation
P.O. Box 15426
Austin, Texas 78761-5425

Sara Behunek
Director of Communications and Strategy
1608 West 6th Street
Austin, Texas 78703

09 April 2021

Dear Mr. Bass, Ms. Fraser, Mr. Ferguson and Ms. Behunek,

As part of the Public Scoping Period #2 for the I-35 Capital Express Central Project, the North Central I-35 Neighborhood Coalition (NCINC) is pleased to submit our scoping feedback to encourage a positive process and outcome for the project. NCINC now comprises twelve Member Neighborhoods in North Central Austin on both sides of I-35 in Austin City Council Districts 1, 4, and 9. We appreciate Program Manager Susan Fraser and her team meeting with us on March 24th of this year; questions from that meeting follow this letter for the record [Attachment A].

As a group, our daily experience is intimately tied to I-35 and we endeavor to engage with TxDOT in a supportive fashion that is hopeful for a positive future for the highway. We are sorry to say that TxDOT has not met our communities’ expectations in its responses to feedback from the previous Public Scoping Period that concluded in December 2020.

We reiterate our previous request that public comment periods be no less than sixty (60) days in length. The limited duration of TxDOT’s current scoping periods is insufficient for the public at large to educate themselves, share information with each other, and provide feedback on a project of this magnitude. As most of our Member Neighborhoods have not had time in this 30-day period to sufficiently discuss TxDOT plans with their members, the feedback we are providing here is representative of our concerns as an organization but should not be construed as representing an official position of any Neighborhood Association or other organization.

At this point, we do not have enough information on TxDOT’s Design Alternatives to engage in a discussion of their merits and drawbacks. The profile diagrams and illustrations supplied in the current scoping period are insufficient for us to provide meaningful feedback on any of the Design Alternatives. Specifically, we request reasonably detailed treatments for the length and location of ramps and intersections in the north central area of the Central Segment (including at Airport Boulevard, where previous TxDOT concepts have shown intersection designs that are inappropriate for use in an urban core and substantially impair access for bicyclists and pedestrians) as well as surface street design elements including design speed, posted speed, lane widths, bicycle facilities, street trees, and facilities to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act and Texas Accessibility Standards.

Additionally, the Design Alternatives presented are not suitable for comparative study. The three Alternatives are functionally nearly identical to one another, with only minor variations between Alternatives 2 and 3 and without any variation in the vehicle carrying capacity of the designs. There can be no objective comparison of concepts that are too similar to generate tangible differences in
evaluation outputs. This is evident in TxDOT’s omission of air quality as an evaluation metric, despite the obvious science that Design Alternatives that do not expand capacity would result in fewer emissions-producing vehicle miles traveled. TxDOT has eschewed community requests for “community alternatives” or alternative alignments that could provide invaluable side-by-side scoring of TxDOT’s evaluation criteria. While NCINC has never formally discussed or taken a position on existing community-generated concepts–including Reconnect Austin, Rethink35, the recommendations of the Downtown Austin Alliance’s ULI Study, and a designation switch to 183 or SH 130–we offer that these designs are templates already available to TxDOT with the potential to create a more appropriately diverse range of Design Alternatives for environmental review.

Despite these concerns, NCINC and its Member Neighborhoods continue to work tirelessly to engage with TxDOT’s process, review plans for I-35, and share information with affected stakeholders. While the feedback we provide here is by no means comprehensive, it represents several key issues of discussion that require revision to or further clarification of TxDOT’s draft scoping documents:

Environmental Justice

The Austin community has resoundingly called upon TxDOT to acknowledge the past and present role of I-35 in reinforcing segregation and placing disproportionate harm upon communities of color as part of this project. The current draft scoping materials fall far short of meeting this demand. Specifically, we call for the Project Purpose and Need to explicitly recognize how previous planning processes for I-35 systematically undermined the health and agency of communities of color, many of whom were not even legally able to vote when I-35 was first constructed. We further call on TxDOT to undertake specific outreach to communities of color and historically underserved communities, preferably in concert with the City of Austin and the City of Austin’s Equity Office, as part of the planning, design, and construction process for I-35.

NCINC supports the feedback provided by the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association and the Our Future 35 Scoping Working Group in calling for TxDOT to substantively address the past harms of the planning process, construction, and legacy of I-35 as an integral part of this environmental planning process.

East-West Connectivity

We acknowledge that removing the upper decks will be a positive development that has strong support among our Member Neighborhoods; however, their removal is not a sufficient measure if it comes as part of a project that does not also make substantial progress in providing high-quality, well connected, and safe surface streets and crossings and improve the resilience of a multi-modal local street grid.

As we have previously stated, east-west connectivity is a primary concern for NCINC. Despite TxDOT stating that this is a key project goal, the current available information on the Design Alternatives show that TxDOT is providing no improvement to east-west connectivity as part of this project and in some cases may be making it worse. The Design Alternatives show no new east-west crossings of any kind in the north central segment, despite our repeated requests for additional crossings and the City of Austin’s recommendation of no more than a half mile between crossing opportunities. TxDOT has indicated to us that a pedestrian crossing north of 51st Street is under study, although this is not available in public materials. We request detailed schematics for this crossing and repeat our request that TxDOT conduct a full study of all potential connections across I-35 through the north central area.

NCINC supports the feedback from the Cherrywood Neighborhood Association [Attachment B] in calling for frontage roads that are low-speed, multi-modal-friendly routes that support the development of vibrant residential areas and commercial retail destinations.

Noise and Air Quality

The neighborhoods along I-35 through north central Austin are among the closest in proximity to I-35. Fittingly, we have many questions about how sound mitigation will be handled in this project. We request additional information from TxDOT on how sound attenuation will meet Federal requirements; how property owners, residents, commercial tenants, and neighborhood organizations will be able to provide feedback; and how TxDOT’s methodology will account for differing vehicle speeds and actual and perceived noise at all times of day and year.

In addition to sound attenuation, special attention must be paid to localized air quality and the effects of air pollutants and particulates on nearby residents. As we have yet to see metrics on current air quality and anticipated changes to it as a result of the project, our Member Associations have reason for concern regarding the impact of additional vehicle lanes on local air quality and associated respiratory health. We request that TxDOT add the assessment of localized air quality impacts and associated health impacts on north central residents to the evaluation criteria.

Land Acquisition

It is evident to NCINC that TxDOT’s intentions for this project require the taking of properties or portions of properties along I-35 and this is an element of the project that is of significant concern to Member Associations. We request additional information specific to what properties are anticipated to be affected, including properties to be acquired and adjacent properties, and through what means TxDOT proposes to acquire them. We further ask that TxDOT limit right-of-way expansion to only what is necessary for transportation purposes, or no greater than approximately half the depth of the lots facing the frontage road, whichever is less.

Historic Preservation

The Wilshire Historic District abuts I-35 and is recognized as a National Register Historic District under Federal law. As such, we understand construction or roadway projects, including TxDOT’s plans for I-35, are subject to Section 106 (16 U.S.C. 470f) review. We request additional information on how TxDOT plans to address this review and impacts from the proposed construction.

NCINC supports the feedback from the Wilshire Wood-Delwood I Neighborhood Association [Attachment C] in requesting detailed feedback on how TxDOT will meet Federal requirements regarding effects on the Historic District’s design, cultural, and environmental integrity.

Local Enhancements

Finally, we stress that Austin has grown and evolved as a city considerably in the decades since I-35 was first constructed. In this time, north central Austin–which was on the very edge of city limits when construction began on the highway–has become an increasingly urban center of activity and companion to the downtown area. We call on TxDOT to recognize the contemporary context of north central Austin and provide designs for I-35 that reflect this character, rather than reinforcing the suburban character of the highway’s original construction.

In particular, we ask that the local enhancement (“cap and stitch”) area under study by the City of Austin and TxDOT, presently limited to the downtown area (between Lady Bird Lake and 15th Street), be extended into north central Austin. This concept will provide clear community benefits to the downtown area and would arguably provide even more demonstrable value to the residential neighborhoods fronting I-35 in north central Austin. NCINC is committed to working with the City of Austin to broaden the scope of its local enhancement study, and we request that TxDOT also provide design consideration for future capping of I-35 through north central Austin in addition to downtown.

In closing, after review of the available materials provided by TxDOT in the Public Scoping Period #2, NCINC does not endorse any Design Alternative in its current form. We call on TxDOT to examine a greater range of Design Alternatives and alignments in order to produce a meaningful study of diverse design ideas that address the myriad community needs for mobility, safety, quality of life, and acknowledgment of past harms such that they are not repeated.

In order to achieve this, we call on TxDOT to expand the Project Purpose and Need to address long- standing harms against communities of color enforced and embodied by I-35, bolster grid resilience and access for all ages and abilities by adding crossings and meeting the City of Austin’s standards for surface street design and character. We also ask for TxDOT to re-evaluate its responses to our community feedback in a way that encourages a meaningful dialogue throughout this environmental process with people who will live with the outcome of this project for a generation or more.

We look forward to continuing our work on this important project with TxDOT in the next stages of
public engagement and throughout the conclusion of the environmental process.

Sincerely yours,

Brendan Wittstruck, Chair
North Central I-35 Neighborhood Coalition (NCINC)