NCINC – Letter to TxDOT 12/20

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

21 December 2020

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

As part of the Public Scoping Period #1 for the I-35 Capital Express Central Project, the North Central I-35 Neighborhood Coalition (NCINC) is pleased to share input at this critically important phase that will determine the future of the project. NCINC comprises eleven Member Neighborhoods in North Central Austin on both sides of I-35 in Austin City Council Districts 1, 4, and 9.

We embrace a new future for the highway. I-35 is a physical and psychological barrier that disconnects neighborhoods; impairs safe and equitable access to, along, and across the corridor for pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders, people with disabilities, the elderly, health-vulnerable, and children in Central Austin; an inhospitable refuge for people enduring homelessness; and a visible symbol of Austin’s continuing struggle with its own history of segregation and prejudice.

TxDOT’s recent commitment to funding the rebuilding of I-35 represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-shape the corridor according to the values and needs of people who are affected by and interact with it on a daily basis. This is a moment that will define Austin for our children and those who follow them.

NCINC applauds TxDOT’s commitment to removing the Upper Decks. This alone is a powerful indication that TxDOT has listened to North Central Austin stakeholders. We also thank Program Manager Susan Fraser for her tireless commitment to reaching out to our Member Neighborhoods to share information about the project and hear questions and concerns from residents.

But there is still work to do. The Draft Coordination Plan and Schedule, Draft Project Purpose and Need, and Draft Range of Alternatives fall well short of committing to the necessary environmental, social, and cultural metrics that will ensure this project measurably improves the quality of life for residents and workers in North Central Austin and surrounding areas. We offer the following feedback on the Draft documents to help TxDOT balance its operational requirements for the I-35 corridor with the needs of our members and communities on both sides of the highway:

Draft Coordination Plan and Schedule

We appreciate the extension of the Public Scoping Period #1 to 50 days from TxDOT’s original 30-day period. The resounding public request for a longer input period reflects both the public’s interest in this once-in-a-generation opportunity and our deeply rooted concerns regarding the ability of stakeholders to provide feedback during a global pandemic in which many are without resources to receive information about the project or have access to public resources needed to provide feedback. Despite the comment period extension, NCINC’s Member Neighborhoods have not had sufficient time to review plans, gain input from residents, or vote on positions during this Public Scoping Period.

These obstacles to public input illustrate the imperative that all future Public Scoping Periods be of ample time to allow all stakeholders to meaningfully participate in the process. We therefore request that the Draft Coordination Plan and Schedule include a period of up to 90 days and not less than 60 days for all future Public Scoping Periods and other public input opportunities.

Draft Project Purpose and Need

The Draft Project Purpose and Need does not address the effects of this project on the health, safety, level of access, and quality of life of people who live or work along I-35 in North Central Austin. Specifically, we request that the Draft Project and Need include measurable outcomes for improvements to the environmental, community, and cultural health of neighborhoods adjacent to I-35.

We request that TxDOT expand the Draft Project Purpose and Need to include the following needs in its study of Design Alternatives and evaluation of their respective strengths and drawbacks throughout the project area, as well as their particular impacts on historically disadvantaged communities:

  • Reduction in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) and Harmful Roadway-Related Emissions;
  • Compliance with Federal EPA Requirements for Noise Pollution;
  • Improvement to Local Air and Water Quality;
  • Reduction in Respiratory Disorders, Premature Death, Nature-Deficit Disorder, and other physical and mental health impacts;
  • Safe Access to Schools;
  • Vehicle Speeds on Surface Streets and in Residential Neighborhoods;
  • Preservation of Cultural and Historical Resources;
  • Affordable Housing and Preference Policy (“Right to Return”);
  • Compliance with City of Austin Standards for Surface Streets (including Frontage Roads);
  • Character of and Distance between Crossings over I-35 for all Modes of Travel;
  • Elimination of Land Condemnation or Eminent Domain and Disproportionate Impacts on East Austin Residents, Property Owners, and Businesses;
  • Property Tax Rates and Impacts to Low- and Moderate-Income Property Owners (<80% AMI)
  • Transit Potential and Multi-Modal Impacts;
  • Support Systems for People experiencing Homelessness;
  • Assessment of Trauma Against Communities of Color; and
  • Climate Change Mitigation.

Draft Range of Alternatives

At this point, we do not believe that the public has been given sufficient information on the Draft Range of Alternatives to provide meaningful comment on the designs. Many of our active members have voiced confusion over how the Draft Range of Alternatives addresses key design details including ramp design, collector-distributors, intersection design, surface street design speeds, and character and frequency of crossings.

Despite these challenges, NCINC has received the following resounding feedback on the Draft Range of Alternatives:

  • We ask that any designs that expand the current right-of-way be removed from further study. An increase in the width of I-35’s current footprint through Central Austin will require significant land condemnation on the east side of I-35, continuing the troubling history of I-35 having a disproportionately negative impact on East Austin;
  • We ask that any designs that include elevated portions be removed from further study. We support the removal of the Upper Decks and do not support their replacement with other elevated highway designs; and
  • We ask that designs not include sound walls as the means by which to mitigate noise. Sound walls will perpetuate the separation and isolation of residents who live on the east side of I-35, continuing–if not exacerbating–the impenetrability of the roadway by cutting off sightlines, preventing access to the corridor, and preventing the frontage roads from becoming vibrant community edges and safe streets for business owners and patrons.

We further note that all three Build Alternatives include an expansion of the Central Segment to 20 total lanes. This does not amount to a sufficient study of available options during the Environmental Impact Statement. We offer the following specific objections:

  • This is a notably larger expansion than the previous plans that TxDOT shared with the public in 2016 and, as such, represents a new design that has not been vetted at all by the public or local leadership;
  • TxDOT is not providing any designs that maintain current capacity and address Design Standards, Operational Deficiencies, and Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety, in addition to other community requests as listed above; and
  • TxDOT is not acknowledging known shortcomings in travel demand modeling or how it will include Induced Demand in its modeling. Specifically, traffic volumes on I-35 in North Central Austin over the last decade have not kept pace with projections in previous travel demand models of the corridor. Research indicates volumes will increase commensurate with added capacity.

Therefore, we request that TxDOT work with project area stakeholders to create community alternatives–including in pre-engineering phases–as part of the full Environmental Impact Statement to include, at a minimum:

  • A typical section of no more than fourteen total lanes;
  • A public co-creation process to identify community alternatives;
  • Outreach to determine appropriate locations and character for crossings, ramps, and other design features; and
  • Clear visualizations for the public of all Build Alternatives, including community alternatives, that are easily understood by people without engineering or other technical expertise.

NCINC is empowered by its Member Neighborhoods to make statements on behalf of Neighborhood Associations based on the approved positions or general standing positions of those Associations. Providing a clear representation of the positions of our Member Neighborhoods is a responsibility that NCINC takes very seriously. Due to time constraints of the Public Scoping Period #1, our Member Neighborhoods have not taken official positions on the Draft documents and the contents of this statement, therefore, should not be construed as representing an official position of any Neighborhood Association or other organization.

This response does, however, reflect the spirit of NCINC’s nearly 20 years of collaboration between neighborhoods in response to TxDOT plans for I-35, including past positions shared with TxDOT and local elected leadership, as well as hundreds of volunteer hours by our current active membership in reviewing the current TxDOT plans and providing feedback and sharing with our neighbors and networks.

We look forward to working with you to make I-35 a better component of Austin’s mobility future and a better neighbor to north central neighborhoods.

Sincerely yours,

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