Reconnect Austin – Letter to TxDOT 09/21

September 24, 2021

Dear Tucker, Susan, and Cap Ex Central Project Team,

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the current proposals for I-35 Cap Ex Central. We appreciate your efforts to talk with the community and to listen to community concerns. While we may not agree on everything, we can agree that this project represents a once in a lifetime opportunity to remake the I-35 corridor in a way that better balances interstate traffic needs with the needs of the City of Austin and Travis County. We recognize that this is a massive undertaking that will require considerable resources of time, money, community input, professional expertise, and patience. For those reasons we are hopeful that TxDOT will continue to work with the community, elected officials, and professional staff to ensure this project best meets the needs of the 13th largest city in the country and the place we call home.

Reconnect Austin is a community organization which works to improve the I-35 corridor through Central Austin by lowering I-35, covering it with a continuous cap, and reconnecting the city at the surface level with a new boulevard on the cap. Our goal for I-35 is to have a project that reconnects the city’s downtown street grid, creates public space, minimizes the negative environmental impacts of the highway, and works to repair the historical wrongs done by the original construction of I-35. Reconnect Austin is disappointed by TxDOT’s current project designs for the I-35 Capital Express Central Project released August 10, 2021 during the third round of public engagement under the Scoping phase of TxDOT’s EIS process. Currently we cannot support any of the alternatives provided by TxDOT for this project.

TxDOT’s current project Alternatives 2 and 3 do not represent community values as stated by community members in comments submitted during the first two rounds of public engagement in the Scoping phase and as stated during the I-35 Press Conference held September 1, 2021. Reconnect Austin, among other community groups and individuals, does not support the project footprint currently proposed in Alternatives 2 and 3. Acquisition of over 140 properties in order to widen I-35 is inappropriate and does not represent community calls to narrow the footprint of this project. East Austin is an Environmental Justice Community, and TxDOT’s current project alternatives do not take into account the historical resources which will be lost if this highway is
widened at the expense of local homes and businesses. TxDOT has a responsibility to acknowledge the racist history of this highway, as well as its ongoing role in dividing the city and its disproportionate negative impacts on low-income people and people of color living nearI-35. As of September 24, 2021, that racist history and its ongoing legacy have not been acknowledged by TxDOT.

The two project alternatives currently being considered by TxDOT do not represent community wishes. Community members have repeatedly called for TxDOT to:

  • Narrow the project footprint;
  • Meaningfully address congestion;
    • On August 31, 2021, TxDOT Austin District Engineer Tucker Ferguson was quoted saying: “We’re not pretending to say the expansion we’re proposing is building our way out of congestion.”
    • Transportation for America’s 2020 report “The Congestion Con” shows that widening highways through urban areas does not meaningfully or permanently relieve congestion.
  • Explore caps beyond the City of Austin’s current Cap & Stitch proposal;
  • Not displace homes and businesses along the current I-35;
  • Meaningfully increase safety along the corridor for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists;
  • Create truly safe pathways for active transportation users along and across I-35, including street trees for protection from moving cars and the elimination of clear zones;
  • Ensure this project will meet both City of Austin Vision Zero goals and TxDOT Road to Zero goals;
  • Provide improved infrastructure for transit, pedestrians, and cyclists;
  • Work with Capital Metro to ensure all north/south and east/west transit services, present and future, are well-served and in dedicated lanes;
  • Lower the design speeds on the frontage roads to 25 mph through the entire project length;
  • Lower the design speeds on the highway lanes through the entire project length;
  • Analyze potential return on investment when land in this corridor is utilized for purposes that serve the community;
  • Conduct a full and robust community equity analysis with this project;
  • And conduct a full study of all existing environmental impacts (No Build) and fully disclose future environmental impacts (including but not limited to air pollution, noise pollution, pollution during construction, water pollution, impacts to park and open space).

These calls have gone unanswered by TxDOT during the entire Scoping phase of the Environmental Impact Statement. We are disappointed that TxDOT has not meaningfully addressed these community values and we call on TxDOT to meaningfully address each of these concerns as they move forward in this project.

We are disappointed in the lack of transparency regarding TxDOT’s evaluation of public comments and decision-making processes. In Round 2 of public engagement (March-April 2021), TxDOT provided materials under the heading of “What We Heard From You” on their virtual project website. This page had a matrix showing common subjects in comments received by TxDOT during Round 1, and how TxDOT was responding to those comments. This document was vague and inadequately addressed public comments, but it did provide evidence that TxDOT had collected and read the comments received in Round 1. In April 2021, Reconnect Austin sent a letter to TxDOT which included a detailed critique of this comment matrix in the letter appendix. When Round 3 of public engagement opened on August 10, 2021, there was no such comment matrix showing what comments TxDOT received during Round 2. There was no response to the evaluation matrix submitted by Reconnect Austin in April 2021. There has been no information provided, in all of Round 3 of public engagement, regarding the subject, frequency, and analysis of comments received by TxDOT during Round 2. This lack of transparency is inappropriate under NEPA and makes it extremely difficult for community advocates to understand how their voices are being listened to by TxDOT. We call for TxDOT to provide a very detailed analysis of ALL comments received during all three rounds of Scoping public engagement and data on how those comments were analyzed, responded to, and how TxDOT’s project alternatives will be altered to respond to those comments.

Reconnect Austin and many other local groups have repeatedly called for all public engagement periods to extend to a minimum of 90 days, so that community organizations (many of which meet only once a month) can digest the information provided, prepare commentary, and vote on submission of that commentary to TxDOT. TxDOT has ignored these calls for all three rounds of Scoping public engagement. In December of 2020, the first round of public engagement was extended from 30 to 45 days. The second round (March-April 2021) lasted only 30 days. The third round (August-September 2021) was extended from 30 to 45 days. Reconnect Austin does appreciate these extensions of public comment. However, we wish TxDOT had planned for and provided that each public engagement period be at least 90 days so that community groups could provide meaningful commentary on the project. Groups representing thousands of Austinites have repeatedly requested more time to understand and comment on this project, including People United for Mobility Action, NCINC, The Congress for the New Urbanism – Central Texas, Red Line Parkway Initiative, Scenic Texas, Walk Austin, AIA Austin, Environment Texas, Bike Austin, and Austin Outside. Last March the Austin City Council formally requested a minimum of 60 days (Resolution No. 20210325-063).

This lack of transparency and ignoring repeated community calls for a minimum of 90 days for each public comment period make it difficult for community groups to engage with TxDOT in a supportive and cooperative manner. The City of Austin and Cap Metro worked in a true partnership to set a great example of project transparency with Project Connect. That project utilized robust community engagement to build a project from the bottom up. Its success is evident in the passing vote on Prop A in November 2020. On August 31, 2021 Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison aptly compared the bottom-up approach of Project Connect (and its support from the community) to the top-down approach of TxDOT’s I-35 Capital Express Central (and its opposition from the community). We agree with the Mayor Pro Tem’s comparison and call for TxDOT to alter its approach to this project to listen to the community first and build the project around community values.

TxDOT’s current project alternatives are still not in line with current policy guidance in the City of Austin. Reconnect Austin calls for the I-35 Capital Express Central project to align fully with the following City of Austin adopted plans so as to serve the people of Austin and TxDOT’s participating agencies in this project:

  • Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan
  • Austin Strategic Mobility Plan
    • Note the first chapter of the ASMP is “Prioritizing Our Safety” and the very first stated goal in this comprehensive and far-reaching set of adopted policy is: “Prioritize the protection of human life over all else in the planning, design, and operation of Austin’s transportation network.”
  • Austin Climate Equity Plan
  • Bicycle Master Plan
  • Sidewalk Master Plan and ADA Transition Plan
  • Project Connect

Reconnect Austin has participated in the OurFuture35 Scoping Working Group since it was first created. We have the utmost respect for this group of community representatives, including those who live and work in neighborhoods adjacent to I-35. We stand with the OurFuture35 Scoping Working Group in, again, calling for TxDOT to:

  • Acknowledge the history of racist policies and actions associated with this project.
  • Avoid impacts to lives and livelihoods that will be disrupted again if racial equity and justice continue to be ignored.
  • Communicate clearly and continuously. The community needs to be assured of complete transparency with this project, in all stages of development.
  • Provide pay for community consultants / liaisons so that community experts are rightfully compensated for their valuable time and expertise.
  • Repair the harm from the generational wealth that was stripped from families when land was taken, primarily from communities of color, to create the original I-35.

The NEPA process requires TxDOT to evaluate and understand both the existing environmental impacts of this highway (No Build scenario) and the future impacts. We hope to see:

  • A full and complete analysis of existing and future environmental justice impacts, including past and future displacements, historic community resources, and proposed mitigation of racist impacts.
  • A full and complete analysis of switching the designations of SH 130 and I-35, which has been recommended multiple times, including from the I-35 Corridor Advisory Committee appointed by the Texas Transportation Commission in 2011.
  • A full and complete analysis of all impacts associated with additional Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) with this highway expansion. This analysis should be done for each segment of the full Capital Express project (North, Central, and South).
  • A full and complete analysis of the impacts on the environment, including air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution, additional greenhouse gas emissions, and impacts to climate change. Documentation regarding environmental impacts should use new analyses specific to this project, which compares baseline environmental quality (levels of pollution/emissions/impacts) on I-35 right now to the impacts of the proposed project alternatives. It is insufficient to respond to community calls to evaluate environmental impacts by citing old studies by TxDOT. Further, it is insufficient to not provide baseline environmental impact data. Without data on the current environmental impacts of this project, it will be impossible to fully analyze the impacts of each proposed alternative.
  • A full and robust analysis of all community alternatives: DAA/ULI, Rethink35, and Reconnect Austin. While we appreciate the work of the Texas Transportation Institute, and recognize that their report was a start, TTI was not given sufficient time to completely address all aspects of the community alternatives, including the fact all three community alternatives have a future return on investment. The report focused only on some of the project costs and completely ignored ROI, and therefore cannot be cited as a robust analysis of all community alternatives.

Since the Scoping phase of the EIS process began in fall of 2020, Reconnect Austin has been calling for TxDOT to consider the needs of the community when considering a full rebuild of I-35. While we appreciate that some aspects of the project have improved, most notably the 20- foot buffer between the shared use path and car travel lanes on bridges, there is much that warrants considerably more improvement.

All roadways at the surface of this project must be designed as and operate as city streets. The City of Austin is working hard to reduce traffic fatalities and injuries on our streets and roads. TxDOT should respect the City’s plans and goals by designing all surface level roads as city streets, in partnership with Austin Transportation Department (ATD). This includes:

  • The highway footprint should be narrowed to the greatest extent possible in order to shorten all crossing distances, preserve the fabric of Austin, and reconnect the city across this barrier.
  • The I-35 corridor should be as safe as possible for all road users, especially vulnerable road users.
  • This corridor needs many more east / west crossings in order to fully reconnect the city. TxDOT should work with City of Austin active transportation staff to leverage existing city assets, create a fully connected active transportation network, avoid eliminating existing crossings, and provide crossings at a minimum of every 1⁄4 mile through the length of the project.
  • To every extent possible, a surface level boulevard should behave as part of the local street network and support the City’s Vision Zero goals utilizing existing resources including the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, Transportation Criteria Manual, and Subchapter E of the Land Development Code.
  • Transit vehicles should be prioritized in this corridor. Austinites had to vote to tax themselves to pay for Project Connect because TxDOT does not take its responsibility to provide transit seriously. Transit vehicles should be prioritized in the HOV lanes, providing reliable access to employment centers, and have multiple points to cross the corridor in fully dedicated lanes.
  • The surface boulevard lanes must be designed to and posted at 25 mph speed limit throughout the length of this project. Lanes should be no more than 11 ft. wide and designed to clearly indicate to drivers that they are using a city street.
  • Highway lanes, including the main lanes and HOV lanes, must be designed to and posted at 50 mph or lower. The speed on the highway lanes directly impacts the speed that people exit the highway and enter the city grid.
  • Use ramping appropriate to urban contexts, including portal ramps that have been successfully used in urban contexts in Dallas.
  • All surface roads and streets should include street trees (planted every 20 ft.) to help mitigate the impacts of air pollution and the urban heat island effect. Street trees are also necessary to provide shade for people and to create a protective barrier between people and moving vehicles.
  • Turning radii should be tightened to slow traffic entering the city. Slip lanes should NEVER be used. The City of Austin is working to remove slip lanes from our built urban street network and TxDOT policy should be consistent with this direction.
  • All roadway crossings for humans must be well-marked, highly visible to drivers, the shortest crossing distance possible, and use the most up to date standards from NACTO.
  • Parallel parking should be incorporated on any surface roads to further protect humans from moving cars.
  • All transit and active transportation improvements should tie into the City’s and Cap Metro’s networks.
  • Transit planning and construction must be carefully coordinated with this project. Ideally Project Connect should be constructed first so that people have reliable travel options while I-35 is under construction.

Reconnect Austin recognizes the need for meaningful congestion relief in Central Austin. Widening I-35 and adding two non-tolled managed lanes in each direction will not meaningfully solve congestion. There is ample evidence to support this, including Transportation for America’s 2020 report “The Congestion Con.” TxDOT should consider alternative ways to address congestion that do not require expansion of the I-35 ROW and demolition of local homes and businesses. We call on TxDOT to consider the following methods of relieving congestion:

  • Switch the designations for I-35 and SH 130. This would allow tolled lanes currently on SH 130 to be used on I-35 without violating TxDOT’s moratorium on building new tolled lanes. There is ample evidence that the Designation Switch would help manage congestion along I-35. The Texas Transportation Institute Report “Incentives for Truck Use of SH 130” notes that there is considerably more truck traffic on I-35 than SH 130, but that trucks moved over when the toll on SH 130 was lowered. The report notes that trucking companies prefer to avoid toll roads, meaning that if the Designation Switch were implemented, truck traffic would be incentivized to move off of I-35, leaving room for other trips.
  • Transportation Demand Management (TDM) is a proven strategy in managing congestion. The “Establishing Mobility Investment Priorities Under TxDOT Rider 42: Long-Term Central Texas IH 35 Improvement Scenarios” 2013 report by the Texas Transportation Institute proved that TDM works. That report states that “IH 35 congestion will be severe even if a substantial amount of roadway capacity (typically as lanes) is added” and that the solution to this congestion is to manage demand. The COVID-19 pandemic confirmed the findings of the Rider 42 study in practice: when demand on highways decreased due to stay-at-home orders and a sharp increase in telecommuting, congestion was drastically alleviated. The best way to manage congestion is to manage demand, not supply.
  • Transit is a very effective way to alleviate congestion by utilizing TDM. Austin is working to implement an historic investment in transit through Project Connect, which will change how Austinites get around and how other modes of transportation are utilized. Demand on all roads through Austin, including I-35, will change once Project Connect is implemented. Reconnect Austin calls on TxDOT to help Austin build Project Connect in order to increase people-moving capacity through the City, and to evaluate how Project Connect will impact demand on I-35 and the future of the I-35 Capital Express Central Project.
  • Other cities in Texas have implemented transit prior to a major highway rebuild, as it is very important to have high functioning transit in place in order for people to get around while the highway is under construction and its carrying capacity diminished. Dallas utilized this strategy with its Central Expressway (I-75) by building DART in the corridor before I-75 was rebuilt. It is crucial that TxDOT provides high functioning transit service while I-35 is under construction so that people who would otherwise commute on I-35 can get to their destinations quickly, safely, and reliably.

In both 2019 and 2021, I-35 was listed in the ground-breaking Freeways Without Futures report published by The Congress for the New Urbanism. The report features 15 highways around the US that are “prime for a transformation,” due to a litany of issues with the current highway and widespread support for a progressive reimagining of the corridor. Two notable excerpts from that report:

“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.”

“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.”

The Congress for the New Urbanism is the leading institution on urbanism and progressive transportation & urban planning. This report highlights highways that hurt their cities, but that have the opportunity to make a number of widespread positive impacts should the corridor be creatively and progressively remade. Reconnect Austin agrees with the sentiments expressed in this report and urges TxDOT to consider the outstanding opportunity for positive benefits to the city and state if this project aligns with community values and City of Austin goals.

Reconnect Austin recognizes the opportunity for meaningful, transformative change in the I-35 Central corridor and calls on TxDOT to listen to community voices as well as input from City of Austin and Travis County. Reconnect Austin is disappointed by the current project alternatives in the amount of land that will be taken and people and businesses displaced, the lack of meaningful congestion relief and Transportation Demand Management strategies, the lack of alignment with City of Austin and Cap Metro stated goals, the lack of alignment with stated community input and lack of transparency regarding said community input, the lack of well-designed facilities for pedestrians, bicycles, and transit, and the lack of comprehensive analysis of environmental impacts of each project alternative, including a full baseline analysis of I-35 as it is today. We appreciate that TxDOT has made improvements to this project since its beginning, and we call on TxDOT to continue to make improvements so that this project is implemented in its best possible version. Finally, we call on TxDOT to share project updates with community organizations who are involved in this project. Now that the Scoping phase of the EIS is over, TxDOT is not under federal mandate to provide information to the community every few months. We request that TxDOT take the initiative to be open about this project with the community that will be impacted by it. We specifically request that TxDOT meet with Reconnect Austin once every three months to share project updates during the next year, or longer, as they prepare the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

Thank you for your dedication to the Capital Express Central project,

Heyden Black Walker
Chair, Board of Directors
Reconnect Austin