Reconnect Austin – Letter to TxDOT 4/21

Date: 4/9/2021
Re: I-35 Capital Express Central Project
To: Project Team
Transmitted via Email: My35capex@txdot.gov
Transmitted via Mail: Attn: Project Team, 1608 W. 6th Street, Austin, TX 78703

Reconnect Austin respectfully submits the follow comments to be documented during Virtual Scoping Meeting #2 and considered through the development of the I-35 Cap Ex Central Project.

Reconnect Austin is a grassroots groups of community leaders which has been working with neighborhood and community members, elected officials, the City of Austin, and TxDOT since TxDOT took over this project in November 2012. In those 8+ years we have consistently advocated for a better I-35 in central Austin, throughout leadership changes at the federal, state, and local levels, changes in TxDOT leadership, changes in Austin District Engineers and I-35 Project Managers, and various TxDOT consultants. Despite years of study and discussion, including a broad range of strong community input during the 2016 NEPA review, many of the same issues remain unaddressed.

Reconnect Austin and its members have participated in a variety of organized efforts to formulate a plan for I-35, including:

  • Multiple community and neighborhood group meetings
  • TxDOT’s Downtown I-35 Stakeholder Working Group and associated deep dives
  • TxDOT’s I-35 Aesthetic Working Group
  • Downtown Austin Alliance’s Mobility Committee
  • Downtown Austin Alliance’s I-35 Taskforce
  • Urban Land Institute Austin’s Transportation Committee
  • Urban Land Institute’s Technical Assistance Panel
  • City of Austin Bicycle / Pedestrian Advisory Council Active Mobility Working Group
  • Cap Metro Project Connect MCCAC and PCAN
  • OurFuture35 Scoping Working Group

Reconnect Austin has donated considerable time and expertise to reimagining the I-35 corridor and plans to continue to participate in this process. We do sincerely appreciate edits that were made to the Purpose and Need, especially those relating to safety in this deadly corridor. We also appreciate the opportunity to comment on the newly presented evaluation criteria.

Reconnect Austin would also like to thank TxDOT staff and consultants for meeting with us and for answering detailed questions at our virtual meeting on Tuesday, April 6th. The minutes from that meeting are attached for reference and as part of the public record. Regarding the Evaluation Criteria, there are criteria that are either missing or the language needs to be further fleshed out in each of the following categories:

  1. Purpose and Need
    1. Add a Criteria that addresses travel time, and access, for transit riders, people walking (including with assistive devices like wheelchairs), and people biking. You have criteria for people driving, but not for other users. Many highway treatments that support faster car trips are detrimental to travel time for other users.
    2. Add a Criteria that addresses Annual Cost of Traffic Injuries and Fatalities. You have criteria for annual cost of delay, but traffic injuries and fatalities also have significant associated costs. This criterion should include Years of Life Lost.
    3. Add a Criteria that addresses compliance with ADA (American with Disabilities Act).
    4. Add a Criteria that addresses racial inequities, harm to vulnerable populations and transportation justice.
    5. Add a Criteria that addresses racial inequities, harm to vulnerable populations and transportation justice.
    6. Under “Improved East-West Connectivity” the criteria should read “improve and increase.”
    7. Under “Accommodates Project Connect” the criteria should apply to “light rail and all bus routes.”
  2. Feasibility, Design, Engineering
    1. Add a Criteria that addresses future transit uses, including headroom and widths for future rail.
  3. Environmental Resource
    1. Add a Criteria that addresses Air Quality. This should include the potential to reduce impacts, similar to the way you have structured the Traffic Noise criteria.
    2. Under all three topics that state “Minimizing displacement,” the criteria should include long term displacement, not just ROW purchases and construction.
  4. Local Enhancements
    1. Add a Criteria that addresses opportunities to maximize tax base creation and value capture in the corridor
  5. Preliminary Project Costs
    1. Add a Criteria that addresses maximizing the amount of land returned to the City of Austin for development of affordable housing and related services.

Regarding What You Heard During Virtual Scoping Round 1, we have serious concerns about how the 2,300+ comments you received were documented and addressed. Specific concerns regarding each comment “theme” are noted in the attached spreadsheet, to be included as part of the public record.
In addition to specific concerns noted in the spreadsheet, general concerns are as follows:

  1. This document does not include any copies of actual letter submissions. No information is provided explaining how “comment themes” were designated, or how language from comments were placed into “comment themes.” No information is provided on frequency of comments, where comments came from, or how comments from institutions were considered (ex. from City of Austin City Council and/or Mayor Adler). Several groups that submitted comments represent thousands of individuals in Austin (ex. OurFuture35 Scoping Working Group), yet those letters do not appear to be weighted any more than submissions by individuals. Much more detailed information is needed beyond this
    document to explain the comments received in Round 1 of public engagement.
  2. Do “comment theme” responses intend to respond to every comment received by TxDOT referring to the stated topic? For example, is comment theme #1 intended to respond to every comment submitted regarding air quality? More information is needed on this. If not, when and how will TxDOT respond to the comments that were ignored / overlooked?
  3. Several comment themes do not accurately portray known submitted comments. See an example of this in Comment Theme and Reconnect Austin response #3. This is a misrepresentation of community comments. The structure of this document lends itself easily to misrepresenting community comments and TxDOT only responding to “comment themes,” which are not actual community comments. The NEPA process is intended to provide the community affected with a voice in the project affecting them, and conducting community engagement in this way shows that TxDOT is not valuing, or designing the project in line with, community feedback.
  4. Responses which justify TxDOT’s actions as being in line with the Roadway Design Manual (RDM) are inappropriate. The RDM is very out of date and is not considered representative of modern design standards. We recommend that TxDOT replace I-35 with an urban boulevard at the surface (as proposed by Reconnect Austin and ReThink35), designed according to NACTO’s urban boulevard standards: https://nacto.org/publications/
  5. Several important comment themes are missing from this document. This includes crash, injury, and fatality statistics and a commitment by TxDOT to reduce injuries and fatalities in this corridor. Austin’s Vision Zero goals are only briefly mentioned in comment theme #17, to which TxDOT has replied that they are “supporting” some City plans, “either partially or in full.” No mention is made of the Texas Transportation Commission’s commitment to reach zero traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2050. Reducing crashes and serious injuries is a major issue in this corridor, and its lack of inclusion in TxDOT’s comment responses document is both ignoring known submitted public comments and neglecting an extremely important discussion in the future of this project.
  6. There is no comment theme on connectivity. For more than 20 years, the community has been asking for better East/West connectivity. Comments related to connectivity are not fully and accurately portrayed in this document. The current alternatives show no new East/West connectivity over what exists today. While we appreciate the possible addition of 5th St., it is important to note that a full and continuous cap, with a boulevard to replace frontage roads, would allow for full connectivity at every East/West street instead of replicating the limited connectivity we have today.
  7. Several of TxDOT’s responses to comment themes reference specific studies, but they do not include links to those studies so that a reader can look into the material further. They also do not explain how the project and its alternatives have been, and will be as this project continues, developed in line with the findings from the studies. This makes it extra difficult for a layperson (or a community member who is not a transportation professional) to understand the response and its justification, and how the response answers their comment.
  8. TxDOT has engaged in several rounds of community engagement beyond the official periods set in the NEPA process. TxDOT should compensate community members for their participation in public engagement, and for their time, expertise, and resources used in this project. The budget for this project should dedicate funds for financial compensation to community members for their time and energy.
  9. Several of TxDOT’s responses reference future community workshops as part of how the project will be evaluated. However, this does not explain why previously submitted community feedback and recommendations are being ignored. Future community engagement does NOT justify ignoring previous/existing community engagement. OurFuture35 Scoping Working Group, which represents 50+ community organizations and institutions and is primarily made up of people of color in East Austin, sent in a letter with several recommendations to TxDOT during Round 1 of public engagement. That letter, and its recommendations, were ignored. Future community workshops are not valuable if existing community feedback is not valued or considered.
  10. We request that TxDOT fully considers community alternatives from Reconnect Austin, ReThink35, and ULI as official design alternatives for the EIS process.
  11. Air quality along I-35 is one of the worst in the city. When questioned about whether TxDOT had collected any data about air quality along I-35 as it stands right now, they said no and that all air quality data was collected from TCEQ monitors outside of downtown Austin. See attached meeting notes from 4/6/21.
  12. Given that this highway was built before NEPA, it was not built with environmental protection and conservation in mind. However, that is no excuse for TxDOT to continue to expand the modern highway. A commitment is needed from TxDOT to understand the environmental impacts of this highway, both historical and contemporary, and to mitigate those impacts going forward.
  13. Hundreds of known submitted comments brought up the historic and contemporary systemic racism perpetuated by this highway. Yet in their response, TxDOT only made references to “equity.” This is inappropriate and does not adequately represent submitted comments or appropriately address the deplorable history of this highway and its modern effects on Black and Brown Austinites. TxDOT needs to explicitly address historic and contemporary racism and how this highway perpetuates it. TxDOT also has a responsibility to offer reparations to the Black and Brown communities in East Austin.
    1. Comments regarding these topics were not adequately addressed. In May 2020, TxDOT CEO James Bass signed onto a WASHTO resolution addressing systemic racism (Link). In doing so, he agreed to hold himself and TxDOT “accountable for engaging in the daily work of combatting (sic) systemic racism.” He also “[pledged] to continue to collaborate closely with national, state, and regional organizations focused on these issues.” Where are these commitments in action? TxDOT’s neglect of the OurFuture35 Scoping Working Group’s recommendations for this project do not reflect a commitment to combating systemic racism by collaborating with local institutions and communities of color.
    2. For more information on how to address institutional racism in highway design, see MnDOT’s “Rethinking I-94” project. From MnDOT’s website: “Construction of I-94 in the 1960s destroyed homes, disconnected neighborhoods and led to a pattern of community distrust with the Minnesota Highway Department — now MnDOT. MnDOT started Rethinking I-94 in 2016 to develop a new vision with the community. MnDOT is committed to doing better. Rethinking I-94 intends to reconnect neighborhoods, revitalize communities and ensure residents have a
      meaningful voice in transportation decisions that affect their lives.” (Link)
  14. Reconnect Austin has provided references to several reports by TxDOT or the Texas Transportation Institute that recommend switching the designations between I-35 and SH 130, and re-routing all long-distance traffic (not just trucks) to SH 130. Those studies are referenced in the attached spreadsheet, and are included here.
    1. Recommendation for Designation Switch by the Interstate 35 (I-35) Corridor Advisory Committee
    2. TTI Report Recommending Designation Switch
  15. This project is based on inherently flawed transportation modeling. For more information on the problems with the modeling used in this project, and recommendations on how to solve it, see the report by transportation planning expert and owner of Smart Mobility, Inc. Norm Marshall.

We have noted that TxDOT’s published timeline for this project indicates an upcoming summer 2021 open house, with another 30-day comment period. We again reiterate our request to have all public comment periods be a minimum of 90 days to afford the public time to review, understand, and comment on this complicated and extremely costly project.

Reconnect Austin does not endorse any of the provided alternatives. The alternatives all show the same vehicular capacity, number of lanes, and no additional East / West crossings. Each alternative is very similar, with Alternatives 2 & 3 being nearly identical. We again ask TxDOT to include the community alternatives – Reconnect Austin, ReThink35, and the ULI proposal – in this NEPA review.

Reconnect Austin does appreciate the opportunity to comment in Round 2. We look forward to a continuing dialogue that uses worldwide best practice and design solutions improve the Cap Ex Central project.