The Seven Primary Benefits of Reconnect Austin

Proposed By Sinclair Black FAIA

The ability to achieve any community benefit you can imagine could be attained with the community vision, Reconnect Austin. It represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This chance to control our own fate has been denied for the last 70 years. We will not have this golden opportunity again in our lifetime.


I-35 has depressed the value of every property adjacent to it, and every property within a half of a mile. Reconnect Austin will reestablish time-tested, local land values relative to their use. A federal program, using taxpayer money, has had the effect of depressing tax value on hundreds of acres, downtown which in turn has the effect of increasing everyone else’s taxes in the region. Currently, the taxable value of the wasted right of way of I-35 is zero. An increase from zero to 10, 15, 20 billion, or even more dollars of taxable property would have an enormous positive impact on Austin’s future. Think of the improvements that would become available for schools, parks, trails, sidewalks, and public facilities of all sorts throughout the region. The project of rebuilding the city due to TxDOT’s damage pays for itself through tax increment financing.


Affordable housing has emerged as a significant priority for the City of Austin. Reconnect Austin will create 4,000 or more housing units in the downtown stretch of I-35. Up to 1,000 of those units could be affordable. Those units would be located adjacent to the primary job- creating center in the region. Creating density through walkable urbanism leads to a healthy process that reduces sprawl and the congestion that results from it. Many families that have been forced to leave Austin for economic reasons could return to this corridor.


Climate change is a problem for the entire globe. Every city needs to take every measure it can to do its part to fight it. Austin must identify and move forward on all viable opportunities. I-35 represents the most intense air pollution problem in the region as well as the best opportunity to do our part. Capping the highway and capturing the pollution by treating it and exhausting it would represent a major step in doing our part. If the new boulevard on the surface were planted with 4,000 trees, Austin would have an urban forest to treat the remaining CO2. Air pollution has been recognized as a death threat to many Americans. I-35 is the most polluted corridor in the Austin region. This affects not only neighborhoods but schools, playgrounds, and indeed the UT campus itself. Putting the through lanes of I-35 underground and capping with the Boulevard provides an opportunity to collect, filter, and clean the air.


Reconnect Austin offers the one and only opportunity to connect three counties by bus transit right now and by rail transit in the future. If we fail to solve the greatest problem of congestion in this region, which is I-35, we will have clearly failed the future. The solution to our major congestion problem, I-35 is remarkably simple. As I-35 gets completely rebuilt, provide a clear path/right of way for buses which could easily be converted to a more efficient rail system in the future. That portion through the central city from Airport Blvd to Ladybird Lake could be underground on the centerline of the sunken freeway using stations previously created for commuter buses.

There was a previous proposal by TxDOT itself to switch the designation between I-35 and SH 130. This would make it free for trucks to travel around Austin rather than through it. The wall of 18-wheelers that we see 24-7 on I-35 would be gone, along with the increased danger and pollution they create. This creative move will inevitably be required once any construction begins on I-35 under any scenario.


Austin has always been impacted by flooding problems. Waller Creek is just one of those problems, but it is the one that impacts the central city. When TxDOT originally built I-35 they decided to ignore the flooding problem completely and redirected the problem back to Waller Creek.

Down the road, the City of Austin attempted to solve the problem in order to free up urban land. They spent $154 million dollars on a solution. Unfortunately, recent changes in climate indicate that the problems are much greater than assumed when that decision was made. The Reconnect Austin concept includes keeping the floodwaters generated by I-35 within the freeway corridor in underground viaducts. The floodwaters could be retained in those chambers and used to heat and cool all future development in the corridor. That same capacity could be used to irrigate 4,000 trees in the corridor of the proposed new urban boulevard.


There has been a long-term and continued commitment to the creative development of Waller Creek now known as “Waterloo Greenway.” Waterloo Greenway is a beautifully designed linear park that connects the University of Texas to Ladybird Lake. This will become one of the longest linear parks in the United States when completed. This new park runs directly adjacent to the future East Avenue Parkway, the boulevard on top will connect 29 blocks. Imagine being able to live and work in such a corridor, able to walk to the lake but also to UT as well as into East Austin and anywhere downtown enjoying a great boulevard offering all the amenities of a wonderful urban life on the one hand and a great park on the other.


Human scale is that mysterious and magical quality that all great cities have if they are indeed great. Many Americans who live in car-centric cities like Austin travel to other countries, primarily Europe to experience human scale, which is largely nonexistent in their hometown. Urban freeways are out of scale with human existence and most cities in America suffer from the problem of massive freeways destroying the human scale of the city they once knew. Austin has become the poster child for this problem and now TxDOT wants to double down on the heinous mistakes from the 1950s.

This op-ed can be downloaded here.