By Sinclair Black FAIA

FAILURE to include safety concerns beyond lip service. 2022 saw a record number of crashes/deaths in the City of Austin. Current statistics indicate that thanks to initiatives like Vision Zero, the number of traffic fatalities on City of Austin-owned streets and roads is declining, while the number of fatalities on TxDOT’s roads and highways has increased. In 2022, 74% of all traffic fatalities were on roads owned and managed by TxDOT, including I-35. TxDOT’s playbook has hundreds of design guidelines for their single-minded roads and highways. A few pretend to make their overall design safer, which clearly isn’t working. As a community, we demand that TxDOT actively pursue realistic safety standards that work, starting with lower design speeds and a geometry that acknowledges the city fabric.

FAILURE to monitor air pollution in the I-35 corridor and no proposals to measure and control the resulting pollution. The reality is that increases in traffic overall, and truck traffic in particular, are increasing constantly, causing subsequent increases in air pollution. Air quality monitors measure air quality for the region, allowing TxDOT to justify adding more pollutants, including greenhouse gases and carcinogens, to the air we breathe by stating that the increases from I-35 do not significantly degrade air quality on a regional level. This allows TxDOT to deny that the issue of poor air quality is caused by I-35. TxDOT’s official position on managing air quality concerns publicly states that electric cars will cure that problem. There is no telling when and if electric cars are a viable solution. Regardless, it is a disingenuous and feeble excuse. It’s an indication of how little they care about the air your children breathe. TxDOT’s solution to address the issue of climate change and to alleviate as much damage as possible associated with environmental disasters – which are predicted by science and clearly witnessed across the country today – is to simply ignore it. To think that electric cars will fix the problem is short-sighted and naïve. Perhaps a method of technology will emerge generations down the road that will eliminate pollution from highways. In the meantime, there is only one technology available to capture and filter polluted air. This can only be achieved by placing a complete cap on the highway. The polluted air is captured, treated, and then exhausted while fresh air is brought below the cap at strategic points. Of course, there is the age-old tried and true solution…. trees. Trees have the capability to clean the air. It is an easy and natural solution. Where are the trees, TxDOT? It is essential that TxDOT takes into consideration air quality, climate change, and pollution when determining the best solution for the I-35 corridor. We must do our part.

FAILURE to respond to public comments made during TxDOT’s parade of “comment periods” required by federal law. The official Scoping period generated over 9,500 mostly negative comments and these comments were never meaningfully addressed. It is TxDOT’s responsibility to listen to, and ideally analyze suggestions logically and honestly from the general public regarding intelligent land use and economic development proposals from the community. At one point, TxDOT’s official response to public comments was to parse comprehensive comments for comment “themes,” and then respond to “themes” rather than the complex intent of each citizen’s submittal. We demand that as a community our concerns are heard and addressed. This has gone on far too long, we demand change.

FAILURE to provide the city with a viable traffic management plan for the construction period, which could be as long as 10 years. During the construction period, the disruption of traffic will become a tremendous burden for everyone. There still isn’t a workable scenario by TxDOT to mitigate the problems. There is, however, a plan proposed by the community group Reconnect Austin. The plan follows:

  1. Remove trucks from the I-35 corridor by putting them on SH 130. This will be required during construction, so do it now and then make it permanent.
  2. Temporarily widen the existing access (frontage) roads to accommodate the remaining traffic.
  3. Proceed with the construction of the underground highway.

It’s critical that such a disruptive project over a long-time frame offers a reasonable plan to accommodate the public

FAILURE to remove the barrier by proposing an infinitely more disastrous barrier that contradicts the community’s plea “no higher, no wider.” Everyone, including the TxDOT team, thinks the ONLY barrier is the elevated highway. The elevated highway is little more than an eyesore. The following are the far more important physical barriers that make the creation of true urbanism virtually impossible:

  1. The high-speed ramps that cut the highway off from the fabric of the city and break up the grid.
  2. The access roads (frontage roads).

TxDOT’s Modified Alternative #3 proposes the most devastating barrier imaginable: The “Not So Grand Canyon.” By moving the access roads, both northbound and southbound, to the west side rather than using the R.O.W., the structure, and air rights over the sunken lanes, their plan obliterates the potential for development of the western edge of the corridor and the eastern edge of downtown. This comes at a much higher cost, more importantly, a massive opportunity lost, and nothing is gained.

FAILURE to act on the recommendations of the Texas Transportation Commission appointed Interstate 35 (I-35) Corridor Advisory Committeewho suggested switching designations between I-35 and SH 130. Removing the toll for trucks on SH 130 would allow trucks to bypass downtown Austin. Exporting truck traffic to present-day SH 130 would assist in solving the congestion problems of I-35, would make I-35 considerably safer, and could save taxpayers billions of dollars. We ask that TxDOT address why this topic isn’t on the table, and we want to know why a suggestion by a group of experts has been disregarded.

FAILURE of TxDOT to understand land use, land value, and the funding of a city through taxes. The city has one major asset: the land area within the city limits. The taxes we all pay directly or indirectly fund everything, from schools to police to parks to streets. TxDOT simply doesn’t care about the things that make a city a city. As with every concern, their mentioned response is always the same: “it’s not our job.” TxDOT is happy to take land from our land bank and waste it on their single-minded, limited-purpose agenda, regardless of the negative impacts on an otherwise robust local economy. There are more intelligent designs that protect taxpayers’ interests. Why not use that value to pay for humanizing the corridor? This project could pay for itself now through tax increment financing and create a future tax base to fund the future city. This is proper land use.

AND TOTAL FAILURE to supply a credible, third-party return on investment (ROI) analysis of the future of the corridor based on a fair comparison between TxDOT’s chosen alternative and the several community alternatives. TxDOT needs to consider all suggestions for a safer, more humane, and prosperous future for Austin and all of Central Texas. An ROI analysis is always required for any expenditure of public money, especially for such a massive cost of rebuilding the I-35 corridor – something that will be with us for another 70 years.