Federal funding to be used in massive I-35 expansion throughout Austin

The City of Austin and the federal government announced a first-of-its-kind partnership, and some new funding, to tackle several infrastructure projects taking shape across the city. 

Among them: the massive I-35 expansion planned through the heart of Austin.

Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Kirk Watson signed a landmark Emerging Projects Agreement with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Build America Bureau.

"Austin right now has a whole lot going on," said Watson.

The agreement will give the city access to up to billions of dollars in federal loans and grants, and workshops to map out a strategic plan.

"The goal is not to make decisions for you," said Morteza Farajian, executive director of the U.S. DOT’s Build America Bureau. "The goal is for us to share best practices, share innovative approaches."

This covers massive undertakings like the historic expansion of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, the Project Connect expansion of CapMetro’s light rail and bus service, and the eight-mile overhaul of I-35 through Austin.

"I-35 has been a scar on our city for decades," said Watson. "It’s a monument to racism. In addition to that, it doesn’t work well," said Watson.

The expansion plan, led by TxDOT, would get rid of the existing upper decks, lower the freeway below ground in some spots, and increase the overall number of lanes, including bus lanes.

The City is pitching in on the "cap and stitch" element, covering the highway with park land to reconnect east and west.

"We think this is a generational opportunity," said Mike Trimble, director of Austin’s Corridor Program Office.

The I-35 plan, was further bolstered Tuesday by a separate grant from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, $1.12 million through the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program.

"This program was created specifically to fund projects, support projects that are addressing the divisiveness of the old highway building program that occurred in the mid-20th century," said Trimble.

Despite the benefits of I-35 overhaul being touted by local, state and now federal officials, some at Tuesday’s Travis County Commissioners meeting expressed concern about unintended consequences.

"It’ll displace people and hurt those living near the highway," said Alexandra.

"Expanding highways doesn’t work. It encourages more driving, which is induced demand, and worsens congestion and causes significant air water and noise pollution," said Julio.

TxDOT said in a statement: "TxDOT has a long-standing working partnership with Travis County. We encourage feedback and will consider all comments submitted to TxDOT."

City officials echoed that sentiment.

"It will not meet my concept of perfection," said Watson. "But it will be so much better than what we have, from a congestion standpoint, from a transit standpoint, from a beautification standpoint, and tying this community together when it has divided it for decades."