AUSTIN, Texas - Animation released this week by TxDOT is the latest concept for what I-35 through downtown Austin could look like, a vision that’s closer to reality because of the briefing presented Thursday to the state Transportation Commission.
I-35 opened in the early 1960s and since then has undergone only a few major renovations, the last big one taking place in the mid-70s. Getting the current traffic situation out of gridlock required filling a funding gap of $4 billion. That problem is being addressed by re-allocating money set aside for construction projects not yet approved and with cash skimmed off the top of the rainy day fund.
"So the reason why now, is because the Texas voters, voted for these new additional funding streams that augmented our 10-year construction budget, which currently stands at $77 billion by 44 percent, so those two funding streams allow us to think big and bold,” said Commission Chairman Bruce Bugg.
A final design has not yet been drawn, but the plan right now includes digging down and removing the upper deck.
"And what we are proposing to add is two non-tolled managed lanes, in each direction, one additional auxiliary lane, in each direction, which is essentially between ramps,” said Brian Barth with TxDOT Project Planning & Development.
Frontage roads are also to be expanded, adding to the capacity. Construction could start in 2025 if approved by the Commission in April. The plan has won the endorsement of the Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Austin Downtown Alliance.
State Senator Kirk Watson, who has long advocated for the reconstruction of I-35, also supports the plan, but it was not exactly a glowing endorsement that he gave. Watson was not in town Thursday. The past several years he’s had a special way to describe what he believed would happen.
“You have to break eggs to make an omelet and there are going to be some eggs broken along the way and we might even get a little bit of it on us," Watson said in June 2015.
Watson sent a statement about what TxDOT is now trying to serve up. He closed it by saying, "I don't think this financing mechanism is perfect. It's not, in my view, the best way to meet our mobility needs locally and the financing needs of our state. But it's significant and welcome progress."
Watson's concerns may be addressed by members of the Urban Land Institute. The group is currently meeting in Austin and is expected to present ideas on how to redevelop areas on either side of the roadway on Friday.
"So pedestrian, scooter, bike transit activity we believe that is all a necessary part ingredient in improving I-35,” said Dewitt Peart with the Downtown Austin Alliance.
How to fund that is now the new unknown. That east-west side vision could include the idea of parkland caps on top of I-35. TxDOT has made it clear that that idea would have to be funded by the city.