Plan to expand I-35 through Austin moves toward final approval

A plan to expand I-35 through Austin is moving toward final approval after TxDOT agreed to several changed proposed by city leaders, like putting more of the freeway underground.

An Environmental Impact Statement for the massive expansion of I-35 could get federal approval this month, according to TxDOT. The $4.5 billion project, stretching eight miles from Ben White Boulevard to US 290 East, would get rid of the existing upper decks, lower the freeway below ground in some spots, and increase the number of lanes.

"I would be lying to you to say that I was ever in favor of the expansion of 35," said District 9 Council Member Zo Qadri. "But now that we know it is happening, I think it's important for us as a dais to make this as good of a thing as we can."

Following a resolution from District 4 Council Member Jose "Chito" Vela and talks with Mayor Kirk Watson, TxDOT has agreed to some last-minute changes.

"We're trying to kind of push, pull and cajole them as much as possible to improve the project," said Vela.

Changes include extending the so-called "cap and stitch" further north to Airport Boulevard, something Austin would have to pay for.

"I think they will help unify East and West Austin downtown. But caps are also important for the University of Texas, for the Cherrywood neighborhood, for all the neighborhoods that are divided by I-35," said Vela.

TxDOT has also agreed to bus connections, sound walls for the Austin Community Garden, bat boxes and a boardwalk over Lady Bird Lake. Vela says TxDOT also appears to be on board with a plan to treat stormwater runoff.

"Right now it's just flowing right into Lady Bird Lake. If the plans move forward, then that water will be treated before it is released into the lake," said Vela.

Mayor Watson called the improvements "significant" in a statement, saying:

"Since February, I’ve been facilitating discussions between TxDOT and a group of my Council colleagues who wanted changes to the I-35 project. TxDOT has made some significant improvements to the project as a result of those talks, and I appreciate everyone’s willingness to work together to find good solutions that will make this project better for our community. A project of this size and scope is constantly evolving at this late stage of the process because there are a lot of moving parts."

Qadri, Vela and District 5 Council Member Ryan Alter want to see even more commitments from TxDOT on issues like air quality, parkland maintenance, and making intersections safer.

"We have had some pedestrian deaths of people trying to cross a highway," said Vela. "We need better pedestrian connectivity.

In a statement, a representative for TxDOT said:

"TxDOT appreciates the working relationship with the mayor, city council members and the City of Austin staff on design elements for the I-35 Capital Express Central project. The drainage design changes established through ongoing coordination between the City and TxDOT allowed for an additional potential city-funded deck plaza south of Airport Boulevard. Feedback from our partner agencies, community groups and local residents has been considered, and incorporated where possible, throughout the environmental process."

"Whatever the final product looks like, it'll be felt throughout this region, throughout the state for generations to come," said Qadri.

City leaders are currently looking at funding options for the cap-and-stitch elements.

Meanwhile, TxDOT expects construction to begin in mid-2024.