Austin’s major arterial highway is over 50 years old and ready for a makeover. Every rush hour, commuters get to look forward to driving on the second most congested highway in the state. People may envy Austin’s tacos, but no one envies our traffic. Congestion and ageing infrastructure necessitate reconstruction and as the Texas Department of Transportation reviews options for I-35’s downtown Austin stretch, Mayor Adler has asked Austinites to support one specific concept: lowering the highway between 15th Street and Cesar Chavez, adding 2 lanes in each direction, and creating the possibility of a cap over sections of the lowered lanes.
Mayor Adler is joined by multiple urbanist organizations and architects in the quest for a reconnected urban corridor. That is one goal of depressing I-35 through downtown: increasing community and connectivity between the east and west sides of our city. For many years, the highway has served as a barrier between East Austin and Downtown by impeding foot traffic and serving up a hearty helping of exhaust and noise for humans so unfortunate as to stray in its vicinity without a car.
As the mayor and the Downtown Austin Alliance write, the lowered highway option for I-35 will benefit our community by:
- Adding capacity for vehicles on I-35, including toll-free express lanes for transit vehicles. Having protected lanes for buses to bypass traffic will encourage the use of public transit, which will help to remove vehicles from Austin’s busy roadways.
- Improving safety and mobility for pedestrians and cyclists
- Enhancing east/west connectivity for both vehicles and pedestrians
- Reducing noise pollution from the highway for the area surrounding I-35
- Creating the opportunity for “cap” infrastructure along the downtown corridor of I-35. This will provide residents and stakeholders the opportunity to create an iconic, privately-owned deck park above the state’s most congested highway, benefiting future generations of Texans.
Take a moment to watch this concept video of the proposed lowered highway:
This option gives Austin the ability to reconnect its east and west communities, forming a more complete and sustainable city. The “depressed” highway began to gain popularity years ago, but there are still many of us who have no experience with the idea. An example close to home is Dallas’s Klyde Warren Park, which is always a highlight of my trips to the DFW metroplex. The park is full of vitality: urban adventurers of all ages lounge on the grass, stroll the sidewalks, and squint at the many food truck menus. In the midst of the park’s greenery it’s hard to believe there’s an eight-lane freeway beneath you!
Depressing the highway has reconnected Dallas’s downtown core. Connection and community are about much more than financial prosperity, but Dallas has certainly benefited economically because of Klyde Warren Park. D Magazine’s Christine Perez wrote, “When the 4.5-acre deck park over Woodall Rodgers Freeway opened in the fall of 2012, no one could have predicted the profound impact it would have on the Dallas commercial real estate market.” An early impact study estimated that the park could catalyze $350 million in new development. But the real number has risen to over $1 billion as of January 2016.
Lowering I-35 prepares Austin for future development in a way that modifying the existing concept cannot. Below is a video of the Texas Department of Transportation’s other option: widening I-35 without lowering it. This proposal allows for no more traffic capacity than the first option, and leaves the east and west sides of the highway permanently divorced from one another.
With this model, the highway bisects a potential community, hindering connection and property value. Conversely, the lowered option gives Austin the opportunity to grow back together, allowing the highway to serve the city rather than blight it. Let’s make Austin more than a great place to eat tacos.
If you want the Texas Department of Transportation to lower I-35, use this form to send an email to James Bass, TxDOT Executive Director.