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HIGHWAYS TO BOULEVARDS BLOG: Austin's I-35 “Cut and Cap” Approach | Congress for the New Urbanism

HIGHWAYS TO BOULEVARDS BLOG: Austin's I-35 “Cut and Cap” Approach

This post is a part of CNU’s Highways to Boulevards Blog series, which features interview summaries and insights from some of the best minds at the frontline of our Highways to Boulevards Initiative.

The following post was written by CNU Project Assistant LeRoy Taylor, Masters Candidate of Public Administration at DePaul University. LeRoy discusses the three planning options for Austin's I-35, including a controversial "cut and cap" proposal. Read our previous blog on the McGrath Highway in Boston.

Have a highway with old bridges in desperate need of repair? If so, you may be one of the many state DOTs contemplating what do to next. It’s no secret that many of the federal highways and bridges around the country are becoming more structurally deficient with each passing day. For the most part, we all agree that “Now” is the time to address these liabilities. Agreeing on “How” is where things get a bit hazy.
 
Today’s transportation challenge is that it isn’t simply a decision on the most cost-effective repairs. Repairing these structures may be adding on to a problem because many of them represent social, economic, and cultural barriers to the communities they surround. Chicago’s Circle Interchange is the perfect example of trying to fix a massive highway system and the congestion problem it creates through expansion.  

Progressive Solution for a Progressive City

A similar challenge now faces citizens of Austin, Texas where they will decide the best way to make highway I-35 fit their future. I-35 is the 4th most congested roadway in the U.S. and like many U.S. highways, has bridges, which are over 50 years old and in need of repair. In many contexts, I-35 has represented a barrier for residents, most notably dividing West Austin from East Austin.

Now that reconstruction is inevitable, the time has arrived for Austin residents to rethink how I-35 interacts with, and impacts, their city. This new thinking culminates in project Reconnect Austin, which focuses on equitable long-term urban design and economic development solutions to I-35. To date, this is an effort, which has been inclusive and has gained significant support from the community for promoting a “cut-and-cap” approach to I-35.  

Planning Options

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is currently conducting a study to consider 3 options of: 
•    Elevating surface streets 
•    Depressing the main lanes below street level 
•    Constructing a complete cap over depressed lanes.

First option: Is anyone surprised that most residents are vehemently opposed to the idea of elevating surface streets? After all, this falls into the “fix the problem by making it bigger category” and would spend spending millions of dollars on a highway that residents don’t like.

Second Option: Depressing lanes is an idea that’s been pitched before in Austin, but the problem is that it suggests building several “caps” and offers little for residents interested in long-term solutions to I-35.

Third Option: The “cut and cap” approach expands on TxDOTs second option by building a permanent cap over the suggested depressed lanes in the form of a boulevard. 

The Benefits

Building a permanent boulevard would dramatically change the way residents interact with downtown Austin by connecting East and West Austin, but that’s only one of many benefits. According to Reconnect Austin, over 25 years this idea could create about 48,000 jobs, yield $3.2 billion in new tax base, and generate an estimated $1 billion in recurring, new property tax revenue. How’s that for a long-term benefit?

Even if you’re less motivated by the financial aspects of this project, you’d be pleased to know that this idea would also increase the quality of life for residents by reducing traffic congestion, pollution, and more importantly remove what has been a social barrier for some residents. Wouldn’t that make you want to live in Austin? Ultimately, how we conceptualize and use highways has to change. While TxDot completes their study, hopefully they’ll consider the benefits of a boulevard and realize its advantages to the alternatives. After all, when is the last time you or anyone you know moved to a city for the great highways? As our transit preferences change and state DOTs continue to implement new uses for an old idea, maybe our answer to that question will change.


****

Architect Sinclair Black is leading the "cut and cap" change to transform Austin's Interstate 35. Watch as he explains how this proposal will restore the city's grid while contining to move cars effectively. For more information on turning urban highways into human-scale boulevards, go to cnu.org/highways.


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