Highways for Habitats #29: IH-35, Austin

Transportation planning is tough.  Roads have to serve a number of (sometimes competing) purposes.  Roads whose primary purpose is moving people and goods quickly through a community often have a detrimental effect on the communities they bisect (see: the history of freeways in Detroit).  Take state trunk lines for example, which you can recognize because they’re usually twice as wide to cross as the other roads in a neighborhood, and, of course, highways and interstates.  We’re currently running a series of posts featuring creative solutions from around the globe to make these roads – roads that must run through communities – also work to serve those communities.  Check out more about our inspiration here.

As our inspiration post notes, Michigan is currently in the midst of a major highway debate, and we are not alone.  In other towns and cities across the country and world, similar conversations are taking place about the future of our road systems and our neighborhoods.

Interstate Highway 35 was built directly through downtown Austin, Texas, and is the fourth most congested freeway in the United States.  It is currently due for infrastrucural repair, and drivers are calling for the congestion problem to be solved. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is exploring possible concepts, including a depressed highway concept, in addition to a more traditional rebuild and widen option.

The “cut and cap” is a proposal developed by Austin architect Sinclair Black, who has formed a coalition called Reconnect Austin to give voice to the community.  The cut and cap plan includes moving the freeway below grade and covering it with a cap and boulevard. This would make 30 acres available for mixed-use redevelopment.  Congestion could be improved by removing the local traffic onto the restored street grid, above, while through-traffic travels below.  Reconnect Austin says the result would create a safe, civilized, walkable and bikeable urban space.

Proponents of the cut and cap believe it would remove the socioeconomic barrier seperating downtown from East Austin, efficiently reconnecting the urban fabric of the city’s core. Black’s planning and architecture firm’s analysis of the plan claims that the project would support housing for 7,000 residents, create 48,000 jobs, support 2 million square feet of retail and restaurants, yield $3.2 billion in new tax base, and generate an estimated $1 billion in property tax revenue.  Black says the potential economic growth could drastically offset the $500 million price tag of the plan.

This June, Austin City Council endorsed the cut and cap, meaning it supports the option’s inclusion in the TxDOT IH-35 National Environmeny Policy Act Study.  Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, however, expressed concern over not solving the traffic congestion fast enough; others worry that the cut and cap simply doesn’t effectively address the congestion.  Councilman Mike Martinez voiced his thoughts that the surrounding areas’ – some home to low-income families – property values and taxes could increase greatly, potentially causing displacement issues.

Austin Business Journal’s online poll results show 70% of respondents in favor of TxDOT conducting studies on the feasibility on moving I-35 below grade.  While it is undisputably the more attractive option, we will have to wait to see the results of TxDOT’s findings, and where they go from there.  How will they increase mobility while balancing the needs of the whole city?


Photo from Reconnect Austin.