Today, we're covering transportation funding issues in Texas. Heyden Walker is a friend and member of Strong Towns who recently helped to organize a Better Streets event in Austin, TX, featuring Chuck Marohn. Today, she proposes a community-centered alternative to spending billions on highway expansion in Austin.

$4.3 billion could pay for many of the multimodal infrastructure investments that Austin needs to reach its ultimate goal of a compact and connected city.  Funding is needed for: missing sidewalks, buildout of our urban trails master plan, protected bike lanes, Pedestrian Hybrid Beacons for safer stroad crossings, streetcars, greater frequency on bus routes, park and rides, and considerably better transportation demand management. These are the kind of incremental improvements Austin needs in order to thrive.

Instead, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) plans to spend $4.3 billion on one massive highway infrastructure expansion – adding one toll lane in each direction on I-35.

To be fair, the full project stretches a few miles beyond the city of Austin, north to Georgetown and south to San Marcos (65 miles @ $66,000,000 per mile). 

Many leaders believe that Austin’s traffic problems can be mediated with more lanes.  I-35 again ranks as the #1 most congested highway in Texas.  The proposed toll lanes do provide predictable trips for buses (assuming we ever get a TxDOT transit plan along with the highway plan), but toll lanes also induce demand and are clearly expensive to build.

Will Austin residents, who pay higher mortgages and rents to live in the urban core, agree to subsidize a highway that incentivizes long distance trips?

Highways in the early days appeared free, in part because the Feds paid $.90 of every $1.00.  That is no longer the case.  Austin’s mayor, and leadership in adjacent counties, recently called for a November 2016 bond election.  In Austin there is early discussion of anywhere from $150 to $500 million that Austinites would be asked to contribute to this highway expansion project. How will Austinites vote when I-35 directly impacts their property tax bill?  Will local money for I-35 preempt possible funding for the more incremental mobility projects?  Will Austin residents, who pay higher mortgages and rents to live in the urban core, agree to subsidize a highway that incentivizes long distance trips?  Not without consideration of what Austin needs.

There are many in the community who believe that Austin deserves a better solution than the Implementation Plan currently proposed.  This is not new, we have been advocating for a better I-35 over the last 19 years.

What does a better I-35 look like in the urban core? 

  • Depressing the highway lanes below grade.
  • Reconnecting the grid of streets that was severed by I-35, with bridges that are safe and comfortable for all ages, abilities and modes of transportation.
  • Constructing a full cap over the 1 mile that cuts through downtown.
  • Creating an urban boulevard on the full cap, with an intersection at every reconnected cross street, wide sidewalks, transit priority lanes, protected bicycle lanes, street trees, etc.  In short, meeting all of the requirements of Austin’s Great Streets Master Plan.
  • Using the reclaimed real estate from the redundant frontage roads to build strong tax base for Austin, providing mixed use, mixed income housing next to our largest jobs center in the region.
Image courtesy of  Black + Vernooy

Image courtesy of Black + Vernooy

What does a better I-35 look like for the entire 65 mile corridor (including the core)?

  • Cleaner air.
  • Cleaner water, and controlled run off.
  • Decreased noise impacts.
  • Safer frontage roads. (Traffic fatalities in Austin reached a grim all-time record in 2015. A high percentage of those fatalities occurred in the I-35 corridor.)
  • Safer entrances and exits.
  • Bridges and underpasses that are safe and comfortable for all ages and abilities and modes of transportation.
  • A robust TxDOT transit plan that will truly help commuters get to jobs. (They are no longer the Texas Highway Department.)

We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get I-35 right.

Cities all over the world are reducing the negative impacts of highways in their communities.  Think about the success stories in Madrid, Boston, San Francisco, and Portland, just to name a few. 

The Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, built over the Woodall Rogers Highway, is the best Texas example.  That project took 20 years, with a mixture of Federal, State, and private money, to advocate for and build a deck park that connects the Dallas Arts District with the Uptown neighborhood.  The economic impacts from this 1,200 foot long park have far exceeded expectations.  The project is so successful local leaders are advocating for an expansion.

In Austin, we have an even greater opportunity because the land under the existing frontage roads could be used to develop tax base.  Not only would a cut and cap mitigate some of the negative impacts of I-35, creating economic value, but reclaiming the land under the existing frontage roads would be a complete game changer for downtown.  We need to be very careful to consider the long term health of our community, and not simply replicate the Klyde Warren.

We are spending billions to build more infrastructure that we cannot afford to maintain.

TxDOT controls billions and is flush with cash after two statewide propositions that allocate additional billions to the ever-expanding system.  I-35 is not the only proposed highway expansion; we are surrounded by them.  The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (our local MPO) has a 2040 plan totaling $35 billion.  These plans focus resources on highway expansions rather than much-needed long term maintenance.  Simply put, we are spending billions to build more infrastructure that we cannot afford to maintain.

In Austin, we repeatedly hear the mantra, from TxDOT and local leaders: “We can’t build our way out of congestion.”  Apparently we are still going to try. 

Image from the Houston Chronicle

Image from the Houston Chronicle

Instead of looking to cities that have created quality urban areas in place of highway corridors, we seem to be emulating Houston, where they invested $2 billion in the Katy Freeway (I-10) to create 23 traffic lanes (including toll lanes).  As you can probably guess, congestion is now worse than before the expansion.

Within Texas, Austin is infamous for our progressive “Keep Austin Weird” mindset and our refusal to go along with the status quo.  These days, Austin appears regularly on “best of” lists.  Much of the international recognition is due to our culture of local music and art and food, our lakes and parks, our festivals, and our great downtown.  The impact of a better I-35 on our local community and our local economy is enormous. 

Austin needs to demand a better I-35, where the health and well-being of our neighborhoods and communities are prioritized just as much as long distance vehicle trips. 

TxDOT (and DOTs like them) supposedly have a public input process, but it’s a long, hard, costly battle with an entrenched highway industrial complex that benefits from the status quo.  We find that cities across the country (Syracuse, New Orleans, San Diego, Dallas, etc.) are having the same struggle between local residents who value their communities and state DOTs that value vehicle speed and throughput.  Our cities need a paradigm shift in the way we deal with highways in urban areas, and national leadership to bring these efforts together.

(Top image courtesy of Black + Vernooy)

About the Author

Heyden Black Walker is an urban planner with Black + Vernooy in Austin, Texas.  BV has been advocating for a better downtown Austin for the past 40 years.  Our Great Streets Master Plan, and the tax base it helped create, have turned downtown Austin into a vibrant urban destination and the economic engine of the region.  Heyden is managing the next big transformation of downtown: Reconnect Austin, a grassroots community effort to cut and cap I-35 through the urban core.  Check out the CNU award-winning video.  In her spare time she advocates for a better built environment through Austin’s Pedestrian Advisory Council, Austin’s Design Commission, Vision Zero ATX, CNU-CTX, and raising two young urbanists.