I-35: A big problem that sparks big ideas

By Mike Heiligenstein
The need to do something about the 62-year-old stretch of Interstate 35 as it moves through downtown Austin is sparking conversation – and some big ideas like depressing the roadway and creating public space over it.

In 2012, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute rated I-35 within Austin as the fourth-most congested roadway in the state. It put the annual cost to consumers from the delays at $110 million. We spend 5 million hours delayed by this roadway. Some 200,000 vehicles per day travel the road, and mostly, it’s folks like you and me trying to get to work. It’s a piece of infrastructure that needs the best minds wrapped around it.

The City of Austin and the Texas Department of Transportation are sponsoring a look at short-term and medium term fixes for Interstate 35, and has received some 300 ideas through open houses and online comment. The stated purpose of this effort is to make meaningful, lasting improvements as soon as possible, while difficult long-term solutions are identified and carefully evaluated. Mimicking the financial crisis, I-35 is just too big to be allowed to fail.

There’s one idea circulating that I-35 can become a depressed roadway below ground level, from Lady Bird Lake to 15th Street. Once the lanes are relocated, the land above it can be leased for commercial, mixed-use development, and used as an inviting park for people to stroll, grab a bite or rest under shady trees. This concept transform the interstate from being a barrier to urban life to a destination for urban life.

The practical issues raised by such a plan are enormous – like what do you do with traffic while excavating the current interstate? The costs are, no doubt, enormous as well. Any mention of a project like this brings to mind “The Big Dig,” a 15-year project in Boston that, with cost overruns, ended up costing nearly $22 billion.

There would be some revenue associated with the project – toll lanes, increased property values and, perhaps, valuable land in the middle of Austin that could be leased for commercial purposes.

But the point is that Central Texas has a rich store of talent and people who think in innovative ways and care deeply about the community we are creating for future generations. Whether big ideas survive the very practical tests of number crunchers and engineers, we shouldn’t take them or granted. After all, once upon a time Interstate 35 was just a dusty little thoroughfare called East Avenue. Nobody envisioned what we have today: a traffic count that adds up to the entire population of Central Texas in 8 days!

Mike Heiligenstein has been the executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority since 2003.

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