TxDOT’s perverse idea of progress

This is an excerpt from the Sept. 2 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

I-35 has long been decried as a physical and psychological barrier in Austin.

The psychological aspect comes from the fact that the highway for decades separated white Austin from black and brown Austin. When built in 1962, the highway largely replaced East Avenue, which the city had since 1928 enforced as an explicit racial boundary, west of which black and brown people were generally not welcomed. The new highway was a convenient excuse to reinforce the boundary just as the civil rights movement was starting to chip away at Jim Crow.

I-35 remained an important racial divider long after de jure segregation ended in the 60’s, but in the past decade its relevance in this regard has shrunk due to gentrification on the east side. Austin is still a profoundly segregated city, but I-35 is no longer the key dividing line.

What’s not really debatable is that I-35 very much remains a major physical barrier. Many east-west streets are halted by I-35, forcing drivers, pedestrians and cyclists wishing to cross to make an unpleasant, if not perilous, journey on the frontage road.

And it need not be. We can have a major road, or even a highway, that doesn’t turn a major part of downtown into a hellscape. Indeed, imagine if those scores of acres that are currently dedicated to concrete could instead be home to things that actually enhance downtown: businesses, entertainment, apartments, green space? What if all of that land actually generated billions of dollars in economic activity and property tax revenue? This is the possibility that the Reconnect proposal offers by burying the downtown portion of I-35 and building a good old fashioned urban boulevard on top, thus restoring the street grid and opening up numerous acres of land for development and green space.

TxDOT has no interest in such a solution, of course. Its proposed expansion of I-35 makes the highway even wider, making the physical barrier even more formidable.

Of course, that’s not how they describe it. If you hear TxDOT officials describe their two (very similar) proposed alternatives for expanding I-35, you may come away with the impression that their plan is all about connecting the east and west. This slide from the agency’s presentation to City Council on Tuesday, for instance, suggests that connectivity is a top priority:

More than 15 widened east-west crossings! Plus three new ones!

The fact is that what they’re proposing does not differ substantially from what exists now. They are not making a meaningful attempt to restore the city’s street grid.

In the graphic below, the red dots indicate street crossings under the highway and yellow dots indicate crossing above the highway. The top line is the status quo and the two bottom lines are TxDOT’s two proposed alternatives.

If you count all the dots, you’ll see there will only be one more all-use street crossing (at 5th St). There will still be long stretches of highway that cannot be crossed, particularly on the northern and southern ends. I-35 will continue to be a major east-west barrier to pedestrians, bicyclists, wheelchair users and, frankly, drivers.

This is an excerpt from the Sept. 2 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

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