City Council asks TxDOT the wrong questions

This is an excerpt from the Sept. 28 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

On Friday the mayor and four members of Council signed on to a letter telling TxDOT to make big changes to its proposed overhaul of I-35 downtown. The first signers — Adler, Tovo, Casar, Harper-Madison and Ellis — were eventually joined by four more: Fuentes, Kitchen, Pool and Alter.

TxDOT’s proposed expansion of I-35, with four new “managed lanes” in the middle.

The only two missing are Mackenzie Kelly and Pio Renteria. Kelly, Council’s only Republican, is no surprise. There’s not actually any good reason for a small government fiscal conservative to support this nonsense, but supporting highway expansions and opposing alternatives is a tribal obligation for Texas Republicans.

Renteria’s absence is surprising, but it’s far from clear that he actually declined to sign. The others just may not have been able to reach him. I have not been able to get an immediate comment from his staff.

The letter makes six asks:

  1. A series of “caps and stitches” over the depressed main lanes that can be developed or used for public spaces, as envisioned in an Urban Land Institute report (TxDOT has said the city is welcome to pay for these; the letter says TxDOT should)
  2. The “managed lanes” should be designed to make it easy for buses to enter and exit without getting stuck in traffic
  3. Frontage roads should be based on a “boulevard” concept with low speed limits (25 mph) and narrower car lanes (11 ft)
  4. A reduced highway footprint that minimizes displacement of homes and businesses
  5. More East-West crossings over the highway (with ample designated space for walkers and bikers)
  6. Consider delaying construction until Project Connect is complete (2028-29), when the new light rail lines can help “relieve” the mobility burden caused by a multi-year reconstruction of I-35

There’s no question that what Council is asking for is much better than the steaming pile of manure that TxDOT has offered, but it still falls far short of the best possible outcome. A few caps and stitches aren’t as good as capping the entire central portion of the highway between Lady Bird Lake & AIrport Blvd and reconnecting the entire east-west street grid, as proposed by Reconnect Austin. (You can read my previous thoughts on why Reconnect is better in every way, including fiscally)

What should happen, ideally, is for the city to do two things. First, loudly oppose the plan and get Adler’s bestie Pete Buttigieg to halt the project, just like he recently did with I-45 in Houston. Second, see if we can get Uncle Sam to chip in more money to pay for the cap. After all, the Biden administration has said it wants to support efforts to repair and reconnect communities damaged by racist transportation planning and I-35 is a poster child for mid-century environmental racism.

Unfortunately, there may not be the necessary leadership and focus at City Hall to do the above. It’s hard to overstate what a giant missed opportunity this is for future generations.

This is an excerpt from the Sept. 28 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

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