Austin’s Ambitious Plan to “Cut and Cap” a Downtown Highway

The vision to "cut and cap" I-35 through downtown Austin is now being considered by TxDOT. Image: ##http://reconnectaustin.com/##Reconnect Austin##

Since it was built about 50 years ago, Interstate 35 has been an enormous physical and psychological barrier through downtown Austin. Partly elevated, partly sunk, it’s the dividing line between what locals refer to as “east Austin” and plain old Austin. It’s also a major NAFTA trade corridor that carries 250,000 vehicles a day, and is considered one of the most congested freeways in the country.

I-35 is due for repair, and naturally TxDOT has proposed a traditional rebuilding and widening project. But an alternative proposal has emerged from the community calling for something radically different.

Austin's I-35 as it exists today. Image: ##http://www.ptank.com/blog/2008/03/more-primary-highways-texas-austin-hill-country-and-san-antonio/## Ptank.com##

In Austin, the proposal is known as “cut and cap,” and it would help bridge the divide without removing the freeway. The idea is to bury or “cut” the highway and “cap” it with an at-grade boulevard and mixed-use development. The $550 million concept is the brainchild of Austin architect Sinclair Black.

The plan would open up some 30 acres of valuable downtown land for walkable, mixed-use development, Black says. An analysis by his planning and architecture firm, Black + Vernooy, found that if the site were developed relatively intensively, it could support some $3.2 billion in development. About 7,000 people could live within the current right of way, he says, and it could accommodate some 2 million square feet of retail and restaurants. That development could return enough tax revenue to cover the costs of the project, he says.

Because the freeway is so widely used, tearing it down just didn’t seem practical, Black said. The plan is partly inspired by a similar project in Dallas that capped the Woodall Rodgers Freeway. Now above the highway people play chess and ping-pong at the Klyde Warren Park, which opened last year. There are many other precedents, said Black, like Millennium Park in Chicago, which sits on top of rail yards.

Austin architect Sinclair Black is the brains behind the I-35 "cut and cap" concept. Image: ##http://transportbox.blogspot.com/2010/08/august-2-2010-austin-texas-sinclair_02.html## Transportbox.com##

“If TxDOT builds just another freeway using a bucket of tax money, it becomes just another recurring expense,” said Black. “If they take our approach … it becomes a recurring asset.”

Black and his group, Reconnect Austin, have drawn together a coalition for the project, including environmental groups like the Sierra Club and a major development firm called Rida. It’s a big tent that has “never, never” occurred until now, Black said.

Last month, the Austin City Council signaled its support, passing a resolution asking TxDOT to consider the cut-and-cap project along with a range of other options. TxDOT, to its credit, has agreed to consider it alongside three other traditional alternatives it has put forward. Black still thinks TxDOT doesn’t want to cap the highway.

“They’re desperate to leave ours out,” he said. “But I don’t think the community would stand for that.”

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Highway Boondoggles: Texas State Highway 45 Southwest

|
In a new report, Highway Boondoggles 2 (the original came out in 2014), U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group teamed up to profile the most wasteful highway projects that state DOTs are building. Streetsblog will be serializing the case studies in the report. Today, we focus on a road project that risks contaminating the water supply in and around Austin, […]

High-Rises Don’t Cause Traffic; Parking Lots Do

|
Few things evoke carmaggedon hysteria quite like the construction of a tall residential building. As Austin has seen more growth, some have seized on the relatively few high-density housing developments as a source of the region’s traffic problem. But housing density is not the cause of traffic congestion, says Carrie Gammell at Car Free Austin: It seems […]

Texas DOT Seems Open to a Downtown Dallas Highway Removal

|
Will Texas embrace a model of mobility that works well for cities, instead of tearing them up with wider highways? A new report from the Texas Department of Transportation indicates that at least in some circumstances, the answer may be “Yes.” TxDOT last week released its “CityMAP” plan for urban highways in central Dallas [PDF]. Normally, you […]

Houston’s Big Chance to Turn Back the Tide of Car Traffic

|
There’s a lot riding on Texas DOT’s $7 billion plan for downtown Houston freeways. TxDOT has been working for more than a decade on a plan for the three highways that roughly form a circle around the city — I-45, I-10, and U.S. 59. Last April, the agency revealed a draft version of the plan, and another revision […]