Interstate Highway

A proposal by a University of Texas Alumni to reconstruct part of Interstate Highway 35 into an underground tunnel is gaining traction with the Texas Department of Transportation. 

The proposal hopes to make room for businesses looking to use the land above the tunnel and to end the divide that I-35 has had over East and West Austin for decades. 

The project was proposed by University of Texas school of Archictecture alumni Sinclair Black. Black proposed a “Cut-and-Cap” method to deal with the aging highway. The proposal would essentially bury part of I-35 underground and use the newly-available land as a pedestrian walkway and to lease out to businesses. If initiated, this project would free 30 acres of prime downtown real estate and would bring in an enourmous amount of tax revenue for the City. 

Along with allowing businesses to move in, pedestrians would be able to, for the first time in decades, have an easy walkable path from east to the heart of downtown Austin. The proposal calls for a “Grand Urban Boulevard”, one that would allow pedestrians a safe stroll over the underground highway. 

The organization pushing Black’s tunnel project is Reconnect Austin.  Hayden Walker, a project manager at Reconnect Austin, said the proposed project would end not just a physical barrier, but also a social and economic barrier as well. 

“Austin, like a lot of communities, has the highways placed right next to a minority and disadvantaged population,” Walker said. “If the proposed project is undertaken it might end the concrete barrier separating east from downtown Austin. 

The tunnel would take into account environmental issues as well, Walker said. 

“It is important to people who live right next to the noise and pollution because it blocks most of the noise in ways that walls never could,” Walker said. “When you have a cap, and a ventilation system, you have an opportunity to scrub the air and to remove the air before it leaves the tunnel.”

Two more lanes have also been requested to be built into the underground highway in order to ease the flow of traffic on I-35, and possibly erase I-35’s terrible traffic reputation.

Katelyn Christiansen, a psychology senior who drives I-35 daily, said she wants to see improvements. 

“I literally see accidents on 35 every day because too many people are driving home and they’re hot and tired,” Christiansen said. “It’s getting out of control and anything to address the issue is better than nothing.”

Ryan Rafols, a psychology sophemore who also uses I-35 often, said he believes while it may be costly, it is needed. 

“I think that the growing transportation needs of Austinites is enough reason to justify increasing our mass transit capabilities,” Rafols said. “It may be financially difficult to fund all of these projects but Austin needs it.”

- Additional reporting by Andrew Messamore

Cars line up at the intersection of East Oltorf and I-35 Frontage Road Saturday afternoon. Last week the Texas Department of Transportation named the stretch of I-35 from State Highway 71 to U.S. Highway 183 the fourth most congested roadway in the state.

Photo Credit: Julia Bunch | Daily Texan Staff

Interstate Highway 35 from State Highway 71 to U.S. Highway 183 is the fourth-most congested roadway in the state, according to a Texas Department of Transportation list released last week.

Because of Austin’s economic growth and population increase, roadways are growing increasingly congested during peak commuter hours despite attempts to fund infrastructure improvements, according to the city of Austin’s website.

“With a combination of the business district, downtown area, double deck split, hospitals and UT, there is a lot of entering and exiting traffic in that area,” said John Hurt, Austin spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the upper deck on the stretch of I-35 entering downtown Austin was built to alleviate traffic, Hurt said. However, since the 1970s the downtown area has become busier and more crowded and new lanes cannot keep up with increased congestion.

“The possibility of adding lanes is not good,” said Hurt. “It’s a temporary fix.”

In the last four to five years, traffic on that section of I-35 has not gotten dramatically worse, said Tim Lomax, research engineer for the Texas Transportation Institute. He said this has been a result of the ongoing recession.

“Congestion has actually dropped 10 to 15 percent, reflecting the economy of the past three to four years,” Lomax said. “However, on that section of the road, a decent economy combined with an increase in population is bound to produce traffic congestion that is still worse than average.”

For the every-day commuter, this means skyrocketing gasoline consumption, he said.

“In 2009, the average Austin commuter spent an extra $900 dollars a year in gas and travel time,” Lomax said. “If you think about the commuters on that section of 35, they’ve spent at least $1,100 just sitting in traffic. It boils down to about an extra $100 a month.”

However, the increased spending on fuel because of bad traffic is not the only cost to society, said engineering professor Kara Kockelman.

“The main cost to society lies in lost time [or higher crash severities, at high speeds], rather than extra fuel consumed,” Kockelman said.

A drastic change will require effort from many groups, including the city of Austin, the Capital Area Metro Planning Organization, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority and others, said Kockelman. While many Austin residents would not appreciate price increases, Kockelman said tolling and road pricing may be the best option for TxDOT at the moment.

TxDOT added state Highway 130 over the last decade in hopes to revive pressure from I-35, Kockelman said, but Highway 130 has not yet been successful at reducing congestion on I-35.

“It is rather new, in a largely undeveloped setting, and presumably too far away and tolled too heavily to attract much traffic at this early stage,” Kockelman said. “But it does offer a bypass option for those with long trips. Shorter trips remain very much attracted to the highly congested I-35 corridor through and near downtown Austin.”

Some commuter students of UT have also experienced the brute of peak I-35 traffic congestion. Journalism sophomore Rachel Knapp said she spent last semester commuting to UT and struggled to make it to campus in the face of the high congestion.

“I live in Round Rock, which is only a 30-minute drive from here on I-35,” Knapp said. “But because I had 8 a.m. classes every morning, I would have to leave at 6:30 every morning to beat the traffic and make it to class.”

Drivers on Interstate Highway 35 and Ben White Boulevard will face frontage roads and temporary ramps because of construction this weekend.

The Texas Department of Transportation will continue construction on the flyovers, or interchange overpasses, from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. Drivers going southbound will have to take the access road at the Woodward Street exit starting at 10 p.m. Friday. Drivers heading north will have to take a temporary ramp built north of the U.S. Highway 290 and State Highway 71 exit beginning at about 1 a.m. Saturday.

“The project is adding four additional flyovers to the interchange and will help reduce traffic in the future,” said TxDOT spokesman John Hurt.

When completed, the project will connect I-35 and Ben White. The temporary ramps and frontage roads will have two lanes to help regulate the flow of traffic while under construction, Hurt said.

“We scheduled the construction on the weekends to get the least amount of traffic, as well as took other actions to keep traffic steady,” he said.

The department also needs to place steel beams over the interstate’s main lanes before the project is completely done. The project is expected to be finished this September, but Hurt said the department did not encounter many delays.

“We are ahead of schedule,” he said. “Sometimes a drought has a silver lining,” Hurt said.
All lanes are scheduled to open by Sunday afternoon.


A new proposal may alleviate some of the notorious Interstate Highway 35 congestion in Central Texas.

The Interstate 35 Corridor Advisory Committee proposed switching I-35 with State Highway 130 to relieve congestion during a Texas Department of Transportation meeting. It also recommended adding a high occupancy vehicle lane and a tollway to I-35 and removing tolls from SH 130 and 45 Southeast.

The Texas Transportation Commission created the Corridor Advisory Committee in 2008 after demands for increased citizen participation in the corridor’s development. The My 35 Plan proposal divides the Texas I-35 corridor into four segments with near-, mid- and long-term projects. The Texas Department of Transportation is now in the process of reviewing the committee recommendations.

“The advisory committee was responsible for going out and holding public meetings about the needs that a particular community or area wanted for I-35,” said TxDOT spokeswoman Kelli Petras. “Each segment committee tackled a smaller area tied together with their local communities.”

On Thursday, the committee recommended the addition of a 69-mile HOV lane and tollway going each direction on I-35, from SH 45 SE to Interstate 10. It would occur within 10 to 20 years and cost between $6.2 and $8.85 billion.
According to a TxDOT statement, in 2009 the Texas Transportation Commission committed approximately $1 billion to Proposition 12, a highway improvement fund, and nearly $135 million in federal stimulus funding to expand I-35 to six main lanes between San Antonio and the I-35 east-west split in Hillsboro. Most of the funds have been exhausted, but Petras said Proposition 12 may fund some near-term projects if they are approved.

“It’s not like we can just go out to I-35 and expand it to 10 lanes if we wanted to,” Petras said. “[I-35] has a very confined area with businesses.”

Ross Milloy, Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council president and advisory committee member, said another key suggestion was developing a freight rail to alleviate the number of freight trucks on I-35, which has been increasing since the North American Free Trade Agreement was passed in 1994.

Milloy said the Federal Highway Administration did a study of I-35 in 1999. The Austin corridor was the most congested portion of the entire highway, according to the study. I-35 runs 1,565 miles from Laredo, Texas, to Duluth, Minn.

He said cars would move at a consistent speed if a toll was implemented. TxDOT tolls are transitioning to an all-electronic process, eliminating the need for toll booths.

“The thrust in all of this is to keep I-35 flowing,” Milloy said. “These are mechanisms by which you can regulate traffic flow and ensure a minimum speed through at least one lane. We’re rapidly approaching a situation on I-35 where you may be looking at gridlock for much of the day.”

This initial proposal also suggests adding continuous frontage road, improvements to U.S. 183 and I-10 and constructing outer loops for New Braunfels and San Marcos.

UT associate engineering professor Travis Waller said the proposal addresses problems of the “unusually congested corridor” with innovative and cutting-edge solutions.

“I think it’s pretty obvious both as a professional and for anyone that lives in the area that I-35 has continually gotten more congested,” Waller said. “Something major has to happen, and it has to occur in multiple integrated projects.”

Waller said if transportation is made easier on I-35, it could bring additional economic growth to Austin and alleviate congestion within the city.