Five segments of I-35 in the Austin area are on the Texas A&M Transportation Institute's 2016 Top 100 Most Congested Roads in Texas list.
(J Velasquez/Community Impact Newspaper photo)
Since 2011, TxDOT has been developing solutions for I-35 that not only enhance mobility but reflect what is important to the community. At the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce Regional Growth Summit, TxDOT was joined by state Sen. Kirk Watson and other local officials to announce a plan to add two managed express lanes in each direction along 33 mi. of I-35 from RM 1431 (Round Rock) to SH 45 Southeast (near Buda) as part of an enhanced I-35 project called Capital Express. The proposal also includes lowering I-35 through downtown Austin and potentially removing the upper decks from Martin Luther King Boulevard to Airport Boulevard.
“We only get one shot to rebuild and improve I-35 through downtown Austin, so we have to do as much as is reasonable within the existing footprint to enhance mobility and lower it,” said Watson. “I want to thank TxDOT for continuing their hard work and honoring what's important to our community.”
Adding two managed express lanes in each direction will require extensive reconstruction of I-35, providing the opportunity to add additional enhancements to the project. They could include placing the express lanes under the mainlanes where right of way is limited and providing direct access between the express lanes and frontage roads. Those features improve safety by preventing drivers from weaving across mainlanes and causing interruptions. The Capital Express project also includes operational improvements such as longer entrance and exit ramps, intersection bypass lanes, and bicycle and pedestrian improvements.
“Five segments of I-35 in the Austin area are on the Texas A&M Transportation Institute's 2016 Top 100 Most Congested Roads in Texas list,” said Watson. “I-35 through downtown Austin is number two statewide. We need solutions that provide true transit benefits and give drivers reliability when they need it.”
According to Austin's communityimpact.com, the projected cost is $8.1 billion. This new proposal requires adjusting the on-going environmental study. Instead of studying the project in three sections, the new alternative will be studied as one, from RM 1431 to SH 45 Southeast. Public input provided at previous I-35 meetings, open houses, and workshops will be incorporated into the new project. Opportunities to provide additional input will be available at open houses scheduled for spring 2018.
“Having a new and improved I-35 is something we have been waiting on for generations,” said state Rep. Celia Israel. “I am excited to see TxDOT take community input and help us fulfill that vision. This is a game changer when it comes to safety as well as improving this critical Texas asset."
“The Capital Express project along I-35 in Austin aligns perfectly with our statewide Texas Clear Lanes strategy to address some of the most congested roadways in Texas,” said J. Bruce Bugg, Jr., chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission. “Working with Senator Watson, Representative Israel and other transportation professionals in and outside of TxDOT has gotten us to a point where we can continue gathering valuable public input and move forward on this transformational project.”
TxDOT is evaluating ways to phase construction to allow for the most mobility improvements without limiting future enhancements. The plan will be to focus on downtown Austin first, where improvements are needed the most, with interim solutions from SH 45 North to SH 45 Southeast. Multiple financing options are being considered, including federal loans, state and local transportation dollars, and debt financing. An environmental decision is anticipated in 2019 and construction could begin as early as 2021.
“Addressing congestion along I-35 is a top priority for the Austin District,” said Terry McCoy, TxDOT district engineer. “I-35 is a critical path through Austin and serves as our state's main thoroughfare for goods and services. This project will ensure reliability when drivers need it most.”
Managed express lanes are special barrier-separated lanes adjacent to general-purpose lanes that are designed to remain congestion free. They utilize variable tolls to manage the amount of traffic in the lanes. This is accomplished by increasing the toll when traffic is heavy and lowering it when traffic is light. Express lanes can help reduce congestion in the general-purpose lanes. The additional express lanes, combined with the significant operational improvements to the existing mainlanes and frontage roads, will improve travel times for all drivers.