I-35′s $7.5B expansion more of a reality after securing full funding
A massive proposed expansion of Interstate 35 aimed at handling the influx of traffic as the Austin area grows is poised to move forward after the Texas Transportation Commission brings forward a plan Thursday that will fill a $4.3 billion funding gap.
The commission, which guides the Texas Department of Transportation’s construction priorities, will propose fully funding the $7.5 billion expansion of the interstate that could include multiple levels of tunnels through parts of central Austin and the demolition of the two deck system that has come to characterize the highway in Austin.
On Thursday, the Transportation Commission will begin its first public discussions of bridging the financial gap. The proposal pumps $3.4 billion into the I-35 project in Austin, dedicating the full allotment of the commission’s discretionary fund in its Unified Transportation Fund.
The remainder would come from a $300 million allocation from the commission when it updates its Unified Transportation Plan in August and from reprioritizing $600 million TxDOT previously sent to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Texas Transportation Commission Chairman J. Bruce Bugg Jr. said.
In May, CAMPO’s board voted to kick $400 million toward the interstate after TxDOT staff unveiled a preliminary plan that included lowering the highway below ground throughout the central city as well as adding managed lanes.
“What we’re going to talk about ... will directly benefit the folks in Austin,” Bugg said in an interview with the American-Statesman. “We believe that it is a statewide strategic priority.”
Bugg called I-35 “Main Steet Texas,” noting that mitigating the slowdowns in Austin — a notorious bottleneck along a highway that runs through four of the state’s five largest cities — benefit all Texans.
While the funding plan’s approval appears to be a mere formality at this point, many questions remain about the future of Interstate 35. Bugg said it was too early to begin to provide a timeline for the project′s completion, but landing the full funding should expedite a lengthy planning and public input process that accompanies all major TxDOT projects.
What I-35 looks like at the end of the process also is an unknown even with preliminary plans. But creating two managed lanes on each side of the highway through most of Austin remains the plan. Those lanes will not be tolled, but could be reserved for high occupancy vehicles, Bugg said.
“This project will relieve traffic congestion for all those who travel on I-35 through Austin, while helping our capital city meet the needs of a growing population,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement.
How the interstate’s expansion interfaces with the Austin City Council and Capital Metro’s regional transportation plan Project Connect is unknown. All major projects in the multi-billion dollar transit plan through Austin remain focused away from the city’s other highways.
“I-35 through downtown Austin is a state and regional strategic priority. It must be. Today’s proposal to invest an additional $4.3 billion in funds to address I-35 is the kind of bold investment we need,” said Sen. Kirk Watson in a statement.
By Phil Jankowski