A Conversation with TxDOT

Written by Brendan Wittstruck

Eager to add Cherrywood voices to the recent discussions of planned improvements on Interstate 35 through Central Austin, the Steering Committee hosted a presentation to membership by the Texas Department of Transportation on May 14. Joined by TxDOT I-35 Program Manager Stacey Benningfield and consultant Beverley Silas, the Steering Committee listened to a presentation and asked questions of HNTB consultants Steve Miller and Steve Johnson.

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The Mobility35 Capital Area Improvement Plan (CAIP) is the latest TxDOT-sponsored effort to propose substantive improvements to the aging IH35 corridor. Miller pointed out that traffic volumes through downtown often top out at over two hundred thousand vehicles per day, a number which conjures to mind more bumper-staring morass than it does the effortless speed of mid-century promise. Citing research showing Austin’s traffic as among the worst in the nation, TxDOT is now charged with improving the capacity of the corridor. Predictably, adding lanes will be the tactic employed.

This is no small task in the narrow right-of-way given to IH35 as it passes west of Cherrywood. Engineers in the mid-Seventies, similarly stymied, designed the upper decks in an effort to add lanes. Today, those upper decks lack the structural capacity for further lane additions, so the onus falls on the shadowed lower deck to meet the challenge. TxDOT says this is achievable and has proposed the development of a “Future Transportation Corridor”, a pair of new lanes in the corridor’s center whose nature—free, tolled, HOV or otherwise restricted—remains to be decided.

Accommodating these additional two lanes will require changes that are sure to attract some notice from Cherrywood residents. The arched concrete bridges at Manor Road, 32nd Street and 38 ½ Street that currently span across the highway must be demolished and rebuilt to allow for additional vehicle clearance and many of the on- and off-ramps, designed to archaic safety standards, are called to be permanently removed. In addition to these infrastructure changes, TxDOT is also showcasing new design plans for 51st Street (a modern roundabout and the “fish hook” loop to Cameron Road to replace the existing “jug handle” at Barbara Jordan), Airport Boulevard (the “Diverging Diamond Intersection”) and at least one scheme which would require the purchase of property along the northbound frontage road between 32nd Street and 38 ½ Street for additional right-of-way.

Although TxDOT claims that Phase 2 of this five-phase project is already complete, they stress that design changes are not “set-in-stone” and are subject to change. “Superstreets”, the reviled design idea that restricted both left-hand turns and through-traffic, have been shelved by TxDOT following the justifiable outcry from neighborhoods when they were suggested at Woodland Avenue, Sixth Street and the crossings near Cherrywood—although TxDOT has yet to publicly discuss the exact nature of the designs that will take the place of Superstreets. TxDOT has publicly yielded to neighborhood complaint and City insistence on using the Imagine Austin Plan as a design guideline and now includes “East-West Connectivity” among the primary goals of the project. Additionally, they now maintain that all improvements will also consider pedestrian and bicycle access along and across the IH35 corridor.

Cherrywood neighbor reactions were decidedly mixed. Neighbors pressed TxDOT to consider the “bigger picture” of the future of mobility in Austin, arguing that IH35 capacity concerns cannot be resolved without better incentivizing SH-130, as well as the planned Bergstrom Expressway as freight and through-traffic alternative. Neighbors also called for TxDOT to embrace urban rail under its purview and to more clearly address how the agency was working with—and not counter to—the Project Connect urban and regional rail visions. At the very least, neighbors have insisted that their designs not preclude future rail in the IH35 Corridor.

TxDOT, for their part, agreed that rail is a necessary addition to the City’s transportation portfolio—just not along the crowded IH35 corridor. Miller also pointed out that the Bergstrom Expressway (an extension of US-71 as a limited access freeway approaching the airport) would alleviate pressures on IH35 once the US-183/US-71 “loop” was completed.

Another common cry was “how will I get home?” Neighbors were divided on the efficacy of on- and off-ramp removal, some citing concerns over increased vehicle volume on the frontage roads and Manor Road while others tentatively welcomed the phased separation of local traffic and lessening of high-speed merging associated with the ramps. Several neighbors called for more involvement by the City of Austin Transportation planners and engineers to provide alternatives to IH35 main lanes for access to downtown and South Austin.

TxDOT made clear their interest in knowing neighbor reactions to the various design changes of the intersections directly affecting Cherrywood, in particular soliciting comment on one proposed scheme which would add a northbound off-ramp between 32nd and 38 ½ Streets but would require the purchase of land and removal of businesses to the east of the frontage road. This proposal stands in contrast to other schemes which would include a redesigned flyover ramp to Airport Boulevard from the northbound upper deck (a scheme which would also require the purchase of some residential parcels). It will be up to neighbors to continue to discuss the merits and detriments of plans such as this before rendering a unified neighborhood position to TxDOT.

Benningfield welcomed Cherrywood questions and reiterated TxDOT’s willingness to speak with the Neighborhood Association again in the future. The Cherrywood Steering Committee will continue to press for a neighborhood position, hoping to solicit both recommendations from the Land Use & Transportion Sub-Committee and from the wide range of resident and tenant opinions throughout the neighborhood. It’s time to speak up and work together toward a future for IH35 that strengthens Cherrywood instead of looming over it.

HNBT draft plan for Mobility 35 (Cherrywood)

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