Unjamming the traffic

Billion-dollar transportation package paves way for I-35 overhaul in Austin

Billion-dollar package paves way for I-35 overhaul in Austin

Austin traffic highway I-35 congestion
I-35 is getting billions — with a B — in funding. Courtesy photo

The Texas Transportation Commission has filled a funding pothole for the massive overhaul of I-35 through the Austin area.

On April 30, the commission, which oversees transportation projects throughout the state, approved $3.4 billion in state funding for the proposed $7.5 billion Central Texas redo of I-35. The Austin area’s share of the interstate continually ranks among the most congested highways in the U.S.

Several critics, including two influential state lawmakers, had urged the commission to hold off on the I-35 funding decision due to uncertainty over the state’s future revenue. The uncertainty stems from worries over the collapse of the oil and gas industry — a huge source of state tax revenue — and the novel coronavirus-produced economic slump.

In an April 30 statement, DeWitt Peart, president and CEO of the Downtown Austin Alliance, applauded the commission’s decision.

“This project will create jobs and capital investment in our region’s economy, as well as help reduce congestion and keep commerce moving,” Peart says.

The state commission’s decision came 10 days after the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) committed $633 million to reconstruction of I-35. CAMPO coordinates regional transportation planning for Bastrop, Burnet, Caldwell, Hays, Travis, and Williamson counties.

The state’s $3.4 billion boost means most of the funding has been secured for the I-35 reconfiguration.

The proposed $7.5 billion project stretches from the State Highway 45 North toll road, around the Austin-Round Rock border, to the State Highway 45 South toll road in South Austin. The project comprises three components:

  • The northern section adds one non-tolled carpool lane in each direction along I-35 from SH 45 North to U.S. Highway 290 East.
  • The central section adds two non-tolled carpool lanes in each direction along I-35 from U.S. 290 East to State Highway 71/Ben White Boulevard. This section might include construction of underground tunnels to carry traffic through downtown Austin, and demolition of the upper and lower decks through Central Austin.
  • The southern section adds two non-tolled carpool lanes in each direction along I-35 from SH 71/Ben White Boulevard to SH 45 Southeast.

The state Transportation Commission is expected to vote in August on what would be the final chunk of money for the central portion of the I-35 project.

In February, J. Bruce Bugg Jr., chairman of the Transportation Commission, said the I-35 project is not only a priority for the Austin metro area but for the entire state.

“In recent years, I-35 through Austin has repeatedly been one of the worst chokepoints for drivers in Austin and Texas and the source for understandable frustration,” said Bugg, adding that the project must move forward if Austin hopes to remain a “beacon for business” and a model for a “wonderful quality of life.”