Austin, Texas, is in the midst of a battle to save a way of life that could very well mean the death of the city. In the 1950s Interstate Highway 35 was carved through the middle of downtown, reinforcing in concrete and steel the segregation that already existed in the city. To make matters significantly worse, elevated lanes were added in the 1970s. Today, as the city continues to see increasing sprawl, that massive thoroughfare is a perpetually congested barrier separating Austin’s Eastside from Central Austin. In fact, IH-35 is such a failure that Austin is now one of the worst cities in the nation in terms of traffic congestion, with each driver spending nearly 40 hours per year stuck in traffic.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that this all could have easily been avoided. Austin is ideally suited to be a comfortably compact and easily accessible community. Once beautiful creeks running throughout the city provided the outline for where pedestrians and bicyclists could have moved through the city on an even grade and in a pleasant environment. That outline was soundly ignored, however, in favor of burying creek beds in concrete and heavy development in flood plains. Even now, there are plans in motion for massive development along the shores of Waller Creek, running through the heart of the city, with no thought being given to walking and biking trails along the creek.
Now Texas Department of Transportation is faced with the problem of trying to satisfy the insatiable demand for more lanes to carry people to their faraway homes and serve the endless stream of eighteen-wheelers along IH-35, a NAFTA corridor. The result would be further disenfranchisement of a large Austin population and a further degradation of the environment and Austin’s identity. What is more, it would only be another Band-Aide on the hemorrhaging problem—more lanes enabling more sprawl, demanding more roads, rinse and repeat. Already an eyesore, IH-35 will become an even greater abomination, devouring small businesses and residences along the way in a futile attempt to feed the beast.
The group Reconnect Austin, however, has proposed a solution. They have an innovative plan to reconcile the heavy demands of automobile traffic with the restoration and preservation of the city’s identity, while at the same time providing for centralized economic growth and added green space. Their proposal would put a cap over IH-35 for several blocks as the interstate runs through the downtown area. In so doing, lanes could be added beneath the surface, while on top, a pedestrian-friendly boulevard would be provided for slow-moving traffic and easy access to local businesses and other interior roads.
One highly significant result of this plan would be to provide accessibility to jobs and resources in central Austin for Eastside residents. While neighborhoods on the Eastside are in some cases just a mile or two to downtown, the UT Campus, or the State Capitol Complex, they are far removed due to the dangers of automobile traffic. The city is currently so car-dependent, particularly for those in low-income parts of town, that a high percentage of their income must go toward car-ownership. With the Reconnect Austin plan, many residents would not need to own a car, instead getting to destinations by walking or bicycling, thereby increasing their take-home pay and general quality of life.
The Reconnect plan would also create new development opportunities along the IH-35 corridor, which would help pay for the implementation of the plan itself and create even more livable space, adding to the supply pool of homes in the area, and opportunities for affordable housing. This is an important consideration, as is the fact that the Eastside is widely underdeveloped. With increased accessibility, developers and the city are more likely to invest in affordable housing on the Eastside. All of this would mean stemming the tide of sprawl rather than perpetuating it, a problem, as noted earlier, that exacerbates traffic problems among many other things.
Economically, aesthetically, and logistically it is the best thing for the city of Austin. It is a plan that has the potential to curb sprawl, turn attention back to the natural environment, and create a safe, conscientious community. It is the rare opportunity to turn back the clock to preserve some of the identity of a great city and provide much needed relief to an underrepresented section of the community. Whether or not the people of Austin will seize that opportunity remains to be seen.