North MoPac Boulevard drivers, frustrated by almost three years of construction on the key westside highway, are about to get some company in their misery: Interstate 35 commuters.
But, as is the case with MoPac, the work beginning next month on I-35 in South Austin (and, later, throughout the I-35 corridor) is the unavoidable pain before a tangible gain, officials said Wednesday.
“This does mean that we’re going to be looking at orange cones for a couple of years,” state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said at Wednesday’s ceremonial groundbreaking for $79 million of improvements on I-35 from north of Stassney Lane to south of William Cannon Drive. “One of my biggest problems is explaining to people how we can’t just fix it without breaking it first.
“But we are on a steady march right now to a much smarter, more efficient I-35 with reduced commute times and increased reliability and safety.”
That march, in the case of the William Cannon/Stassney Lane project, will last until sometime in 2020, officials said. But a series of projects on 65 miles of I-35 throughout the metro area, including eventually an added express toll lane on each side from Round Rock to Buda, will take at least a decade.
Although a couple of lesser projects have already begun, the groundbreaking ceremony at an H-E-B parking lot at William Cannon and I-35 amounted to the official kickoff of the overall I-35 project.
“Incrementally, each of these projects will fall in line and provide much better transportation for the people of Austin, and for others going through,” said Tryon Lewis, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission.
A “smarter” design
The South Austin project includes adding an entrance-and-exit lane on each side for a roughly one-mile stretch, from north of Stassney to south of William Cannon, replacing the overpasses at those major cross streets with wider bridges, adding U-turn bridges on each side of both of them and altering ramps to and from the frontage lanes in that stretch.
The net effect, officials said Wednesday, will be reduced congestion at the traffic signals on the frontage roads. And the addition of what would be a fifth southbound lane for a stretch between Stassney and Ben White Boulevard should ease what have been severe backups on southbound flyover bridges from Ben White to I-35.
“TxDOT is doing more than just adding concrete,” Watson said at the morning rush hour event. “It is making things better by being smarter.”
The project, which will require demolition of the Stassney and William Cannon overpasses, will mean additional traffic slowdowns during construction and, at times, temporary diversions of I-35 traffic to the frontage roads (typically overnight and on weekends) when overhead work makes driving on the main lanes unsafe, said TxDOT Austin district engineer Terry McCoy.
Those main lane closures, McCoy said, “will be well communicated to public. … We’ll give the traveling public plenty of notice when we interfere with them.”
Unlike the nearby Slaughter Creek overpass replacement, where crews began by demolishing the existing bridge, officials said drivers will be able to make the east-west movements at William Cannon and Stassney throughout construction. The new U-turn bridges will be used temporarily for crossing the interstate, and the existing bridges will be torn down in phases.
More construction coming
The project, paid for with money resulting from the state Proposition 1 constitutional amendment passed in 2014, will be the largest yet of projects associated with a detailed, $4.6 billion plan devised by TxDOT to take on I-35 congestion.
TxDOT recently began construction on a $9.2 million project south of William Cannon, the replacement of the Slaughter Creek overpass. Work should begin in a few weeks on ramp changes between Texas 45 North and RM 1431 in Round Rock, a $28.1 million project. And TxDOT early next month will take bids on a $54.5 million project to replace the Oltorf Street overpass and make ramp and lane changes at and near that interchange.
A half-dozen or so other projects should kick off this year and next, according to TxDOT documents. But with TxDOT due to get at least an additional $2.5 billion annually beginning late next year, and TxDOT consultants working on environmental studies of projects up and down I-35, more work on I-35 likely will be funded and break ground in the next couple of years.
“At any point, this could change,” TxDOT spokeswoman Kelli Reyna said of the current schedule. “The whole point of having the plan is to be nimble.”
Eyes on Government
Ben Wear has covered Austin-area transportation since 2003. He has consistently spotlighted concerns about budgets and spending by Capital Metro, the city of Austin and the state Department of Transportation.