AUSTIN ANSWERED: Why doesn’t city have more east-west highways?

Sept 01, 2017
Businesses and homes are stacked alongside Woodrow Avenue and West Koenig Lane in North Austin. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The question is one that Austin transportation officials stopped asking about a generation ago: What can be done to make it easier to travel east-west across Central Austin?

If that concern has fallen off the official agenda, extinguished by the political difficulty of cutting roads through long-established neighborhoods, it remains very much on the minds of drivers who have to plod through narrow arteries built for a much smaller city. Austin regularly shows up near the top of transportation researchers’ lists for worst traffic congestion in the country.

But that question of why Austin doesn’t have more east-west thoroughfares, which a Statesman reader raised as part of our Austin Answered series, was most definitely on the minds of transportation planners from about 1960 to beyond 1990.

And for modern Austinites, the answers they came up with — none of which ever moved beyond maps and innumerable tense public meetings — might be somewhat astonishing.

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plan approved by the Austin City Council in April 1969, abandoned within five years as that conservative governing coalition gave way to a council well to its left, included:

Crosstown cross-outs Photo: American-Statesman Staff

• A proposed expressway along Cesar Chavez Street, near what was then called Town Lake.

• A “crosstown freeway” that would have begun near West 12th Street and the soon-to-be-built MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and cut across Clarksville, the Capitol complex and East Austin adjacent to 15th Street.

• A short “Camp Mabry Freeway” on West 35th Street.

• A Central Expressway that somehow would have streamed past the University of Texas near Guadalupe Street all the way to U.S. 183 in North Austin, with an easterly tributary along Koenig Lane to Interstate 35.

“You had to have a comprehensive plan” to qualify for federal funding in the late 1960s, said UT engineering professor Michael Walton, who researches and teaches transportation theory and was a longtime chairman of the city’s Urban Transportation Commission. As for the transportation engineers of the time: “They did highways. That’s what they do. That was the state of the art at the time.

“But I don’t think those expressways were ever a good idea.”

Lawsuits halted Koenig freeway

While that plan for a network of Central Austin highways was short-lived, the idea for the Koenig Lane freeway endured through several incarnations over 25 years and did not fully expire until the mid-1990s.

As late as the mid-1980s, planners were still talking about cutting a 300-foot swath from I-35 to MoPac (and possibly west as far as RM 620) along the existing path of Koenig Lane, Allandale Road and Northland Drive, which connect seamlessly across North Austin. That plan would have taken out houses and businesses on either side through condemnation to make it possible to build freeway lanes and frontage roads.

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The Allandale Neighborhood Association, then as now a force in local politics, went into action.

There were federal and state lawsuits, the latter of which successfully challenged a 1986 transportation plan featuring the Koenig expansion. The freeway later was reduced to a parkway, then four lanes with a median and turn lanes, which required a swath of less than 100 feet. Ultimately, little was done other than some intersection improvements, and the Northland/Allandale/Koenig chain today is little changed from the 1960s version.

Voters rejected downtown freeway

The concept of adding a freeway across downtown was the only big-deal, east-west concept that came to a public vote during this period.

In September 1984, a $200 million transportation bond referendum approved by voters included almost $700,000 for a study of a Third Street crosstown freeway, a road that would have started near Austin High and cut through downtown to I-35.

Before that study could even get started, the City Council decided to ask voters just four months later for $47 million as a down payment on such a road.

The exact path of the freeway, its width and its total costs — and even whether it might be extended east to U.S. 183 later — remained a mystery on election day. Voters resoundingly rejected the rushed proposal 68 percent to 32 percent.

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Another route was nonstarter

Frank Cooksey was elected Austin mayor in May 1985 when the east-west conundrum was still a front-burner issue, and Cooksey and the council spent a good bit of time over the next few years wrestling with it.

At one point, Cooksey says, he suggested that North Loop/Hancock Road and Koenig could be paired, with one street becoming one-way east and the other one-way west. He says the idea failed to catch fire.

Along the way, 38th and 45th streets were thrown into the discussion as well. But both run through the politically active and savvy Hyde Park neighborhood, so ideas to expand them into highways or even widen them went nowhere.

Highway planners in the 1970s and 1980s tried to create a crosstown expressway from MoPac Boulevard east on Northland Drive (shown here during 1974 construction of MoPac), Allandale Road and Koenig Lane. But neighborhood and other opposition killed those plans and others for better east-west roads in Central Austin. Photo: American-Statesman Staff

Cooksey says he even suggested, probably with tongue planted in cheek, that Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard could be extended across Pease Park and taken to MoPac.

“In order to do that, though, you would have had to go right through (former Mayor) Roy Butler’s house” in Old Enfield, Cooksey said. “So I figured that wasn’t going to work.”

Nothing on the drawing board

Cooksey, who lives in Tarrytown, said that even now “I hear people always saying, there’s no east-west, no east west. But there are two big east-west highways: Ben White and U.S. 183.”

Those two roads, both six-lane freeways, generally flow well in their sections between I-35 and MoPac. But they are about 10 miles apart, leaving people to make their way east and west in that long gap through gantlets of traffic lights.

The problem during Cooksey’s time as mayor, from 1985 to 1988, was that Austin’s development had progressed so far that any plan to significantly widen any of those east-west arteries — much less turning them into a freeway — simply carried too much impact on neighborhoods and cost to road builders.

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Now, with development another 30 years down the line and Austin’s transportation philosophy tilted sharply away from a cars-only bent, prospects for any of those long-ago ideas resurfacing are nil.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, who chairs the council’s Mobility Committee, noted that the $720 million bond proposal  voters approved last year includes studies of major corridors throughout the city.

The proximity of homes and businesses along existing east-west routes, such as Koenig Lane, would make it politically difficult and very expensive to expand them into freeways. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN Photo: Ricardo Brazziell/American-Statesman Staff

That includes a handful of east-west roads, among them MLK Jr. Boulevard in East Austin. But that list doesn’t have any candidates for a new crosstown highway.

“You’re talking about roads that are already built out going through the central city,” Kitchen said. “It’s not on the table to talk about widening those.”

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