‘Seamless urban fabric’: What’s the latest on I-35’s Cap and Stitch plan?

AUSTIN (KXAN) — With construction on Interstate 35’s downtown expansion poised to begin later this year, state and local transportation experts gave an update to come on the cap and stitch program, a city-led effort to improve connectivity between downtown Austin and the eastside.

The Downtown Austin Alliance first began looking into the possibility of caps and stitches in 2019. Caps serve as deck plazas — larger than 300 feet in length — that can hold small structures, community amenities and green space on top of a sunken highway, while stitches are smaller and offer east-west connections over the lowered interstate.

Emily Risinger with the DAA said Wednesday that officials began looking into case studies of other cities with cap and stitch structures, as well as evaluating ways the proposed design element could benefit Austin.

“Caps are big, stitches are smaller, but all are going to work together to create this seamless urban fabric once we build these caps over time,” she said.

RELATED: Austin approves more than $15M to kickstart I-35 ‘cap and stitch’ design work

The I-35 Capital Express Central project is a $4.5 billion, eight-mile project that will remove the upper decks of I-35, lower the highway and add extra high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes along with better east-west pedestrian and cyclist facilities.

Tommy Abrego, the Mobility35 program manager with the Texas Department of Transportation’s Austin District, said Wednesday there are multiple breakout projects as part of the I-35 expansion:

  • Drainage tunnel

  • Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard bridge reconstruction

  • Lady Bird Lake bridge reconstruction in southern-central portion of the project, from Holly Street to Ben White Boulevard

  • Cap and stitch structures downtown and near the University of Texas at Austin

Richard Mendoza, director of the City of Austin’s Transportation and Public Works Department, said the caps and stitch design option provided an opportunity to reconnect downtown and east Austin, particularly as the interstate has historic ties to segregation and racism within previous city planning initiatives.

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“When the City of Austin first became aware of potential plans to lower all of 35 below grade and the opportunity to realize, recapture up some space that historically has been a divide for our city – namely between downtown and the eastern crescent – I think we all got goosebumps and immediately became involved in participating in what those design possibilities could be,” he said.

He added it’s been a collaborative process between the city, TxDOT, DAA and a community steering committee to help envision what those caps will look like and where they should go. Currently, officials are eyeing the following cap locations:

  • Cesar Chavez to Seventh Streets

  • 11th and 12 streets

  • 38th Street to Airport Boulevard

Meanwhile, additional stitches could be found along:

  • Holly Street

  • 32nd Street

  • 51st Street

Mendoza said the city has pulled some cap inspiration from Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, a similar cap and stitch project that reconnects downtown Dallas with its north-central side. Other examples floated included the cap over I-10 in Phoenix, which features small structures, green space and shade amenities.

When analyzing amenities to place on the caps, Mendoza said costs are a factor. The caps and amenities, when combined, equal an investment between $600 million and $900 million. That could come from a variety of funding avenues, including federal grants and public-private partnerships.

The city is set to hear back on a federal Reconnecting Communities grant application this winter. In that application, city officials requested $105 million to assist with the costs of a cap running from Cesar Chavez Street to Fourth Street.

In December, Austin City Council improved an initial $15 million payment to TxDOT to cover 30% of design work on the caps; by the end of the year, the council is set to add an additional $19 million to that down payment to cover 100% design work on the elements.

As work progresses, Mendoza and Risinger each said city officials are soliciting public feedback to help guide the vision of the planned improvements, with that perspective being factored into final design selections.

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