Expansion of I-35 in Austin a disaster for environment

TxDOT | Public Domain
Rendering of TxDOT's proposed expansion of Interstate 35 through Austin

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is in the late stages of planning and study for a proposed 28-mile expansion of I-35 to up to 22 lanes and is expected to issue its final design in December to take through environmental review. According to Grist, the project “would generate 255 million to 382 million additional vehicle miles traveled per year, resulting in 1.2 to 2.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by 2050, roughly equal to the annual greenhouse gases generated by a small coal-fired power plant.”

Just as road expansions elsewhere in Texas have failed at reducing congestion – like Houston’s Katy Freeway expansion – any congestion benefits from widening I-35 will likely be short-lived. Austin’s suburbs of Georgetown, north of the city, and San Marcos, south of it, both saw population grow by more than 35 percent from 2010 to 2016. If those cities continue to see population growth as in recent years – which seems likely if encouraged by a wider highway connecting them to Austin – I-35 will quickly fill up with cars once again.

This “highway boondoggle” would also displace up to 140 households and 70 commercial properties, including the Escuelita del Alma daycare and Austin Chronicle building. TxDOT anticipates beginning construction on the northern and southern sections of the project in 2022/2023 and the central portion in 2025.

There has been widespread opposition to TxDOT’s plans. In the spring of 2022, Austin’s city leaders expressed to TxDOT their concerns with the process and the proposals the agency has put forward. Citing climate change, the futility of highway expansion due to induced demand, the city’s goals around transit and active transportation, the need for safety, and the damage that I-35 has done to surrounding communities, they asked for design alternatives and a planning process that take their priorities into account. In June, Environment Texas, TexPIRG, and Rethink35 filed a lawsuit against TxDOT claiming the agency improperly split its overall I-35 expansion project into three separate projects in order to avoid having to submit the project as a whole to the more rigorous environmental review and public participation required by law for a single larger project. And finally groups such as Rethink35 continue to rally growing public opposition to expansion and support for alternatives.

Instead, local groups are urging a study of alternatives to expansion. Rethink35 is pushing for rerouting traffic around town on existing highways such as SH-130 and rethinking the right of way through Austin as an urban boulevard. Reconnect Austin is advocating for sinking I-35 through central Austin underground and covering it with a boulevard. Thus far, the public has been denied a full study of both options.

You can sign ReThink 35’s petition here calling on TxDOT to pause the expansion until alternatives can be fully vetted.

Staff | TPIN
Executive Director Luke Metzger speaks out against the proposed expansion of Interstate 35 through Austin

Luke Metzger

Executive Director, Environment Texas

As the executive director of Environment Texas, Luke is a leading voice in the state for clean air, clean water, clean energy and open space. Luke has led successful campaigns to win permanent protection for the Christmas Mountains of Big Bend; to compel Exxon, Shell and Chevron Phillips to cut air pollution at three Texas refineries and chemical plants; and to boost funding for water conservation, renewable energy and state parks. The San Antonio Current has called Luke "long one of the most energetic and dedicated defenders of environmental issues in the state." He has been named one of the "Top Lobbyists for Causes" by Capitol Inside, received the President's Award from the Texas Recreation and Parks Society for his work to protect Texas parks, and was chosen for the inaugural class of "Next Generation Fellows" by the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at UT Austin. Luke, his wife, son and daughters are working to visit every state park in Texas.

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