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I-35 Really Could Improve, but the Plan Needs Funding

The aggravating crawl written into the Interstate 35 narrative has persisted for years, continuously frustrating Texans. The unforgiving traffic has wreaked havoc on our quality of life.

Is there any relief in sight? Perhaps.

A recently proposed expansion of Interstate 35, or “Main Street Texas” in Austin, by the Texas Transportation Commission, the entity that governs the Texas Department of Transportation, is quickly coming to fruition, however, funding hasn’t been approved yet.

The TTC proposal would add more than $3 billion to the project, which seeks to remedy Austin’s traffic woes, a city that is perceived as having outgrown its infrastructure.  

The Capital Express Central project plan would consist of two nontolled managed lanes in each direction from U.S. 290 East to U.S. 290 West/SH 71 and tethered to the funded Capital Express North and South projects currently in development, wrote TxDOT Director of Project Planning and Development Brian Barth in an email to Reform Austin.

“The managed lanes will provide a more dependable trip for transit and complement the local transit enhancements that will come through Project Connect,” said State Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) in an emailed statement to Reform Austin.

The Austin American-Statesman reported that the plan could include “multiple levels of tunnels through parts of Central Austin, rebuilding the highway below ground level and the demolition of the two-deck system that has come to characterize the highway in Austin.”

TxDOT has been busy in the last 30 years overseeing multiple projects along I-35 designed to relieve gridlock between San Antonio and the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. During the past few years, the Texas Clear Lanes initiative has been used to assist in the funding of these projects, Barth said.  

According to Adam Greenfield, a transportation advocate who is also the board president of Walk Austin, the only benefit arising from I-35 expansion is the one filling contractors’ pockets. He told Reform Austin in a phone interview that 100 years of data prove road widening isn’t effective in curbing traffic congestion.

“The first thing is to acknowledge once you have congestion you can never get rid of it,” he said.

Gov. Greg Abbott stated in a recent TxDOT press release that, “this project will relieve traffic congestion for all those who travel on I-35 through Austin, while helping our capital city meet the needs of a growing population.”

A Texas A&M Texas Transportation Institute report cautioned that Central Texas could not mitigate congestion solely through road construction in part due to latent or induced demand, reported the Austin Chronicle in 2014.  

Induced demand says when street geometry changes, specifically when augmenting or broadening a street, drivers’ habits accommodate those changes because of the new capacity, Greenfield said. More people will then tend to use the roads and at the same time create further congestion.   

“And we’ve seen this very famously, fairly recently with the Katy Freeway where they widened it to 23 lanes and congestion actually got worse after that. And we’re going to see the same thing in Austin,” he said.

Barth said the project would accommodate public transit such as the use of new managed lanes. “We are working with Capital Metro and other partners as we design the project over the next few years,” he wrote. 

Greenfield isn’t buying any of TxDOT’s claims. He said the public’s best interest isn’t their aim leaving transit, bicycling or walking out of the discussion.   

“TxDOT started its life as the Texas Highway Department … and that is still very much in its DNA,” he stated. “If you’ve been to Texas Transportation meetings and seen what they’re talking about it’s all road widening. It’s all cars. And that’s in their DNA.”  

Watson sees both transit and roadways as pieces to the solution puzzle. He said he has dedicated several years to creating a realistic and viable plan to improve I-35.

“My dual priorities have been to improve mobility and to address the historical wrongs of this scar on our community — all within the political and fiscal realities of Texas,” he said.

The state investment, coupled with the continuing dialogue led by the Downtown Austin Alliance, provides the best means to tackle the needs of people, neighborhoods and commuters, Watson said. 

Christopher Adams
Christopher Adams
Christopher Adams is a Texas-based journalist who spent several years as a staff reporter for two Texas newspapers before transitioning into freelance writing a few years ago. He has written for Culture Crush, Growing America, Ranch & Rural Living Magazine, No Depression, For The Love Of Bands, and Bee Culture.

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