Interstate 35, spanning thousands of miles from Laredo, Texas all the way to Duluth, Minnesota, undoubtedly serves as the most crucial traffic corridor in the Austin area. Built in 1962, long before the population boom in Central Texas, the section in Austin is infamously Texas’ third most congested roadway. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has thus decided to initiate the Capital Express Project, widening and replacing eight miles of I-35 from Buda to Round Rock, hoping to alleviate traffic and upgrade the aging infrastructure. As of August 2023, the final environmental impact statement by TxDOT has been approved by the federal government. Construction is scheduled to start by 2024. However, this $4.5 billion expansion between Ben White Blvd and US-290 has drawn considerable controversies— city council members and local activist groups like Rethink35 have been putting efforts against the project on both city and state levels for the past few years.
The Capital Express Central Project’s specific plan includes removing the existing upper decks, lowering and significantly widening the roadway with two High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes in each direction, constructing more east-west street bridges, and adding pedestrian and bicycle paths along the way. The expansion will also involve 111 right-of-way displacements, roughly half residential and half commercial properties.
According to the City of Austin, the infrastructure of I-35 in Austin “has outlived its functional lifespan and needs to be replaced to continue its essential mobility function.” They also inferred the outdated roadway design is responsible for numerous accidents involving not only cars but cyclists and pedestrians too. Mayor Kirk Watson is also supportive of the project.
Both the government and opponents of the project mention racial segregation as one of their main arguments. One argument is that, since the highway was constructed along the historic East Avenue, coinciding with the segregation line between downtown and the Black-majority East Austin, the presence of the highway has decreased connectivity and “perpetuated racial and economic divisions.” From TxDOT’s perspective, the expansion project near downtown will rejuvenate east-to-west connectivity by adding bridges.
However, many local opponents are determined in their opposition. Activist group Rethink35 listed a series of possible consequences following the expansion, including more congestion, traffic accidents, increased expenditures of taxpayer money, and increased carbon emissions. After the release of the environmental impact plan, US Congressman Greg Casar and two Austin City Council members spoke out against the project, arguing that the project would worsen traffic, pollution, and racial segregation.
According to Kara Kockelamn, a professor of transportation engineering at UT Austin, this expansion will “increase the attractiveness of that corridor for longer distance travel,” thus paradoxically leading to more congestion. Indeed, there have been many cases in the US where the widening of a highway led to more traffic due to induced demand. The Katy Freeway in the Houston area is an example of this, where the government spent nearly $2.8 billion to expand the highway only for more traffic to persist. For the right-of-way relocations mentioned earlier, the project will require demolishing several medical and apartment complexes alongside many businesses, potentially causing reimbursement controversies. Lastly, to compromise with public frustration over the project, Mayor Watson spoke about the possibility of capping the widened roadway from above in order to increase thoroughfare and usable land in downtown. However, TxDOT has stated it will not fund the capping project, and the city will have to find a way to pay for the estimated cost of $800 million.
Alternative solutions have been brought up as well. Studies at Texas A&M have once suggested redirecting bypassing truck traffic to SH-130 instead of staying on I-35. Many urbanists have long believed that creating a better public transit system and increasing its ridership, like the ProjectConnect in Austin, is the best way to counter road congestion. Rethink35 is currently planning to sue TxDOT later this year. Rethink35 previously attempted to sue TxDOT earlier this year for “intentionally [avoiding] federal environmental review.” However, the case was dropped. However the lawsuit plays out, the controversies around the I-35 expansion will remain in the Austin community for the foreseeable future.