Local officials understand adding lanes means adding traffic. Here's why they still support the $4.3B I-35 project moving forward
TxDOT could start a project to add four managed lanes to I-35 through Central Austin in 2025. Local officials said the project gives the community an opportunity to improve public transit and a chance to redesign the highway to be less of a barrier. (Design by Shelby Savage/Community Impact Newspaper)
Despite calls from some lawmakers to slow down due to the economic uncertainty caused by the coronavirus, the commission voted 3-1 April 30 to allocate $3.4 billion to the project. The final $900 million piece will come in separate funding decisions.
Commissioner Alvin New was the lone objection, arguing while he supported the project, he thought the commission should hold its funding decision until next year.
"I am not against this project; however, the pandemic and its effect on our economy and revenue sources has me wanting to slow down and be more cautious with expenditures," New said.
The commission's decision now kicks off a three-year environmental review and community engagement process before a shovel is put in the ground. Brian Barth, the Texas Department of Transportation's director of project planning and development, said at the commission's February meeting construction could start in 2025 and take about four years to complete.
Local government officials said they have heeded the warnings provided by highway widening case studies, such as I-405 in Los Angeles and the Katy Freeway in Houston, where widening projects that cost billions of dollars led only to longer commute times as those lanes filled up with more cars.
"It’s the reality of vehicles and highways. You cannot build your way out of demand, and you cannot solve traffic by building more," Capital Metro President and CEO Randy Clarke said.
But even though TxDOT's plan calls for the addition of two nontolled managed lanes in each direction, officials said there are still good reasons to embrace this opportunity to make I-35 better, not worse.
The Capital Area Regional Mobility Authority—a group of government officials responsible for planning transportation projects in the six-county Central Texas region—voted April 20 to defer $633 million in projects and redirect that money toward I-35, a key step that allowed the Texas Transportation Commission to move forward.
"This is a unique opportunity, a generational opportunity," Pflugerville City Council Member Rudy Metayer said before the vote.
Opportunities for public transit
At the April 20 CAMPO meeting, Mayor Steve Adler said improving Austin's public transportation is his biggest reason for supporting the I-35 project to move forward.
"There's nothing we can do to better take people out of their cars and better support climate change mitigation than to actually have a viable means for creating transit along that I-35 corridor," Adler said.
Capital Metro buses travel in the MoPac Express lanes for free, which has led to a significant increase in ridership on those routes. According to data from the public transit agency, ridership on the five MetroExpress routes that connect areas of North Austin and suburban cities to downtown using the MoPac Express lanes jumped more than 50% from 2018 to 2020, from 2,093 average daily riders to 3,167.
Clarke said ridership has increased because passengers know their commute is going to be the same every day.
"The reason the express lanes work so well north to downtown is consistency and reliability," he said.
As the TxDOT project moves along, Cap Metro is working on a major overhaul of its own: Project Connect is a $9.6 billion plan to significantly expand Austin-area public transportation by adding light rail and underground tunnels through downtown Austin, and a funding plan for the project could go in front of voters this November.
As proposed, the four added lanes to I-35 would not be tolled the way the MoPac lanes are. Instead, they would be carpool lanes, allowing buses and vehicles with more than one rider to drive in them.
Adam Greenfield, board president of local pedestrian advocacy group Walk Austin, said adding managed lanes to a status quo he called "awful" will not be enough to fix I-35, and the community will need "visionary" leaders to improve upon what's in the current plan.
"The likely scenario, if we sat and watched this thing trundle forward, is we’ll end up with a massively expanded I-35 with buses in the managed lanes, like a bad MoPac," Greenfield said. "That’s just not good enough."
Breaking down a barrier
Community advocates and public officials both said Austin should take advantage of this opportunity to redesign I-35 that comes along with TxDOT's decision to fund the project adding managed lanes.
TxDOT has not made any design decisions regarding the project yet; it has only secured the first round of funding and outlined the scope of what will be done to the roadway. Those design decisions will come over the next three years as the details are finalized. Community proposals TxDOT is considering include burying the lanes of I-35 underground through downtown Austin as well as taking down the upper decks that run from Airport Boulevard to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Jay Blazek Crossley is the executive director of Farm and City, a nonprofit that leads the Vision Zero Texas effort to end traffic deaths. He told the Texas Transportation Commission on April 30 that the I-35 project in front of them is about much more than moving vehicles more quickly—it is about making Austin more safe and more connected.
"The point is that I-35 is not just a project of getting people from north to south. But fixing I-35 will help people get east to west. We need to reconnect Austin and fix the scar that has been I-35. We need to make it safe to walk from the west side to the east side," Blazek Crossley said.
In a Medium post he wrote following CAMPO's April 20 vote, Metayer said the I-35 plan as it stands now "does not completely address the social, economic and cultural barriers that I-35 has created for generations of Central Texans" as the historical divider between communities of color in East Austin and the wealthier side of town in West Austin.
However, Metayer said he looks forward to working in the next few years with community members to bring down that divide.
"If we get this right, the regional impact of this project will be monumental," he wrote.