A group of activists stood outside the Texas Department of Transportation’s headquarters Jan. 29 holding signs and speaking out in protest of the $4.5 billion I-35 expansion project.

The activists, which include members of Rethink 35, Save our Springs and several local neighborhood associations, announced the details of their lawsuit against TxDOT that was officially filed Jan. 26.

In a nutshell

The lawsuit argues that TxDOT did not properly examine the negative environmental impacts the project could bring on or seriously consider alternative highway designs proposed by Rethink 35.

The lawsuit also notes that TxDOT failed its legal obligation to seek public comment after extending the project limits by 1.2 miles and did not find a replacement area for a portion of Waller Beach Park that TxDOT will seize for construction.

The lawsuit also names the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and their respective department heads, Pete Buttigieg and Shailen Bhatt, as plaintiffs for lack of oversight over the expansion plan.

A closer look

In addition to the lawsuit, Rethink 35 submitted a civil rights complaint to the DOT and FHWA urging for federal intervention by rescinding TxDOT’s Record of Decision that was released in August.

The complaint and lawsuit emphasize that widening the I-35 corridor will further segregate Austin’s east and west side.

“For over sixty years, I-35 has cut a line through Austin, with disproportionately negative impacts on marginalized communities [and] communities along I-35, especially East Austin—the vast majority of which are Black and Latino,” the lawsuit states. “Decades of discrimination, caused and reinforced by the construction of I-35, have brought widespread social, health, and economic disparities to these communities.”

The formal complaint echoes similar moves taken up by Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court last fall. Both entities asked TxDOT to hold off on construction of the project until further environmental review was completed; however, TxDOT promptly denied both requests.

“Thousands of residents, local businesses and organizations, along with many elected officials, expressed their deep concerns to TxDOT about its plans to widen I-35,” Rethink 35 board President Adam Greenfield said in a news release. “TxDOT ignored those concerns, giving us no choice but to find remedy in court.”

The other side

In response to the lawsuit, TxDOT officials said they would “vigorously defend the much-needed project.”

TxDOT has maintained that the project will provide a solution to traffic congestion, help move more people with less cars by installing high-occupancy vehicle lanes, and bring needed structural upgrades to a road that hasn’t had any major improvements since the ‘70s.

“This is a project designed with the community and for the community,” TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams said in a news release. “We have carefully followed and even exceeded the environmental and legal requirements to advance this project. We don’t believe that the actions of these opponents have merit.”

What’s next

TxDOT has brushed past all local efforts to stymie construction, and still plans on breaking ground on the project in mid-2024.

Despite the challenging circumstances Rethink 35 faces ahead, they are not ready to give up. The group has already reached half of its $20,000 fundraising goal to help pay legal fees, and is encouraging other activists to join Rethink 35’s filings by signing a form.

“We are at a critical juncture,” the group said in a statement to Community Impact. “Whatever happens with I-35 now will shape our region for at least the next century. We simply can't afford to get this wrong.”