Austin Leaders Denounce 20-Lane Freeway Project

TxDOT is pushing ahead with plans for a massive freeway expansion project through downtown Austin despite opposition from virtually all local leaders.

October 27, 2021, 8:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Despite Austin Mayor Steve Adler's acknowledgement that "major transportation investments in our past have done more to deepen inequality, to segregate rather than connect, to displace rather than benefit" and the city's commitment to "a $7.1 billion grid of light rail trains and bus rapid transit," Henry Grabar reports that the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is pushing ahead with plans to "expand eight miles of I-35 through downtown to a whopping 20 lanes wide," a plan opposed by almost all city leaders.

"Like in Houston, which has won temporary reprieve from a similar project, Austin’s local politicians are almost uniformly displeased with the plans from the Texas Department of Transportation, or TxDOT." But, lacking an interstate ring road, Austin faces an additional challenge. I-35 "runs from Laredo, Texas, to Duluth, Minnesota" and "TxDOT is focused on keeping that traffic moving, as well as serving fast-growing exurbs north and south of the city." The department argues that without the expansion, "[b]y 2035, the 19-mile commute from downtown Austin to Round Rock will take two-and-a-half hours." 

Anti-highway advocates disagree, pointing to the well-documented phenomenon of induced demand, saying that "new patterns of development and transportation would take shape long before traffic reached that level of congestion." Transportation planners often "rely on population forecasts that assume the highway has been widened," often missing the mark on their projections for highway expansion projects. On one segment of State Highway 130, which TxDOT expanded in 2003, "traffic counts on the I-35 alternate were so low that the toll road operator filed for bankruptcy in 2016."

In a letter signed by Austin's mayor and almost every city council member, the city requested several changes, including a more narrow right-of-way, more crossings and highway decks, and a delay of the project until planned transit lines are completed.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021 in Slate

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