AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Monday, the Texas Department of Transportation announced it completed its final environmental impact statement and record of decision, clearing its last major hurdle ahead of a construction start on its Interstate 35 expansion project.

The EIS is a requirement under the National Environmental Policy Act to document any potential environmental impacts that could come from a project proposal. For months, some city and regional leaders have shared reservations about the environmental implications of a highway expansion, including grassroots organization Rethink35.

“Transportation is the biggest source of carbon emissions locally. What are we doing? By widening a highway that’s just going to worsen it,” said Adam Greenfield, board president of Rethink35. “This is completely unacceptable.”

As part of TxDOT’s final EIS, the selected I-35 expansion model would add more than 420,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year, per final EIS documents. The vast majority of those extra emissions come not from construction-related emission levels, but usage along the interstate.

Chart showing  the selected I-35 expansion model would add more than 420,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year
The Texas Department of Transportation released its final environmental impact statement for its proposed I-35 Capital Express Central project, an eight-mile plan to expand the highway near downtown Austin. (Texas Department of Transportation Photo)

In its final EIS, TxDOT officials note the state agency has “implemented programmatic strategies that reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions.” Those strategies included expanded pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, clean construction and fleet efforts and statewide campaigns to reduce tailpipe emissions, among others.

“Even though both Build Alternatives would have higher estimated GHG emissions than the No Build Alternative, Build Alternative 2 and Modified Build Alternative 3 have greater potential for mode shift (increase transit with [bus rapid transits] and active transportation options with [shared use paths]}, while there is no expanded mode shift with the No Build Alternative,” TxDOT documents read.

The environmental impacts related to the project has top of mind for some local leaders. In a statement Monday, State Rep. Sheryl Cole noted air and water quality impacts as some of several concerns she has with the plan.

“There have been significant concerns expressed by community stakeholders regarding this project especially related to minority-owned business displacement, bike/pedestrian lanes, safety, improving air and water quality, urban design, and community engagement,” Cole’s statement read in part. 

Last month, several Austin City Council members commended TxDOT’s incorporation of deck plazas and improved pedestrian and cycling infrastructure as part of the project. However, council members Zohaib “Zo” Qadri, José “Chito” Vela and Ryan Alter said in a joint statement the plan could still impact the city’s climate equity, sustainability and Vision Zero traffic safety initiatives.

“Let us not forget that this conversation is being had in a blistering heat dome,” Greenfield told KXAN Tuesday. “And the fact that TxDOT is willing to decide to build a heat trapping concrete chasm through the middle of our city that will worsen air quality, worsen heat island effect and climate change is beyond a slap in the face to this community.”

In its analysis, TxDOT said the time frame for its annualization of greenhouse gas emissions is 20 years, “to be consistent with the proposed project operation between the 2030 opening year and 2050 design year.” Officials said project features like managed vehicle lanes for buses and carpool users, expanded shared use facilities for non-vehicular traffic and possible changes in remote work options could reduce its estimated figures.

On the environmental front, Rethink35 officials said they are still eyeing possible litigation related to the I-35 Central project. The grassroots group told KXAN in June it was having conversations with other organizations regarding future legal action, and reaffirmed that in a follow-up interview Tuesday.

“We are expecting to have an announcement about this next week,” Greenfield said. “There’s certainly some promising legal avenues available to us.”

In a June statement to KXAN regarding that possible litigation, a TxDOT spokesperson said the proposal followed “thorough environmental studies and extensive public input.”

“TxDOT looks forward to bringing safety and mobility improvements to the corridor through these critical projects,” the spokesperson said.

Rethink35 is hosting a press conference at 10 a.m. on Aug. 30 to discuss those possible legal avenues. More details about it — including a location and information on participating speakers — will be shared in the coming days, Greenfield said.