AUSTIN (KXAN) — A study conducted by a national urban mobility organization ranked Austin’s I-35 on its list of 10 “freeways without futures,” citing the highway’s history of segregation, proposed expansion’s displacement impacts and environmental concerns as reasons for its listing.
The Congress for the New Urbanism is a 30-year-old institution that works with grassroot organizations and urban planners on ways to increase connectivity and mobility in cities. CNU’s work focuses on improving transit diversity and access so people have more modes to travel places.
In its evaluation of I-35, CNU noted both grassroot campaigns launched to replace I-35 as an urban boulevard, as well as concerns voiced by city and county officials on the TxDOT project.
Federal funding funneled into I-35 ‘Cap and Stitch’ program
In February, both Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court submitted comments noting concerns surrounding environmental impacts, traffic-related fatalities and displacements as a result of the Texas Department of Transportation’s proposed I-35 Capital Express Central project.
Lauren Mayer, communications manager for CNU, told KXAN she credits the federal government’s Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program with spurring this shift in local government stances. The pilot awarded $185 million in grant funds to 45 projects that support initiatives like capping interstates, transforming sunken highways into housing and enhancing connectivity via public transit routes and trails.
Austin’s “Connecting Austin Equitably — Mobility Study” was one of those projects greenlit for federal dollars, receiving $1.12 million “to evaluate transportation, public health, equitable development, and environmental justice outcomes” that could come from capping parts of I-35.
“Just like in Austin, we are seeing, kind of across the country, more and more politicians seeing this as a politically viable position to take,” Mayer said. “And really, what that could look like, moving forward.”
Public feedback for, against proposed I-35 expansion
The proposed I-35 expansion has faced significant attention from residents and community stakeholders both for and against the project. TxDOT leadership has previously told KXAN Austin’s growing population and highway congestion levels necessitate the expansion project.
“The last time we had any significant expansion on this section of I-35 was in the mid-1970s,” said TxDOT Austin District Engineer Tucker Ferguson, back in a January interview. “So we have not kept up with the pace of population growth and traffic growth numbers.”
At demand between TxDOT and transit experts is the theory of induced demand, or whether TxDOT expanding I-35 will encourage more people to drive on it, thereby increasing congestion woes.
When asked in January, Ferguson denied its impacts.
“We are catching up,” he said. “We also are planning to address the demand that’s going to be coming in the future, whether we build this project or not.”
However, Kara Kockelman — a professor of transportation engineering at the University of Texas at Austin — had a different perspective on the issue in an interview with KXAN in February.
“By opening up I-35, what we do is increase the attractiveness of that corridor for longer distance travel,” she said. “As Texas grows and as Austin grows, and the construction period will be so long, there’ll be a lot of pent-up demand just waiting to get onto that road when it fully opens.”
Next steps for I-35 proposal
Under current project timelines, TxDOT is anticipated to announce a finalized decision on the project design this summer, with an anticipated construction start date in mid-2024.
The $4.5 billion project is expected to take eight years to complete. City leaders are working to secure millions in funding to support its Our Future 35 Cap and Stitch program, whose funding is not being covered by TxDOT.
KXAN reached out to TxDOT for comment on CNU’s study. We will update this story if a response is received.