I-35 project costing $4.9B challenged by Austin eastside residents

Traffic

Elements of the I-35 proposal include expanding the interstate with additional lanes — a proposal Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison referred to as “the same outdated play from the same outdated playbook.” (KXAN/Kesley Thompson)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — For more than 50 years, Stars Cafe has been a cornerstone of east Austin diner culture. It’s a place current owner Shannon Sedwick has frequented since 1968 before taking over ownership of the shop.

Stars Cafe is now one of several businesses facing the possibility of forced displacement under the Texas Department of Transportation’s $4.9 billion I-35 capital express project.

“It’s been a neighborhood staple and it continues to be a mainstay of Austin diner philosophy,” she said. “TxDOT does not need to take away our special places without even talking to us. We want the neighborhood to have a voice.”

Austin City Council members, Cherrywood residents and grassroots organizers gathered in front of Stars Cafe Wednesday to protest the latest proposal delivered to council in a work session the day prior. Elements of the I-35 proposal include expanding the interstate with additional lanes — a proposal Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison referred to as “the same outdated play from the same outdated playbook.”

“[TxDOT] wants to displace scores of businesses and residences, run 20 lanes of freeway throughout downtown Austin, and for what?” she said. “Yesterday, they told us it won’t even provide meaningful congestion relief. We’re talking about a $5 billion project that will cause a decade of displacement and disruption.”

Representatives from Reconnect Austin and Rethink35 were present at the presser, each proposing community boulevard alternatives to an expanded I-35 system. Council Members Greg Casar, Paige Ellis, Kathie Tovo, and Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison also attended.

Adam Greenfield of Rethink35 said widening does not alleviate congestion concerns, but encourages increased traffic on the corridor while also expanding and taking over surrounding residential and commercial space.

He pointed to national examples of effective freeway removal systems that have instead expanded city grid resources through rehabilitated roadway systems, expanded pedestrian and public transit resources and the inclusion of more communal green spaces.

“Other cities have been removing their freeways for decades. Some are doing it right now,” he said. “Rochester, New York is doing it right now. Freeway removal has worked every single time without exception, and will work here.”

The history of I-35 is rooted in racial segregation and systemic inequality, said Nelson Linder, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Austin branch.

Transportation is an equity issue and a central focus of the civil rights movement, he said. Looking at the history of I-35 and its bisecting of white and non-white communities, he said its legacy is rooted in segregation, discrimination and displacement.

“You can’t separate out I-35 from the racial inequality, inequity and displacement in this city,” he said.

To date, TxDOT has received more than 4,000 public comments related to the I-35 capital express central project, with the public comment period open until Sept. 24.

For more information about TxDOT’s proposal, click here.

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