AUSTIN (KXAN) — Interstate 35 through Austin came in third place for the most congested road in Texas.

“Frustrated,” said driver Rey Castillo.

“It’s pretty awful,” said another driver, Anna Isaacs.

“You have to just keep dealing with it,” said Douglas Smith, who drives the major highway frequently.

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute released its latest Texas’ 100 Most Congested Road Sections report Monday and found drivers were delayed nearly 8 million hours along the stretch of I-35 from U.S. Highway 290 in north Austin to Ben White Boulevard/State Highway 71 in south Austin.

When it comes to truck traffic, that part of I-35 ranks No. 1 as the most congested section in the state.

“I actually think about it quite a bit that I feel like it’s really heavy on the roads … people trying to get off with the big trucks and then the little cars, it’s just kind of dangerous to be all mixed in like that,” said Isaacs.

Texas A&M’s study indicated not only does the stretch of I-35 see regular congestion but
also “more intense problems from traffic crashes and stalled vehicles.”

Overall, Loop 610 between Interstate 10 and U.S. Highway 59 in Houston ranked first for the most congested roadway in Texas. A stretch of road in Dallas — Woodall Rogers Freeway, from U.S. Highway 75 to Beckley Avenue — came in second.

The cost of the congestion on I-35 through Austin totals more than $200 million, Texas A&M estimated. That’s more than twice as much as the Loop 610 in Houston, which costs nearly $98 million. The institute calculated the total cost based on the cost of fuel and delays.

This annual report helps planners with the Texas Department of Transportation focus on where to prioritize road projects.

Planned improvements: will they help?

I-35 through Austin is expected to get an overhaul through the I-35 Capital Express Project, with construction already starting on I-35 south of Ben White to State Highway 45.

The projects would add one or two non-tolled high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) managed lanes, also known as carpool lanes, in each direction along I-35.

Some critics said expanding the highway like that won’t ease the gridlock.

“If we’re only relying on 35, there’s only going to be more congestion and adding more lanes won’t help at all,” said Castillo.

“Widening roads makes traffic worse. The only solution when you have congestion is to provide alternatives to driving that are congestion free, such as public transportation, bus lanes, trains, bus rapid transit, bicycling and walking,” Adam Greenfield, the executive director of Rethink35, told KXAN earlier this month.

His group is suing to stop the Capital Express Project.

“If we were never going to grow again, widening a road would be well, you know maybe for safety or something like that,” said David Schrank, Texas A&M Transportation senior research scientist.

But since Texas and Central Texas are growing, Schrank said highway expansion does help.

He points to a freeway expansion in Houston about 10 years ago as an example.

“When everybody’s trying to go to work at 8 a.m. or come home at 5 p.m., there’s going to be congestion. But what we’ve seen, for example, in the Katy Freeway is, the rest of the day is more reliable,” Schrank explained.

TxDOT spokesperson Bradley Wheelis said 80% of the more than 200,000 trips along I-35 through central Austin either come from or end in the downtown area.

“With the unprecedented growth happening in our region, those numbers are going to go up. If we don’t do anything, we will see further delays, prompting drivers to find alternatives, like city streets, to get to their destinations,” he wrote in an email to KXAN.

Wheelis said HOV lanes will also specifically help the truck congestion problem.

“Studies show most of the truck traffic is local, meaning it originates or ends in the vicinity of the project area,” he wrote in an email to KXAN. “By adding one to two high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes in each direction, public transit buses, van pools, ride shares and carpoolers will be able to access those lanes, freeing up more space in the general-purpose lanes for freight and single-occupant vehicles.”

Schrank said widening roads is only one way to tackle traffic congestion, along with expanding public transit, like through Project Connect.

“We’re going to need a lot more transportation, whether it is roads, whether it is public transportation, whether it is all kinds of options, more management of our facilities, and more encouragement of the work from home that we’ve seen over the last year or two,” he said.

He said all of that plays a role in managing gridlock going forward.

“But if we don’t take care of these kinds of bottlenecks, and we don’t do these kinds of things, growth in the future is going to be very difficult,” Schrank said.

Wheelis said TxDOT is taking a multi-modal approach to tackling traffic.

“In addition to the HOV/transit lanes, TxDOT is adding to and enhancing the bicycle and pedestrian network by constructing shared-use paths on both sides of I-35 for the entire length of the corridor, as well as enhancing cross-street bridges to accommodate citizens who choose those modes of travel,” he said.

This TxDOT rendering shows how the HOV-managed lanes will work with the shared bicycle and pedestrian paths along I-35 after the Capital Express Project (Source: TxDOT).
This TxDOT rendering shows how the HOV-managed lanes will work with the shared bicycle and pedestrian paths along I-35 after the Capital Express Project (Source: TxDOT).

Wheelis said TxDOT expects to break ground on the North Capital Express Project in early 2023.

He said the central project is still in the process of environmental clearance. The agency expects to have a public hearing in early 2023.

See a complete list of the 100 most congested roadways in Texas on the Texas A&M Transportation Institute website.

You can learn more about the I-35 Capital Express Project here.