AUSTIN (KXAN) — In late December, the Texas Department of Transportation released the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the I-35 Capital Express Central Project. The EIS is a federally-required step that outlines the preferred project scope, key features and related displacements due to right-of-way acquisition.

Under the $4.5 billion plan, TxDOT aims to combat congestion through the expansion of lanes and the addition of two high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, used for mass transit or carpooling use. But the proposal’s expanded footprint also comes at a cost, with more than 100 properties slated for displacement as a result.

Project features

TxDOT’s I-35 central project is an eight-mile stretch that runs from U.S. Hwy. 290 West and SH 71 north to U.S. Hwy. 290 East.

Key project elements include:

  • Removal of existing I-35 decks
  • Lowering the roadway
  • Adding two non-tolled HOV lanes in each direction
  • East-west cross-street bridges
  • Pedestrian and bicycle shared-use paths

Data from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute ranked the I-35 corridor within Travis County as the third most congested roadway in Texas. It’s a statistic Tucker Ferguson, TxDOT’s Austin district engineer, cited during a January interview with KXAN.

“The last time we had any significant expansion on this section of I-35 was in the mid-1970s,” Ferguson said. “So we have not kept up with the pace of population growth and traffic growth numbers.”

The Austin metro recorded nearly 2.3 million residents in 2020, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the City of Austin’s Housing and Planning Department.

By 2060, that figure is expected to nearly double, up to 4.3 million.

“Number one, we are catching up. We also are planning to address the demand that’s going to be coming in the future, whether we build this project or not,” he said. “You can see it all around us: businesses, residents, development popping up all over our region, and I-35 is the backbone to Central Texas. So we’re answering the bell of what’s been needed for many, many years and putting this project together for the future.”

Highway expansions: Congestion relief or induced demand?

While TxDOT officials have said the project will reduce congestion volumes along the I-35 corridor, some transportation experts said expanding the highway might actually encourage more ridership, in turn increasing congestion.

“By opening up I-35, what we do is increase the attractiveness of that corridor for longer distance travel,” said Kara Kockelman, a professor of transportation engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. “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.”

She equated induced demand to concepts like latent demand, such as lowering the cost of something and seeing a huge spike in demand as a result.

When you expand highways, she said drivers tend to modify their behaviors to start using those roadways more frequently and at more peak travel times, quickly filling up any sort of congestion relief provided by the expansion.

Project pushback

While TxDOT officials have said the project is vital for Central Texas’ growth, the proposal on the table has received pushback from some city officials and constituents.

Austin City Council Member José “Chito” Vela has said public feedback on the proposed project is critical given the volume of people who will be impacted by it.

Vela added he doesn’t support expanding I-35, but has thrown his backing behind the city-led Our Future 35 — a “cap and stitch” program designed to increase connectivity between downtown Austin and the eastside.

The “cap and stitch” design would add decks overtop the sunken lanes, which could hold parks, community spaces as well as possible buildings. The “stitches” are east-west crossings and bridges that would expand non-vehicular traffic through features like shared-use paths and bike lanes.

The city of Austin provided an update Jan. 19 on its cap and stitch project, being done in conjunction with the Texas Department of Transportation’s I-35 expansion project. (Rendering courtesy: Atkins Engineering, City of Austin)

That city-run initiative would be constructed in coordination with TxDOT’s I-35 expansion, Our Future 35 officials previously told KXAN.

“We want a project that mitigates the damage that I-35 has done, reconnects Austin and eliminates the highway as a, as a barrier,” Vela said.

Community advocacy groups like Rethink35 and Reconnect Austin have long fought against the expansion, calling for a “community-style boulevard” that minimizes the project’s footprint and prioritizes mass transit and east-west connectivity.

Adam Greenfield, executive director of Rethink35, told KXAN in September the city’s cap and stitch component was a positive design element, but said there are still significant environmental and socio-cultural impacts from the expansion effort.

“Cap and stitch is a band-aid on top of a massively damaging, what would be a massively damaging highway expansion,” he said. “Certainly, a little park or two on top of the highway is slightly better than nothing, but cap and stitch is not good enough.”

The physical costs of expansion

Should TxDOT move forward with the proposed project version earmarked in the EIS draft, 107 businesses, homes and other properties would be displaced.

Stars Cafe, a 24-hour diner located at I-35 and East 31st Street, has been open to the public since 1966. It is one of the more than 100 properties slated for displacement.

“A plan like this would put us out of business and make us have to move…. We have to figure that next step out,” manager Jetara Robertson told KXAN, adding: “As somebody who grew up here in Austin, you know, you hate to see the things that have been here for a while starting to go away.”

Among the 100-plus properties marked are eight businesses specifically noted in the EIS draft as serving non-white, Spanish speaking and/or lower-income populations.

  • CommUnityCare: David Powell Health Center: specializes in the treatment of HIV and AIDs, providing services to lower-income populations or people who are uninsured
  • CommUnityCare: Hancock Walk-In Care: provides medical services to the general public, lower-income populations or those without medical insurance
  • Pediatric Healthcare: children-centered medical care, located in the Austin Medical Building
  • Dr. Emilio Torres: obstetrician and gynecologist serving children
  • Escuelita del Alma: Spanish immersion preschool comprising two commercial parcels
  • Jimmy’s Barbershop: barber services for Black and African American community members
  • Hector’s Barbershop: Spanish-speaking barbershop
  • The BL Barbershop: barber services for Black and African American community members

Jimmy Baltierra, owner of Jimmy’s Barbershop, had been cutting hair for about ten years before finally opening up his own shop in 2021. Baltierra said he didn’t even know his business was in the possible displacement path until KXAN reached out to them in early January.

Since then, TxDOT officials said they’ve been in contact with all properties flagged for displacement. But still, Donny Rivera, a barber at Jimmy’s, expressed disappointment in what this means for business and their clientele.

“I feel real disappointed about that,” Rivera told KXAN. “I wouldn’t know where to start off at. It’s such a good spot, and it’s right off 35. And it’s easy to find us. And I wouldn’t know what to do or where we would restart at.”

TxDOT officials said the agency would help provide “advanced relocation assistance for selected properties to minimize impacts to underserved communities.” They added federal rules that allow the department to offer rental assistance to people, but not businesses.

However, the agency noted in its EIS draft that both people and businesses will likely “find it difficult to relocate in the same neighborhood or general area due to increasing housing and real estate prices.”

Next steps and how to get involved

TxDOT is hosting a public engagement and comment period through March 7. Members of the public can review and submit feedback regarding the EIS draft and the proposed project at large.

The federal government ultimately must review and approve the EIS draft for the project to proceed.

From there, TxDOT will announce a finalized decision on the project design and scope in August, with an anticipated construction start date in mid-2024.

The $4.5 billion project is expected to take eight years to complete and is estimated to finish by 2033.