AUSTIN (KXAN) — Just over a week after the Texas Department of Transportation released its final environmental impact statement (EIS) on its Interstate 35 expansion plan, grassroots organization Rethink35 announced it will join several other plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the project.
The I-35 Capital Express Central project is a $4.5 billion, eight-mile endeavor to expand the interstate from U.S. Highway 290 East down south to State Highway 71 and Ben White Boulevard. Project components include the addition of two managed, non-tolled high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes for carpooling and mass transit purposes along with the following features:
- Removal of existing I-35 decks
- Lowering the roadway
- East-west cross-street bridges
- Pedestrian and bicycle shared-use paths
On Aug. 21, TxDOT announced it had approved the final version of the EIS, a component required under the National Environmental Policy Act to determine any environmental impacts on the corridor surrounding the project.
“The Central project represents years of hard work to develop safety and mobility enhancements that will benefit all users,” TxDOT’s Austin District Engineer Tucker Ferguson said following its release. “It is a project that has seen a tremendous amount of community input, and one that we can say is designed in part by the community and for the community.”
While TxDOT officials said this final clearance has poised the state agency for construction to begin in mid-2024, several city, county and state leaders have shared reservations about the plan.
On Wednesday, Rethink35 and representatives from Austin City Council, area neighborhood associations and fellow grassroots organizations gathered at Stars Cafe off I-35 and East 31st Street to condemn the project. Stars Cafe is one of more than 100 properties slated for displacement under the planned expansion.
Austin City Council members Natasha Harper-Madison, Zohaib “Zo” Qadri and a representative from Mayor Pro-Tem Paige Ellis’ office slammed the environmental and cultural impacts this plan could have on east Austin residents and neighborhoods sitting along the project’s boundaries.
Harper-Madison referred to I-35 as an “ugly beast” that has historically withheld Black and brown Austinites from opportunities and access in other parts of the city. She said expansion efforts wouldn’t solve ongoing transportation, health and equity issues and would instead worsen the environment while further segregating the eastside from downtown.
Qadri said moving forward with the expansion flies in the face of the city’s ongoing safety, mobility and climate goals.
“We are currently standing in the literal shadow of one of the greatest mistakes in the city’s history,” he said.
He added this council can be the city leadership to stop “something horrific from happening,” or it can opt to step aside and let TxDOT continue toward expansion efforts.
Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, echoed Qadri’s calls for complete council denouncement of the project.
“There is no bigger Goliath than TxDOT,” he said.
Adam Greenfield, board president of Rethink35, told KXAN after the press conference the organization and its fellow plaintiffs are still executing the final details of their lawsuit against TxDOT. A complete lawsuit and list of participating plaintiffs is expected to be shared with the public in the coming months.
He encouraged those opposed to the project to contact their local and state representatives, as well as to protest against the planned expansion on social media or within their social circles.
“The lawsuit is certainly a key part of [Rethink35’s efforts]. Pushing our elected officials to stand up, be strong and speak out, speak loud and be proud,” he said. “It’s really going to take all of us and luckily, we have the pages of history to draw from. This has been done before and we can do it again.”
In a statement, a TxDOT spokesperson said the state agency “does not comment on pending or threatened litigation.”