Highway Boondoggles: Interstate 35 Expansion in Austin

Austin commuters are desperate for better options, but the proposal to add miles of new lanes to I-35 will likely only exacerbate the problems that led to congestion in the first place. Image: public domain.
Austin commuters are desperate for better options, but the proposal to add miles of new lanes to I-35 will likely only exacerbate the problems that led to congestion in the first place. Image: public domain.

In their fourth Highway Boondoggles report, U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group profile wasteful highway projects that state DOTs are building across the country.  Today’s boondoggle: Texas’s $8 billion plan to widen I-35 in Austin. Despite enormous state highway debt, and the growing need for transit and complete streets to create more compact and connected neighborhoods, policymakers have proposed spending $8 billion to expand I-35 through the middle of Austin.

Interstate 35 on its route through the heart of Austin is notoriously congested, and its traffic is a constant topic of complaints and news coverage. Commuters are desperate for a fix. But a proposal to add miles of new lanes will likely only exacerbate the problems that led to congestion in the first place.

The proposal being put forth by Texas officials would add four new lanes (two in each direction) along approximately 33 miles of I-35 traveling north-south through Austin. The project is the largest piece of a massive $8.1 billion collection of projects up and down I-35 in the Austin area.

Just as road expansions elsewhere in Texas have failed at reducing congestion — like Houston’s Katy Freeway expansion — any congestion benefits from widening I-35 will likely be short-lived. Austin’s suburbs of Georgetown, north of the city, and San Marcos, south of it, both saw population grow by more than 35 percent from 2010 to 2016. If those cities continue to see population growth as in recent years — which seems likely if encouraged by a wider highway connecting them to Austin — I-35 will quickly fill up with cars once again. 

An I-35 expansion would also drain money from other pressing transportation needs. In 2012 Austin adopted a city vision for limiting sprawl, expanding transportation choices, and creating more compact, connected communities. Achieving that vision will require a variety of projects. These include building better bike and pedestrian infrastructure downtown, like the improvements proposed for the Guadalupe Street Corridor that would cost $33.7 million. Various proposals have called for creating new light rail routes through the heart of Austin, at a cost of $400 million to $1.4 billion. 

Texas’ enormous appetite for new roads — including the addition of 12,000 new lane-miles from 2000 to 2016 — have already drained money from the budget and forced the state to make difficult financial decisions. Texas has shifted billions of dollars to pay for roads and road debt from elsewhere in its budget, as the result of both Proposition 1 in 2014 and Proposition 7 in 2015. As of 2015, Texas owed $29.1 billion in highway debt, second-most in the country, and 30 times more than it owed in 2000. In 2014, Texas paid $4.8 billion just to service its debt, 90 times more than in 2000. 

As of February 2018, the I-35 highway plan is on hold, because the Texas Transportation Commission decided not to support any roads with tolled elements. However, local officials are still pushing to move the project forward. 

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  • AltLeft

    There are highway boondoggles and then there are legitimate highway projects. This one’s legitimate. IH35 is the main north south highway through the nation’s heartland. A lot of traffic through central Austin is through traffic because the tolls on TX 130 are high enough to make it a non-starter for a lot of people. There is no alternative route. The double decker section through central Austin is an antique. It’s dangerous and when it backs up it actually PUSHES TRAFFIC ONTO SURFACE STREETS! That’s not good for pedestrians or cyclists.

    As usual, you offer ZERO solutions. You offer nothing except “cars bad.” Try to adult here Mom and Pop in Dallas or OKC who want to go to San Antonio and walk along the Riverwalk aren’t going to stay home because 35 wasn’t widened. They’re going to exit at Koenig Lane and head west before heading south on surface streets and rejoining on the other side of the Colorado River. I love active transportation, but fighting every road and calling it a boondoggle is idiotic. IH 35 needed to be expanded 20 years ago.

  • qatzelok

    The urgency of this highway is similar to the urgency of every other highway expansion project. Do you really believe we need to be moving more cars over our roads? Is there no sign for you that this might be a very, very bad thing?

  • TakeFive

    Well said and two thumbs up from Colorado. 🙂

  • TakeFive

    Agree with AltLeft… empty rhetoric with no solutions leaves you with what you got that is wholly inadequate. As a transit fan, why not include BRT lanes – as a placeholder for rail in the future?

    Btw, conflating city of Austin issues with regional jurisdictions and their needs is pointless as well. Austin, the city, has a solid plan; unfortunately taxpayer/voters haven’t been sold. Let Austin address its own needs (hopefully) and let the state address regional/state needs.

  • Narayan Gopinathan

    Since I haven’t been to Austin, I can’t comment much on the issue at hand. I have, however, been to Berkeley, and I can tell you that the photo you used is, in fact, Interstate 80 in Berkeley looking south to Emeryville – not I-35 in Austin. I would expect Streetsblog to use a photo of the correct location.

  • Random Nobody

    If that’s a large body of water in the background of the photo, then it’s definitely not Austin.

  • Random Nobody

    I wish I could agree with you. But the author is basically correct. Widening IH-35 would be ridiculously expensive and would be doomed like Houston’s Katy Freeway expansion. The solution is alternate transportation. And the notion of people from Dallas wanting to quickly cut through to San Antonio being a reason for Austin to spend billions to tear up its city…is sick. A city’s responsibility is to its residents…not to outsiders trying to race through the city to somewhere else. What’s at stake in Austin is its future growth, cost, and quality of life.

    1) For light rail, look to Portland. Their relatively new streetcar line has one of the highest riderships in the country. Even look to Houston. For that $7 billion, you could expand Austin’s rail network to make it one of the best in the country.

    2) Look at what Seattle is doing with buses. They’ve reduced traffic to their downtown by 44% in past decade. A similar result would solve Austin’s problems. Seattle has bus-only lanes, double-length buses, priority signaling for buses, etc. Seattle has turned the bus from a vehicle of the homeless to a vehicle of the hip. If buses can catch on in Seattle, they could catch on in Austin.

  • Random Nobody

    Exactly, light rail and BRT (bus rapid transit) are the answers. Not widening freeways.

  • JoeBl

    Sorry but the article is basically correct. You are operating on the presumption that widening that stretch (or most any stretch ) will in fact relieve congestion. The authors are likely correct (based on too many past emperical examples to count) that any widening will be short lived and possibly induce routine uses and land use pattern that ultimately make the problem worse. And BTW I have used that stretch dozens of times to travel between points far north and far south of Austin and I’m an adult and old one at that.

    Not understanding the argument presented is rather juvenile. The discussion is not “cars bad” but rather pointingo the futility of straining limited dollars further with “solutions” doomed to fail.

  • Narayan Gopinathan

    It is in fact San Francisco Bay in Berkeley California. The Streetsblog editors got lazy and decided to use the first image that pops up when you Google “freeway”
    https://www.google.com/search?q=freeway&rlz=1C1NHXL_enUS732US732&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiVtYGpnJDcAhWmsFQKHeQwA1AQ_AUICygC&biw=1280&bih=615#imgrc=JGBXMEOQi1S6lM:

  • TakeFive

    It’s not necessarily a zero sum option; both options might be preferred. Partly it’s a matter of regional versus local traffic flows.

  • TakeFive

    Focussing on eliminating congestion misses the mark; that’s for talking point purposes. The key is capacity and if toll/express lanes are included then it’s about capacity plus keeping those lanes flowing at a designated speed.

  • TakeFive

    Streetcar lines are a whole other kettle of fish especially if we’re talking about freeways. Portland’s LRT lines vary in usage. A better example for LRT ridership (per mile) would be the Twin Cities recently opened Green Line. Also it’s worth pointing out that the head of Tri-Met and Oregon’s Dem Governor both lobbied for new taxes for freeway expansion.

    Seattle is not comparable to most places for various reason especially topicagraphy. Again, Austin has a solid plan that so far the taxpayers haven’t bought into. The freeway expansion is about regional (not city) needs – apples to oranges.

  • Random Nobody

    Perhaps. But we know that Austin’s IH-35 is already way too wide, way too congested, even on weekends, double-decker in places, and right up to storefronts in many places. We also know that $7 billion is a lot of money and can buy a lot of public transit. We know that Austin’s current light rail is relatively anemic. We know that Austin has a very progressive-minded community. And we know that freeway expansions ultimately don’t accomplish much. And finally we know that Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in the country, and it desperately needs to solve some issues like traffic if it wants to grow much more.

  • TakeFive

    You’re still conflating issues. Austin is a city; I-35 serves both the city and regional/state needs.

    Unfortunately, Austin’s ” very progressive-minded community” has so far failed to pass tax increases for better transit. $7 billion is no longer a lot of money. Check out the current experience of Seattle for contemporary examples of rapidly rising costs. Btw, steel prices have risen 38% since the 1st of the year.

    Basic bus ridership is in a multi-year downtrend with the exception of Seattle. Houston got a nice bump when it redesigned their bus routes but has been largely stable since which is admittedly better than many places.

  • Random Nobody

    It sounds IH-35 needs a bypass around the city. Or it needed one. It may be the straightest route from Dallas to Sea World and the Alamo. But it’s the central artery for most folks living in the Austin area to get to their jobs, to the parks, to Sixth Street, to 3 universities, and most everything else.

    As for regional transit, remember there are airlines, AmTrak, Greyhound, SuperShuttle, and other underused methods. Everyone in Texas doesn’t need to spend every weekend alone in a private automobile, driving back and forth across the state. That may have worked in 1972. But as the 4 big Texas cities approach megacity size, it’s time to start thinking like big cities and thinking about things regional transit.

    As for bus ridership falling, that’s a hotly-debated topic. Many folks blame the drop entirely on services like Uber and Lyft, who aren’t helping ease congestion problems. Other folks have said that growing cities are simply under-investing transit, and point to the correlation between increased transit investment and increased transit usage.

    Maybe widening IH-35 is the answer for right now – in a state that lacks vision and creativity. But widening freeways isn’t the long-term solution. Smarter cities are the solution.

  • Jake Wegmann

    “It sounds IH-35 needs a bypass around the city.” We already have one– it’s called TX-130. Never, ever congested. But it’s tolled.

    A big part of the problem here is that the general public still believes that it’s entitled to untolled, uncongested freeway driving.

    Our conservative political leaders, including both the business friendly governor and our hard right Tea Party lieutenant governor, suddenly become raving socialists when it comes to transportation spending and policy. (The previous governor, Rick Perry, for all of his faults, at least for a time stuck to his conservative principles and pushed for toll roads for freeway expansion.)

    In my view, the best solutions are some combination of 1) tolling existing lanes on I-35 2) putting some muscle behind existing planning efforts for HSR between OKC and Monterrey and 3) reviving the Lone Star commuter rail idea which would have extended from Georgetown to San Antonio and hit numerous major employment and educational centers (Georgetown, the Domain, downtown Austin/UT, San Marcos, downtown SA). #3 foundered because Union Pacific, which owns the tracks, pulled the plug–but I would bet dollars to donuts that if the governor cared, and cracked some heads together, he could make it happen. (But he doesn’t, and he won’t.)

    At the very least, why can’t we force all semi-truck through traffic onto TX-130? That would certainly result in induced traffic, of course, but IH-35 would be far safer without all those trucks.

  • CX

    The under investment in transit in Texas must be discussed as TXDOT continues aggressive highway expansion across the state. Interstate 35 is an important route for the city, region, and state. There’s no getting around that. Alternatives must be explored for traveling through and within this corridor in order to sustainably continue the growth Austin is seeing. Light rail, commuter rail, bus, congestion pricing, tolls should be studied comprehensively.

    Perhaps TX-130 should be encouraged as the primary thru route rather than IH-35. Richmond has the longer I-295 bypass of I-95. Atlanta’s I-285 Beltway is used to bypass the congested I-75/I-85 Downtown connector (especially for trucks). Right now, TX-130 is not the obvious choice and I imagine there are many more automobiles that could use this route instead of IH-35, which could then give priority to high occupancy vehicles and local mobility.

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