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Op-Ed: A $7.5B Boondoggle Advances in Austin

Image: public domain.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Strong Towns is republished here with permission. Since the time of this article's publication, city officials have announced that they're exploring the possibility of not just expanding Highway I-35 by four lanes, but actually lowering the entire highway and topping it with "green space, bike lanes, amenities for pedestrians and boulevards lined with businesses." While that might sound like a good solution, so-called "cut-and-cap" highway burials like these actually don't meaningfully decrease city car traffic when those buried highways are widened at the same time — thanks to induced demand. So even if the I-35 plan goes forward with the seemingly friendlier "buried" form, Austinites in those new bike lanes and sidewalks will have to contend with more cars — and that's bad news for safety.

Daniel Herriges, senior editor at Strong Towns.
Daniel Herriges, senior editor at Strong Towns.
Daniel Herriges, senior editor at Strong Towns.

America's states build far more highway miles than they can afford to maintain — 223,000 new miles from 2009 to 2017 alone — and as a result our unfunded maintenance backlog grows every year. It's for this reason that Strong Towns has long called for #NoNewRoads, and why influential organizations like Transportation For America have joined us in that call. We need to adopt a maintenance-first mentality over lengthening freeways and adding lanes.

Downtown freeways, in addition to the direct costs of construction and maintenance, have massive indirect costs: they divide communities, destroy the wealth of surrounding neighborhoods, and pollute the air. The best thing an otherwise thriving downtown can do with a freeway is tear it down or bury it.

Unfortunately, Texas doesn't seem to have gotten the memo. Texas is doubling down on freeways these days, between a massive redo of Interstate 45 in Houston, and $7.5 billion to redesign and add four lanes to Interstate 35 in Austin.

The Austin changes have been in the works for years, but now the Statesman reports that TxDOT is poised to fully fund the megaproject:


A massive proposed expansion of Interstate 35 aimed at handling the influx of traffic as the Austin area grows is poised to move forward after the Texas Transportation Commission brings forward a plan Thursday to fill a $4.3 billion funding gap.

The commission, which guides the Texas Department of Transportation’s construction priorities, will propose fully funding the $7.5 billion expansion of the interstate that could possibly include multiple levels of tunnels through parts of Central Austin, rebuilding the highway below ground level and the demolition of the two-deck system that has come to characterize the highway in Austin.

On Thursday, the Transportation Commission will begin its first public discussions of bridging the financial gap. The proposal would pump $3.4 billion into the I-35 project in Austin, dedicating the full allotment of the commission’s discretionary fund in its Unified Transportation Fund.

This is the wrong direction for Austin. Our friends at the Frontier Group singled out the I-35 expansion proposal as one of America's worst "Highway Boondoggles" back in 2018. They were right then, and are right now. This is the crucial observation (boldface emphasis mine):

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. 

That part in bold describes the fundamental mobility trap that makes massive spending on wider freeways so foolhardy. In the medium to long term, all that spending does is encourage more development at greater distances. We all end up driving more miles to accomplish the same things, and travel times don't improve.

You’d think TxDOT would learn from Houston, where $2.3 billion to widen the Katy Freeway a few years ago not only didn’t improve afternoon travel times: it made them 55 percent worse.

This project’s seemingly inexorable momentum is a case study in the double standard faced by transportation projects that aren't for motor vehicles, compared with those that are. We live in a world where exorbitant infrastructure for car drivers gets a presumptive benefit of the doubt, while anything that isn't for cars is subjected to a whole different level of, "Can we really afford it?" scrutiny.

It’s classic Infrastructure Cult thinking.  Cities behave as if there’s no need to seriously weigh the need for this project, because the politicians and agency heads involved just treat it as self-evident that the project is necessary and valuable. They simply assume there’s no need to project a real return on investment, or consider how else those billions could be spent. It's just unthinkable to some that we would ever stop expanding roads.

The Downtown Austin Alliance is in favor of the plan, recommending it as a "rare opportunity to make Interstate 35 an asset” and to “turn a road project into a bridge that unites our city.” They’re alluding to the prospect of capping a portion of the freeway, creating new real-estate for development and healing part of the divide between historically wealthy downtown Austin and historically poor and disinvested East Austin. I-35 has long mapped onto and been symbolic of this divide, which dates back to 1928, when a plan designated areas roughly east of what would become the freeway as the portion of the city into which non-white populations would be concentrated. So the idea of healing that division is a noble and worthwhile one.

We published a piece in 2016 by Strong Towns member and Austin-area planner Heyden Black Walker advocating for a better plan for I-35: one that, instead of expanding the highway, would have put a lid over the full 1 mile of it through downtown.

Unfortunately, it looks increasingly likely that Austin will be getting a moat, not a bridge. From the Statesman:

Fully burying the highway, similar to what was done for a stretch of Interstate 635 in Dallas, is not part of the plan. [Texas Transportation Commission Chairman] Bugg said such a project would require local funding.

Local funding for anything that actually creates a financially productive asset for Austin. State and federal funding, to the tune of $7.5 billion, for a wider road that will funnel more cars through the heart of the city. Austin doesn’t need that, and TxDOT badly needs new leadership and a new approach.

Demand “Safe Streets for Everyone” at the National Bike Summit, hosted by the League of American Bicyclists March 15-17. Meet advocates from across the U.S. who are reshaping their communities and make your voice heard on Capitol Hill. Explore the Summit here.

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