Austin, Texas, is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, and that sense of momentum is keenly felt in every restaurant opening, every bidding war, every traffic jam.
With that in mind, Austin residents last year voted to hike property taxes to fund Project Connect, a $7.1 billion grid of light rail trains and bus rapid transit across the city. “We must acknowledge that major transportation investments in our past have done more to deepen inequality, to segregate rather than connect, to displace rather than benefit,” Mayor Steve Adler said in his State of the City address last summer, endorsing the mass-transit referendum. “We must learn from that painful past and ensure we do not repeat those injustices.”
Adler might well have been alluding to Interstate 35, the north-south highway that runs through downtown Austin. Built on top of tree-lined East Avenue, the road opened in 1962, cutting off Black and Mexican American East Austin from Downtown. Like urban renewal projects in other American cities, the road’s destructive legacy has recently been reconsidered in racial terms.
But unlike with similar projects in Syracuse and New Haven, the question in Austin is not how to tear down the highway but how to expand it. Those cities are not growing; Austin is. Just as the Texas capital embarks on its generational transit investment, the state is planning to spend almost $5 billion to expand eight miles of I-35 through downtown to a whopping 20 lanes wide. Four new “managed lanes” (for high-occupancy vehicles or other restricted uses) will join the main lanes and frontage roads, stretching the highway’s width to nearly 600 feet in places, and erasing almost 150 properties.
With their latticework of ramps, bypass lanes, and flyovers, the blueprints have the look of one of those historical timelines that shows warring empires dividing and combining in endless permutations. It’s a testament to America’s highway designers that this tangle, hard to follow with one finger, will one day be navigable at 70 miles per hour.
If you’re thinking this neighborhood-eating highway expansion sounds a little incongruous for a proudly progressive city in 2021, you’re right. Like in Houston, which has won temporary reprieve from a similar project, Austin’s local politicians are almost uniformly displeased with the plans from the Texas Department of Transportation, or TxDOT.
Unfortunately for those legislators, I-35 is not just a downtown connector; the road runs from Laredo, Texas, to Duluth, Minnesota, and Austin doesn’t have an interstate ring road like those that surround D.C. or Boston. TxDOT is focused on keeping that traffic moving, as well as serving fast-growing exurbs north and south of the city.
Last month, the mayor and nearly the entirety of the Austin City Council signed a letter addressed to the I-35 team at the Department of Transportation with some requests: Change the design to narrow the right-of-way. Build more crossings. Make frontage roads into pleasant local streets. Design, fund, and build highway decks—suspended parks over the road—to knit together neighborhoods that were severed in 1962. And delay the project until Austin can complete its transit lines.
“It’s something we have to do something about. It’s deadly, it’s dirty, it divides our community,” said Natasha Harper-Madison, a City Council member who has denounced the plan. “I-35 is the poster child for our car-choked congestion problems, and their solution is just to make it bigger. They tell us the life span is 75 years. That means 2100. When I think about 2100, I don’t see a sprawling Houston, but a city that helps people move around without cars.”
There are alternate proposals, such as the one drawn up by the Urban Land Institute at the behest of downtown interests. That design proposes a narrower right-of-way, cantilevered frontage roads, highway decks to support green space, and new housing alongside it all. A similar highway cap, Klyde Warren Park, opened in Dallas to much fanfare in 2012.
A local group called Reconnect Austin wants to bury the highway entirely and build a surface-level boulevard, in the style of Boston’s Big Dig, and divert intercity traffic to State Highway 130, a road built east of Austin two decades ago for just this purpose. Give the city’s transit network a chance to make its mark, they argue, before you undermine its offerings with a brand new (free) highway.
The Texas Department of Transportation, for its part, makes some dire predictions about what’s next for Austin without a newer, bigger interstate. The downtown segment of I-35 is already the most congested road section in Texas, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. By 2035, the 19-mile commute from downtown Austin to Round Rock will take two-and-a-half hours. By 2045, traffic rises almost 50 percent to more than 300,000 vehicles per day.
If you follow modern-day highway revolts, you’ll know that this is the part of the story where anti-highway advocates talk about induced demand—the idea that wider highways don’t just make space for traffic, they create it. Highway traffic doesn’t go up 50 percent unless TxDOT builds another interstate on the interstate. And no one will ever spend two-and-a-half hours every day driving in from Round Rock—new patterns of development and transportation would take shape long before traffic reached that level of congestion. That state highway planners assume this kind of traffic with or without an expanded I-35, they say, is ridiculous.
A good example of this tendency comes from TxDOT’s analysis of this very same road, which was dug up by the Austin journalist Jack Craver. In 2002, drumming up support for the same expansion project, TxDOT predicted traffic over Lady Bird Lake rising to 330,000 vehicles a day … by 2020. In 2014, the agency said 300,000 vehicles would cross by 2035. In 2016, TxDOT projected VMT in Austin rising 50 percent by 2040. Now, the magic 300,000 number is set to arrive in 2045.
In reality, despite a million new people moving to the region, average daily traffic over the lake downtown is almost exactly what it was in 2000.
Highway planners might argue that, though they may have fudged the numbers a few times, this static traffic on the lone interstate highway in a booming region shows that people’s need to travel is being constrained by overcrowded infrastructure. Perhaps.
But TxDOT also missed the mark on the region’s major highway expansion. In 2003, consumed with the looming carpocalypse on I-35, the state broke ground on a public-private partnership to build a bypass road west of Austin, State Highway 130, to help alleviate congestion on the interstate. They predicted the segment parallel to downtown would count 11,900 vehicles a day by 2015 and 18,900 by 2025. In reality, SH 130 saw just 10,300 vehicles on that segment in 2019. The projections for the northern part of the new road near Round Rock were even more off. On the southern segment, traffic counts on the I-35 alternate were so low that the toll road operator filed for bankruptcy in 2016.
What’s going on here? In part, highway builders use traffic modeling software that tells them what they want to hear. But they also rely on population forecasts that assume the highway has been widened, said Jay Blazek Crossley, the director of Farm & City, a local land use nonprofit. “It’s circular logic,” he argued. The Austin exurbs will grow, because the freeways will be bigger. And the freeways need to be bigger because the Austin exurbs will grow …
Why haven’t these self-referential estimates filled expanded roads like SH 130 to the brim? In part because the local Metropolitan Planning Organization just got it wrong: They assumed the northern suburbs would grow faster than they did, and that Austin would grow more slowly than it did. Similar assumptions are baked into the models that greenlight the wider Interstate 35.
Maybe this time they will be right, and an expanded Interstate 35 will finally carry 300,000 vehicles a day by the middle of the century. Or maybe not, and an expanded Interstate 35 will relieve traffic congestion. Either way, it will be hard to imagine how things might have gone in an Austin without a 20-lane highway running through downtown. No one is planning for it.