Last month, the Texas Department of Transportation hosted a groundbreaking ceremony for the I-35 Capital Express South project in Austin.
In addition to building bridges and adding pedestrian and bike paths, the project is also planning to add four lanes to the portion of I-35 that goes through South Austin.
At the groundbreaking ceremony, there were members from TxDOT and also representatives from elected officials like Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz. There were also protesters from a group called Rethink35, a nonprofit based in Austin opposing TxDOT’s plans to expand I-35, the highway that runs from Laredo all the way to Minnesota.
Adam Greenfield, executive director of Rethink35, joined the Texas Standard to talk about the role local communities play in TxDOT plans. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Before we get into things, why push back on TxDOT plans in the first place? After all, all of these projects are done with the goal of improving mobility, safety, shortening commute times – a lot of things that folks want.
Adam Greenfield: We absolutely need to deal with congestion and getting people to where they’re going more quickly. However, we know from decades of evidence that widening highways actually makes traffic worse because it encourages more driving. And in 2011, we saw when the Katy Freeway in Houston was expanded, peak hour congestion times and evening rush hour had gone up 55%. And we absolutely can expect something similar here in Austin.
Isn’t there something of a difference? I mean, they’re talking about putting up additional pedestrian paths, bike paths, that sort of thing. I don’t think there was a whole lot of that around the Katy Expressway expansion, was there?
No, we should always be providing for more transportation modes and giving people more choice – although many people would question how pleasant it is going to be to walk and bike next to something that will be as wide, in some places, as 22 lanes going through the center of Austin. But this is being sold to people as a congestion-relief project, and that’s just not true.
One of the reasons that is put forward by local groups opposing highway expansions is that oftentimes local governments don’t own the land that highways are built on, which means they don’t have jurisdiction over what happens. How would you respond to that and what role do local officials have in these projects?
Local officials and local communities have an enormous role to play in these conversations. We saw in Houston around the proposed I-45 expansion that when the mayor and city council started taking critical and oppositional stances to the project proposed there, that emboldened the federal government to come in and tell TxDOT to pause while they investigate the project. The people who tell TxDOT what to do, they are elected officials. They are in the state legislature and they are very sensitive to what the public thinks. So there’s absolutely a role for local communities and local elected officials.
I would guess, though, that you’re getting some pushback from some groups that say, “look, highways are some of the most cost-effective ways to transport goods, especially in a massive state like Texas.” And I-35 is a kind of backbone that takes you all the way up to Chicago, right? I mean, if you curtail TxDOT plans, wouldn’t that also disrupt things like supply chains and ultimately hurt the state’s economy?
No, we’ve actually seen that when you have a right of way with dedicated space for more space-efficient transportation – such as buses, trains, biking and walking – that you can actually move many more people than just the right of way with cars because the automobile is an amazing form of transportation, but it doesn’t scale up. If we’re just talking about moving goods, there’s much more efficient ways to do it than taking those goods straight through a congested central Austin, for example. Out to the east of Austin, there is a highway called SH 130 that was explicitly built as a go-around. And when that was toll free, we actually saw the trucks were going that way and they were doing better times. And so one of the things that we need to look at is could we remove that toll or could we make SH 130 more attractive to use?