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TxDOT and critics at loggerheads over plan to widen I-35

Tuesday, August 10, 2021 by Seth Smalley

At Friday’s special meeting of the City Council Mobility Committee, residents aired their concerns to a quorum of City Council members about a controversial TxDOT plan to significantly widen the portion of Interstate 35 that runs through Austin. The complaints come as a wave of advocates across the state call on the transportation department to demonstrate more transparency, engage with local residents and consider options when it comes to the expansion plan.

While TxDOT argues that the expansion would ameliorate Austin’s rising traffic problem and improve safety, detractors criticize the plan as unhelpful and unsightly. Critics say TxDOT’s traffic projections are gross overestimations to justify adding more lanes and point out discrepancies between TxDOT’s prior traffic flow predictions and the traffic data available today.

Then there’s the issue of “induced demand,” referring to the tendency of people to drive more as the number of lanes increases, resulting in larger and louder highways that aren’t any less congested.

Despite TxDOT’s stated commitment to listening to the public, many community members involved in the process feel the department is giving them the runaround. They claim their input carries no actual weight, as ultimately they’ll have to choose between three far-from-ideal options regardless.

Diann Hodges, a spokesperson for TxDOT, encouraged interested parties to come to an open house today hosted by TxDOT, where members of the project team will respond to questions from the public. “It’s an opportunity for the public to look at the criteria we’re using to evaluate those three alternatives,” she explained.

When the Austin Monitor asked if TxDOT would consider a fourth option not to widen the lanes, if that’s what the public wants, Hodges suggested that option was off the table.

“We cannot do nothing and be responsible stewards of the highways of Texas,” Hodges said. “We have a lot of people that use this. This is how they get to work, how they get home, how goods and services get to people. How the food gets on your table is probably by a truck that uses I-35, so it would be irresponsible of us to not make the necessary improvements to I-35.”

Hodges added that TxDOT’s plan would increase east-west connectivity in Austin, one of the common requests from community advocates. “We’re removing a lot of the blocked views by taking down those decks; it’s going to dramatically change the way you can see across the interstate,” she told the Monitor.

One public caller, Heyden Black Walker, executive director of the grassroots group Reconnect Austin, said that TxDOT is offering the illusion of multiple alternatives when in fact the three choices are essentially just slight variations on the same theme, all of which involve “a 20-lane highway.” Walker also pointed out that TxDOT is only granting a 30-day public input period, despite the Mobility Committee’s prior request for a 60-day commenting period.

Each of the three alternatives described by Hodges involves lowering the main lanes of I-35 through downtown Austin, removing the upper decks and adding two HOV lanes to each side of the highway.

“I really would encourage us somehow to figure out how we can do a process that kind of builds this from the ground up that isn’t just ‘Here’s your 20-lane highway. How do you want to decorate it?’ But instead, what does the community really want?” Walker said.

Another speaker, Nancy Crozer, detailed her experience of participating in numerous meetings and witnessing firsthand TxDOT’s continual failure to live up to its commitments.

“I have been around, seen plans go into effect. They said ‘Yes we will’ in the meetings, and no they didn’t. We’ve had to fight with them, as citizens, to gain better access.” Crozer cited TxDOT’s broken promise not to take land via eminent domain. “I have no animosity toward TxDOT. It’s just that what I see happening and what I know is happening are two different things.”

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