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Photo by TxDOT
Wednesday, September 22, 2021 by Seth Smalley
TxDOT brings contentious interstate expansion plan to county
On Tuesday, the Travis County Commissioners Court heard from Texas Department of Transportation engineer Tucker Ferguson, who discussed progress on the state transportation department’s plan to add two managed HOV lanes in each direction on Interstate 35 through downtown Austin.
While TxDOT generally contends the expansion is necessary to address Austin’s rising traffic levels and to improve safety, detractors criticize the plan as unhelpful and unsightly. During the presentation, Ferguson mentioned that as many as 150 businesses and homes along the interstate may be destroyed via eminent domain.
Written comments submitted by commissioners after the meeting reaffirmed some of their past convictions on the project, such as the need to maximize east-west accessibility, minimize any negative environmental impacts, and ensure safety. One comment, referring to two of TxDOT’s proposed build options, reads: “The Commissioners Court acknowledges that TxDOT alternatives 2 and 3 offer improvement over existing conditions and are good potential starting points to meet the city’s project goals; however, more work needs to be done to further align the project with the city’s goals.”
At multiple points throughout his presentation, Ferguson highlighted TxDOT’s efforts to engage the community, seeming well aware that the expansion plan has been criticized for being out of touch with the community.
In August, when the Austin Monitor asked whether TxDOT would consider not widening the interstate’s lanes if public sentiment went that way, the spokesperson suggested that option was off the table.
Though the plan intends to reduce overall congestion, by TxDOT’s own projections, congestion would increase on I-35 itself compared to the alternatives proposed by advocacy organizations such as Rethink35 and Reconnect Austin. The catch, TxDOT officials say, is that while those organizations’ alternatives would indeed reduce congestion on the highway, overall traffic would be offset from the interstate “onto the city grid.”
TxDOT commissioned a study that arrived at these conclusions, Ferguson explained.
“We cannot simply push interstate traffic onto the city grid,” Ferguson said, displaying to commissioners a consultant-generated side-by-side comparison of the three alternatives, one from TxDOT, one from Rethink35 and one from Reconnect Austin.
According to the presentation, TxDOT has now reduced the number of available construction options from three to two.
“I’ll just say I’m not satisfied with what the options are,” Commissioner Brigid Shea said. “We’ve just seen from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change they’ve issued a code red for humanity on the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. How are you taking into that into account when you’re almost doubling the number of lanes?”
Ferguson countered that the lanes aren’t actually doubling at any point on the highway, as critics of TxDOT’s plan have said. There are already places on the stretch of I-35 in question that are 16 lanes wide.
Ferguson additionally made the point that emissions would be worse when traffic isn’t moving.
“If we do nothing and not address that capacity expansion, that’s only going to get worse,” he said. “So we recognize going to 20 lanes in certain locations is sensitive, but it’s necessary to keep traffic moving. Even moving at a steady pace is going to help with air quality.”
If constructed, it is expected that renovations will be needed in 50 to 75 years.
The public comment period ends Sept. 24. However, TxDOT says comments after that date will still be considered.
Read comments submitted to TxDOT by the Commissioners Court below.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Travis County Commissioners Court: The legislative body for Travis County. It includes representatives from the four Travis County Precincts, as well as the County Judge. The County Judge serves as the chair of the Court.
TxDOT: The transportation agency for the State of Texas.