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Lawsuit alleges TxDOT’s I-35 expansion project is ‘clearly violating the law’

Monday, June 27, 2022 by Samuel Stark

Three Texas organizations – Texas Public Interest Research Group, Environment Texas and Rethink35 – have come together to file a lawsuit against the Texas Department of Transportation over its plans to expand Interstate 35.

At the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization transportation policy board meeting on June 13, TxDOT reported that the three multibillion-dollar projects – the north, central and south undertakings – are progressing steadily. But despite the transportation agency’s efforts to quell criticism through some design edits, the plaintiffs argue this expansion will lead to more harm than good. Further, they allege that by dividing the project into three subprojects, TxDOT is avoiding “more rigorous, legally required environmental review and public engagement of a single larger project,” according to the press release sent out this morning.

“This is a local movement to stop these wasteful and harmful highway expansions. We hope it’s going to send a clear message to TxDOT, that they need to start acting more in the public’s interest moving forward,” Adam Greenfield, co-founder of Rethink35, told the Austin Monitor.

The plaintiffs hope the lawsuit will force TxDOT to rescind its divided expansion scheme in favor of a new, unified project that more critically defines its potential impacts. Currently, the plaintiffs say, the environmental, air quality and induced demand impacts of the project are not clearly laid out.

“An internationally famous (example) is the Katy Freeway in Houston that was widened to 25 lanes in 2011. Four years later, peak hour congestion times had gone up roughly 40 percent. So, we want to see that really laid out for people,” Greenfield said.

TxDOT’s current proposal adds one high-occupancy vehicle lane in both directions as part of the Capital Express North project (from State Highway 45 North to U.S. Highway 290 East) and two high-occupancy vehicle lanes in both directions in the Capital Express South project (from SH 71/Ben White Boulevard to SH 45 Southeast).

“Cap-Ex north and south projects are well on their way to construction this year,” Heather Ashley-Nguyen of TxDOT said in an update to the CAMPO policy board on June 13.

The most publicized portion of the plan, the Capital Express Central project (between U.S. 290 East and SH 71/Ben White Boulevard), would also add two high-occupancy vehicle lanes in both directions, lower the roadway and add pedestrian and bike paths. TxDOT is working with the city, if it can acquire the necessary funds, to add decks or “caps” over some portions of the freeway in the downtown area.

“The community has helped shape this project over the last decade. We are avoiding elevated structures, we have provided east-west connectivity and (are) encouraging transit through the use of HOV lanes,” Ashley-Nguyen said.

“At its core, what TxDOT is proposing is a major highway expansion,” Greenfield said. “It doesn’t matter how you feel about what goes on top of it if underneath it is more driving, more pollution, more crashes, more climate change (and) more noise, then it’s not good enough. I don’t care if you put the Eiffel Tower on top (of the interstate), those facts remain. TxDOT hasn’t budged an inch on it on the fundamental premise of its project.”

Rethink35 proposes rerouting non-local interstate travel around Austin’s downtown area by encouraging the use of arteries that circumvent the area, such as SH 130. The organization suggests replacing the current I-35 infrastructure with an urban boulevard.

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit this morning and will go into court soon to make their arguments. They are being represented by environmental law firm Irvine & Conner.

“We look forward to a favorable verdict in court over TxDOT’s regressive plans for I-35,” Greenfield said in the press release.

A spokesperson for TxDOT told the Monitor that they do not comment on litigation.

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The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here. This story has been updated to include the filed suit and the TxDOT response and to correct a typo.

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