Opinion: Clean Air Can’t Wait – How We Can Improve the I-35 Project

There are urgent environmental considerations to the highway expansion

Opinion: Clean Air Can’t Wait – How We Can Improve the I-35 Project

In April, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality announced that the Austin area now exceeds safe concentrations of soot according to the Environmental Protection Agency. With that knowledge in hand, Austin’s representatives to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization – Alison Alter, Paige Ellis, Vanessa Fuentes, and Natasha Harper-Madison – put forward a resolution this week to hold I-35 expansion funds until the completion of two environmental studies currently in the works. The ask was unfortunately not supported by CAMPO representatives from neighboring areas, and TxDOT has not studied how the I-35 project could be improved to reduce our exposure to harmful soot levels.

But there was some good news: TxDOT promised to incorporate results of those two studies currently underway, CAMPO’s own Regional Mobile Emission Reduction Plan and the Austin Area Climate Plan, into the design of I-35:

“We can incorporate whatever findings or recommendations that come out of the two studies,” TxDOT Austin district engineer Tucker Ferguson said. “We can incorporate it into our design for the projects that are being bid in the 2026 time frame or if we have projects under construction. And actually it doesn’t even need to be I-35, it could be any project ... if there are ideas and concepts and best practices that are a result of these studies, we can incorporate those into current construction projects by change order.”

It is encouraging that TxDOT is committed to incorporating the results of these emission reduction studies into its future plans, and we are determined to do whatever we can to help the organization get there.

Here are several ideas to reduce mobile emissions and air quality impacts:

First, replace wide frontage roads with traditional, human-scale streets that are safe and comfortable for people and all modes of transportation.

Second, planting trees between car lanes and sidewalks will naturally increase safety by reducing speeds and thus reducing emissions.

If TxDOT is serious about working with us to improve the environmental impacts of this project, we are ready and eager to get to work.

Third, building safe crossings, pedestrian plazas, and park spaces over the freeway can help reconnect communities that were historically divided by 1928 redlining. These spaces can also serve as bicycle and pedestrian “land bridges” wherever connectivity is lacking throughout the length of the project.

Lastly, we need better data on the air that people are breathing to have an effective regional air quality strategy. The EPA has proposed lowering the acceptable amounts of particulate matter specifically because of its impact on children’s lungs and impacts to people with respiratory issues.

If TxDOT is serious about working with us to improve the environmental impacts of this project, we are ready and eager to get to work. And as Tucker Ferguson suggested, we can incorporate better approaches into every project in the region, not just I-35.

Bigger is not always better when it comes to Texas highways. In communities showing a dedicated investment in transit and active transportation, TxDOT and CAMPO should entertain the possibility that “improving” a corridor might mean keeping the roadway the same size, or even making it smaller.

It’s also important to note that TxDOT is not building this freeway in a vacuum. We want to work with our partners at CAMPO on the problem we face with PM2.5, and other potential federal air quality standards that we expect will be imposed upon our region in the future. We don’t need to wait for a federal slap on the wrist tomorrow to do good air quality planning and improve projects that we are building today.


Austin City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison represents District 1; CM Vanessa Fuentes represents District 2; CM Paige Ellis represents District 8; and CM Alison Alter represents District 10. Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea represents Precinct 2.

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