Hundreds Rally Against I-35 Expansion

TxDOT’s pricey project proving unpopular with Council members, congressmen, and regular Austinites

Sunday protest shows TxDOT's $4.5 billion project continues to draw opposition (Provided by Emily Smith / Rethink35)

On Sunday morning in front of Sanchez Elementary, hundreds gathered in opposition to the Texas Department of Transportation's increasingly unpopular plan to spend $4.5 billion to expand I-35. The purpose of the rally was to send a clear message: "Wider Won't Work" – and around 300 Austinites showed up to say so.

There was a second, clearly actionable goal, as well: To urge the crowd to email the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Board and ask them to vote to delay funding for the project until two emissions studies are complete. Those studies would allow CAMPO and the city of Austin to apply for federal grants to mitigate the worst effects of the expansion by building caps and stitches (bridges and decks over the highway that can include green space, bike lanes, and buildings). Council already passed a resolution requesting a delay, but CAMPO's would carry more weight because they partially fund TxDOT's baseline construction, whereas the city wants extra caps that TxDOT deems unnecessary to proceed.

At a Council work session Tuesday, CMs received a briefing on those cap and stitch possibilities, in which staff presented a timeline of Council decisions that need to be made. The total city commitment for construction of all potential caps would be $165 million, and by this December they must commit to $15 million or 30% of the design funding. Funding for "additional structures," plus another $19 million to finish the full design, must be decided by December 2024.

In city staff's presentation, they noted that federal grants represent one of the better options for funding these improvements. That's why Council members like Paige Ellis, who serves as chair of Council's Mobility Committee and on the board of CAMPO, urged tangible action from the crowd on Sunday: "We have support from our local CAMPO delegation, but it's not enough. There are other people that serve on that board that need to hear your voices." The highest-profile speaker on the list, U.S. Rep. Greg Casar, lent his national profile to the cause: "With our scarce public dollars, we should be working to take care of the sick, but instead this project will make us sicker. We should absolutely put them towards tackling the crisis of climate change for kids, and instead it makes the climate crisis worse."

Meanwhile, TxDOT has penned a "Carbon Reduction Strategy" largely consisting of improving traffic congestion, in order to receive $600 million in federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funding for highway projects. But the draft statement doesn't include the phrase "climate change" and environmental advocates have long questioned whether "congestion reduction" is an effective emissions reduction strategy, as it's often used as reasoning for continuing to expand roadways.

Not trusting TxDOT to go green, Rethink35 announced at their last presser that they were filing a lawsuit over environmental concerns. Rethink35 hasn't named co-plaintiffs in its lawsuit yet, but Save Our Springs Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch urged involvement from public officials: "We need the rest of the City Council with us, we need Judge Andy Brown and the entire Travis County Commissioners Court with us. ... We need the Austin school board with us, and we need their names as co-plaintiffs with the community when we file that lawsuit."

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