TexPIRG – Letter (as Blog Post) to TxDOT 09/21

The Texas Department of Transportation is requesting public comment about their proposed expansion of Interestate 35 through downtown Austin. We don’t think the project is a good idea; that’s why we highlighted it in our annual Highway Boondoggle report. Here’s what we had to say on the record to TxDOT about the plan.

The problems we face are daunting. Given the urgent need for action to thwart climate change and clean up our transportation sector, we need all available tools moving forward.

Instead of wasting taxpayer dollars on polluting and ineffective highway projects like expanding I-35, which would produce more harmful pollution, more vehicle deaths and more asphalt running through the middle of our city, we need to take a cleaner, healthier and fresher approach to transportation spending.

As TexPIRG outlined in our Highway Boondoggles 4 report (https://texpirg.org/sites/pirg/files/reports/TX_Boondoggles4_scrn.pdf), the areas north and south of Austin are growing at incredible rates. Building a bigger highway to support those communities only exacerbates the current problem of too many cars on the road. Worse, with more cars on the road, greenhouse gas emissions from cars will trend in the exact wrong direction at a critical time in the fight to limit the climate crisis.

Induced demand, the phenomenon we now call “The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion,” means that if you build it, cars will come. Texans need look no further than the Katy Freeway, in Houston, that when finished widening to an astonishing 20-plus lanes, saw increased commute times for more than 60% of drivers.

We can do better. Infrastructure projects like this affect our lives for decades, and TxDOT is bulldozing through the public engagement process at breakneck speed. Despite that, the community has come up with alternatives that would actually lessen congestion, reduce emissions and create a more walkable, livable city.

We’re asking TxDOT to stop the proposed expansion as is and fully study the proposed community alternatives to reconnect and rethink our city — proposals more aligned with our shared goal of a healthy, mobile Austin.

In our nation’s capital, the Senate recently passed (https://www.bostonglobe.com/2021/08/10/nation/bipartisan-infrastructure-bill-set-final-senate-passage/) the bipartisan $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which includes $1 billion for the Reconnecting Communities Initiative, a program designed to fund the removal of outdated urban highways and replace them with smaller roadways that better serve the needs of local residents. This program continues to garner support, as the House recently included (https://www.smartcitiesdive.com/news/budget-bill-would-set-ghg-performance-measure-offer-4-billion-for-emissio/606864/) an additional $4 billion for the Reconnecting Communities Initiative within their Build Back Better budget reconciliation legislation. TexPIRG supports using these federal funds to rethink and replace I-35.

Most immediately, replacing I-35 (https://www.rethink35.com/) would free up valuable real estate that could be better used for tree-lined boulevards, pedestrian-friendly parks and affordable housing. On a larger scale, it would also help us reduce climate-changing pollution from our transportation sector, now the second largest source (https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/state/) of greenhouse gas emissions in our state and our country’s primary contributor to the global climate crisis (https://web.archive.org/web/20210129222917/https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks).

Removing urban transportation relics like I-35 would also improve Austin residents’ quality of life by reducing dangerous air and noise pollution, which kill an estimated 58,000 Americans each year (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1352231013004548?via%3Dihub) and have been linked to a variety of serious health conditions, including lung cancer, stroke, heart disease, asthma, and even dementia
(https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1352231013004548). By getting rid of unnecessary freeways, we could rebuild our city to incentivize people to shift to more sustainable modes of transportation, such as public transit, biking and walking, which there is clearly appetite for already, as evidenced by the city’s recent vote on the $7 billion, transit-focused Project Connect (https://communityimpact.com/austin/central-austin/election/2020/11/03/project-connect-vote-austin-residents-pass-71-billion-transit-plan/).