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TxDOT-CAMPO $8 billion I-35 expansion plan wastes money and robs transit

29 May 2019

TxDOT rendering of I-35 expansion project through downtown Austin. Screenshot from TxDOT video via Austin Chronicle.

Commentary by Roger Baker

Roger Baker is a longtime Austin transportation, energy, and urban issues researcher and community activist. The following commentary has been adapted and slightly edited from his comments recently posted by E-mail to multiple recipients.

As various news sources have reported, a major expansion of I-35 through Austin is back on the official agenda, particularly after the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) voted to approve a huge expansion plan on May 6th:

I-35 changes dramatically in TxDOT’s proposed $8 billion expansion

Some See A Plan To Expand I-35 As A Betrayal Of Austin’s Environmental Values

But that vote was followed a few days later by a basically contradictory vote on May 9th by the Austin City Council to endorse a “Green New Deal” for the city:

Austin throws support behind Green New Deal

Yes indeed, the political pressure to widen IH-35 is an important contradiction that puts Austin politicians who voted to widen it at the recent CAMPO meeting in a real bind. That starts with Mayor Steve Adler (a real estate property rights lawyer). The Green New Deal calls for a major policy shift toward transportation alternatives, and away from roads and cars.

The core problem here is that CAMPO, which Mayor Adler now chairs, has always been strongly supportive of the trend of adding more car-addictive suburban sprawl development to the area surrounding Austin. Because Austin is still gentrifying fast, that means that Austin’s lowly paid service workers, who seek to work in Austin, are being forced by low wages to commute from the surrounding suburbs. This is creating severe congestion on Austin’s primary commuting roads, like IH-35.

TxDOT and the local real estate lobby – like the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) and the Chamber of Commerce – want to keep this dysfunctional, unsustainable, anti-environmental Ponzi scheme going as long as possible because it is a win-win situation for both the suburban sprawl developers, and also the TxDOT road contractors that TxDOT hires to build its roads. Since TxDOT is like an 800-pound gorilla in terms of its political clout in Texas, no CAMPO politician is brave enough to say “no” when TxDOT demands $400 million dollars from local government, in return for doing dumb stuff like widening commuter highways, justified by the specious claim that this will reduce congestion. This is at a time when U.S. driving is stagnating and TxDOT is heavily in debt because Texas hasn’t raised its gas tax for 25 years!

Meanwhile TxDOT has no idea of how it is going to get the rest of the $8 billion needed to widen just this one road through central Austin. The era of easy low-interest credit from the Fed appears to be coming to an end, although this has been largely responsible for keeping high-tech jobs coming into the Austin area. (Austin has pretty much put all its future growth hopes into high-tech and tourism in recent years.)

The reality is that almost every politician, including those on CAMPO, is afraid of TxDOT, which has god-like discretion over local policy. That is why TxDOT almost always gets their way. And why Molly Ivins used to call TxDOT “the Pentagon of Texas”.

In this case CAMPO decided to pledge to help fund the road with local money despite TxDOT being mostly $8 billion short of what they envision being able to afford someday. Last year, Streetsblog posted a useful critique of Austin’s most infamous road which warned that “a proposal to add miles of new lanes will likely only exacerbate the problems that led to congestion in the first place. … Just as road expansions elsewhere in Texas have failed at reducing congestion — like Houston’s Katy Freeway expansion — any congestion benefits from widening I-35 will likely be short-lived.”

Highway Boondoggles: Interstate 35 Expansion in Austin

The article also highlights a further drawback:

An I-35 expansion would also drain money from other pressing transportation needs. In 2012 Austin adopted a city vision for limiting sprawl, expanding transportation choices, and creating more compact, connected communities. Achieving that vision will require a variety of projects. These include building better bike and pedestrian infrastructure downtown, like the improvements proposed for the Guadalupe Street Corridor that would cost $33.7 million. Various proposals have called for creating new light rail routes through the heart of Austin, at a cost of $400 million to $1.4 billion.

In other words, the $8 billion I-35 project would drain funds that could otherwise be used for “creating new light rail routes through the heart of Austin” – such as the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, now designated as the “Orange Line” option.

Bus rapid transit (BRT) would apparently require dedicated right-of-way, which would remove what are currently car lanes, while providing a lot of new bus capacity along the Lamar corridor in return. But experience elsewhere indicates that even that even frequent BRT capacity could be overwhelmed. The operating expenses would probably be higher than for light rail.

My thinking is that light rail could provide the highest level of capacity along part or all of this Orange Line corridor, perhaps through the downtown area and up Guadalupe past UT and into this already dense area.

Why not build rail as a shorter segment which would get the highest ridership and do the most good in satisfying mobility demand early on? If Austin’s current bonding capacity is big enough, we might consider approving bonds to build the highest-use light rail segment of the Orange line in November 2020. Then lengthen that rail segment later and phase out buses in accord with rising corridor ridership.

In any case, channeling public funding into urban rail and other major transit investments would seem to be a much better use of $8 billion – or even a fraction of that money.

One comment

  1. Austinites
    – have chosen their mode of transportation: >95% personal vehicles
    – cannot be cajoled into abandoned what works best for them.
    – know that rail where bus now exists will not raise ridership.
    – know that transit can improve with more road capacity.
    – can have transit serving all by using better road infrastructure.
    – can have from anywhere to anywhere transit that’s sustainable,
    affordable, quickly doable within current revenue streams.
    – know rallying behind Cellular Mass Transit can make this happen
    http://www.CMT4Austin.org is Austin citizen invented for all Austinites.
    LET’s DO IT!



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