Austin Mayor Steve Adler wants you to know something.
“I do not believe that adding lanes to I-35 … is the answer to congestion,” Adler said in an interview with KUT, adding that, he believes, merely adding lanes will make traffic worse on the notoriously congested highway.
Adler was responding to criticism of his vote in support of the Capital Express Project. The plan would expand about 30 miles of Interstate 35 between Round Rock and Buda and add up to four non-tolled “managed lanes” of traffic on the highway through Austin. It was approved by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's Transportation Board earlier this month.
Opponents say the project would stymie the city's goals to reduce car traffic and fight climate change. They argue that the project goes against the City’s Strategic Mobility Plan, which aims to reduce the number of people driving alone to reduce both climate-warming CO2 emissions and traffic.
"I would rather build nothing than build something that’s going to make our climate problem worse," Susan Somers, a transit advocate and urbanist, told KUT after the May 6 vote.
But Adler, who voted in support of the project as a member of the CAMPO Transportation Board, says his position on the project has been misunderstood.
The once and future tolls
“I think that there is something we could do on I-35 that could really help with a transit system,” Adler said, “and it would be to put in a tolled, demand-managed lane or lanes in the middle of I-35.”
MoPac currently has the same system in which drivers pay varying toll rates depending on traffic, and bus riders get the advantage of a potentially faster commute.
The problem is, the Capital Express Project specifically forbids that type of toll lane from being developed. In fact, Gov. Greg Abbott has declared a moratorium on the development of any toll lanes in the state.
Adler hopes that could change, but he argues, by committing money early on to the project, he’s allowing Austin to stay in the running for state funding – if toll lanes become an option again.
“I can’t take myself out of that conversation today,” Adler said, “which means I need to tell the state, as we did, that we are very serious about participating on I-35.”
Adler’s second reason to support the plan is more political. He says his main goal is to get a “high-capacity, rapid mass public transit system” for the city of Austin.
But, to do that, city leaders must also address roads.
“To really get the public support for that mass transit system that we need, as a political matter, we’re going to need to do something about I-35,” Adler said.
Somers, an early critic of the mayor’s vote, remains unconvinced.
She points out that funding road expansion to win over support for mass transit is something the city tried in its failed 2014 “roads and rails” transportation bond.
“That was their strategy and that didn’t work [because] there wasn’t a convincing transit package as part of it,” Somers said.
Beyond that, Somers questions the utility of putting bus transit on new lanes in the middle of I-35, if it were ever allowed.
“If you really believe that adding lanes will not further congestion … to me, the solution is not 'I’m going to pass this wasteful policy,'” she said.
All sides will have plenty of time to get their positions across. There’s currently no timeline or state money allocated for the highway project yet.
If money becomes available, there will be more community outreach – and votes – to take before it becomes shovel-ready.