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Austin City Council Members Express Reservations About I-35 Expansion

Schematic showing I-35 proposal near MLK
A schematic from one of TxDOT's two remaining "build alternatives" showing proposed lane configuration near Red River Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard

Plans to widen I-35 from Ben White Boulevard to U.S. 290 East were met with some concern by Austin City Council members Tuesday at a briefing on the project by state and local transportation officials. Half the 10-member council is expected at an event Wednesday calling for the entire multibillion-dollar program to be reconsidered.

Council member comments ranged from worries about homes and businesses in the path of the project being destroyed to the climate impacts of having more vehicles on the road to the very process council members found themselves engaged in: relying on the Texas Department of Transportation to incorporate their aspirations into the state's highway widening plans.

"That's the kind of top-down process that gave infrastructure investment a bad reputation for their track record of tearing communities apart and displacing the underprivileged," Mayor Pro-Tem Natasha Harper-Madison said during the briefing. "I'd like to think we are beyond that point in our history, but this isn't something I'm willing to leave up to blind faith."

A common concern expressed by council members and the mayor was a plan to increase the freeway's footprint, pushing into adjacent right-of-way and engulfing more than 140 properties, including decades-old restaurant Stars Cafe, Escuelita del Alma day care center and the Austin Chronicle building. TxDOT is required to compensate property owners and provide relocation assistance to owners and renters.

"[Those businesses] employ lots of individuals in this community and serve a great purpose," said Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose district encompasses the stretch of I-35 where most displacements would occur. "I hope that as the process continues, we'll see alternatives that really have as little impact on those small businesses within that corridor as possible."

TxDOT has largely discounted three community-drawn proposals that would work within the highway's existing right-of-way or downsize I-35 to an urban boulevard. The remaining two "build alternatives" advanced by the state —which are open to public comment until Sept. 24 — would demolish the upper decks, lower the main lanes below ground level, widen the highway and add two lanes in each direction that would be open only to vehicles with two or more occupants.

The state has remained open to incorporating some aspects of the local proposals, such as covering a stretch of the sunken highway with a "cap" — an extended blocks-long surface that could include park space. But TxDOT says it won't pay for such amenities, a concern for Mayor Steve Adler.

"It doesn't seem right," Adler said. "It might be worth us waiting four, five years ... in order to be able to do this project right."

Reducing I-35's effect as a dividing line that slices through the city is a priority for several council members who alluded to the thoroughfare's long history as an economic and racial barrier. The interstate was constructed on top of East Avenue, the border for the city's segregationist 1928 master plan, a policy for which City Council members apologized earlier this year.

"While there have been some improvements, I just want to see more of those connections across the highway," Council Member Greg Casar said.

The increase in climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions caused by increasing I-35's capacity would likely run counter to the city's official climate plan, adopted in 2014, which includes a call for reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. A comprehensive United Nations climate change report released last month warned of cataclysmic outcomes unless greenhouse gas emissions were suddenly and severely reduced.

"Droughts, heatwaves, hurricanes, snowstorms, the [UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report confirms the evidence is clearer than ever that climate change is making these weather extremes more common and more intense," Council Member Paige Ellis said.

Ellis — along with Council Members Ann Kitchen, Tovo, Harper-Madison and Casar — are expected at a news conference Wednesday morning outside Stars Cafe to call for a more thorough examination of the three community-based proposals for I-35. They'll be joined by a coalition of community groups who will lay a large pink line down the street to show how far the widened highway would reach into the neighborhood.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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