TxDOT’s I-35 plans for Austin are out. You had questions, and we have answers.
The Texas Department of Transportation is getting ready to expand the busiest section of the busiest highway in Central Texas.
Interstate 35 from Ben White Boulevard to U.S. 290 East in Austin will get two high-occupancy vehicle lanes in each direction along with a raft of other changes under the state's preferred plan — now open for public comment until March 7.
Understandably, people have questions about the city's biggest highway project in at least a generation. We answered several of them below. Keep sending your questions, and we'll keep answering them.
Are there any plans to mitigate disruptions to drivers during the construction process?
This is a very large project that's expected to take about eight years. TxDOT will have plenty of lane shifts and lane closures. The agency says it tries to do the most disruptive construction overnight so as not to jam rush hour traffic.
But consider the fact that TxDOT wants much of the highway lowered by about 25 feet beneath ground level. That's going to be some intensive construction. TxDOT says it will try to minimize the pain for drivers, but even its best efforts will be restricted by physical reality.
On page 455 of the 517-page draft environmental impact statement, TxDOT goes into a bit more detail on what will get built when. But the construction schedule is subject to change.
Do "managed lanes" on the plan renderings mean toll lanes?
No. Originally, they were going to be toll lanes. But then in 2017, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — leader of the Texas Senate — said they wanted an end to new toll roads in Texas. Abbott appoints members of the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT, and the Texas Senate gets to advise and consent.
As of now, the "managed lanes" will be limited to first responders, transit vehicles and cars or trucks with two or more occupants. If the managed lanes get congested, TxDOT could theoretically raise that minimum number of passengers to three. Eighteen-wheeler trucks would likely be prohibited from using the managed lanes or "high-occupancy vehicle lanes" (HOV), as they're perhaps more commonly known.
So far, TxDOT hasn't been exactly clear on how it intends to enforce passenger minimums on the managed lanes. At public meetings, officials have said it could fall on the Austin Police Department, whose traffic enforcement units have been understaffed for some time.
Why doesn't TxDOT spend that money on improving public transit instead of more highways?
This is primarily a function of Texas politics. Most of TxDOT's money comes from the State Highway Fund. Most of that money is required under the Texas Constitution to be spent on roads.
In a 2015 landslide election, 83% of voters approved a constitutional amendment to route even more tax dollars to the State Highway Fund. TxDOT says it is working with Capital Metro, however, to ensure crossings for the Red Line, and the forthcoming Blue Line light-rail route will be integrated into the agency's preferred design.
CapMetro buses will be allowed to use the "managed lanes" at the center of the project. Those lanes, in theory, would move faster than the main lanes. TxDOT does spend millions of dollars on public transit each year, with much of that money coming from the federal government. But those millions on transit pale in comparison to the billions of dollars spent on roads.
Any plans that don't involve demolishing businesses or homes?
Yes. Doing nothing. In theory, the "No Build" option is still on the table. But TxDOT is highly unlikely to go that route.
There is a third design — long ago rejected for its cost — that would have basically tunneled I-35 eight miles from Ben White to U.S. 290 East. The estimated price tag was over $8 billion, more than double the other two expansion plans. The tunnel idea would still have required bulldozing some businesses and homes, but just fewer of them.
What's the estimated timeline?
TxDOT has updated its timeline to say construction could start in mid-2024. The agency's draft environmental impact statement says the I-35 Capital Express Central project will take about eight years to complete.
Why isn't light rail an option?
Again, this is the result of politics. Most of TxDOT's money comes from the State Highway Fund. Under the Texas Constitution, most of that money has to be spent on roads.
Beyond that, TxDOT is governed by the Texas Transportation Commission. The commission's members are appointed by the governor. Abbott has told commissioners to focus on building roads or "turning dirt," as commission Chair J. Bruce Bugg, Jr. puts it.
The state Legislature could create laws to build more light-rail if it wanted to. There doesn't seem to be a political appetite for that in the halls of the Texas Capitol.
Why is the plan only from Ben White to 290? I-35 has slow-moving traffic all the way from Round Rock to Ben White and beyond, even in non-peak hours.
TxDOT is expanding I-35 through Travis County and has divided the project into three parts.
The biggest of those three projects — and the most controversial — spans from Ben White Boulevard to U.S. 290 East. But the state is planning to add lanes north and south of there, too.
In fact, construction on the southern portion of what's called the I-35 Capital Express Project is getting underway now. That plan includes building two elevated lanes in each direction from Ben White Boulevard to about Slaughter Lane. We had a story about that in November.
The decision to split the project into three segments is the subject of a federal lawsuit. The groups Rethink35, TxPIRG and Environment Texas sued in June 2022, accusing TxDOT of arbitrarily breaking up the project to avoid more rigorous environmental scrutiny under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Will TxDOT pay me to relocate when it demolishes my house?
Yes. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prevents the seizure of private property by the government without "just compensation."
The state constitution has a similar provision. But your version of "just compensation" might differ from TxDOT's. The state must get an appraisal done that spells out how it arrived at the numbers, however, and it is required by law to negotiate in good faith.
If you can't reach an agreement, a judge will appoint three different property owners who have no stake in the property being seized. These "special commissioners" will look at the documents and decide what's fair compensation. If you don't like their number, you can sue in civil court.
The compensation includes documented moving expenses. If you're a renter — most of the homes that would be razed by the I-35 plans would be apartment units — you can get moving costs covered within 50 miles. You can also get money to pay for a comparable home. So if your landlord was giving you a deal on rent and finding something similar would cost more, there is money available to make up the difference. Texas has a "Landowners Bill of Rights" set out by Chapter 21 of the state's Property Code. This explains the process in a bit more detail.