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Funding freeze for I-35 expansion denied in heated CAMPO vote

An aerial view of I-35 at 51st Street. The Austin skyline can be seen in the distance.
Nathan Bernier
KUT News
Construction is due to start this year on a decade-long project to widen I-35 through Central Austin.

An attempt to freeze funding for the I-35 expansion through Central Austin until the project's impact on air quality can be more fully assessed was easily defeated Monday in a vote by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's planning board. The 22-member panel allocates billions in federal transportation cash throughout the Austin area.

The political clash saw a handful of Austin City Council members – anxious about the environmental effects of the highway expansion – face off against elected officials from Bastrop, Burnet, Caldwell, Hays and Williamson counties. The suburban politicians were backed by the Travis County commissioners on the CAMPO board.

"Both jurisdictions that this project passes through, the City of Austin and Travis County, have expressed concerns about the overall impact of the highway expansion on air quality," Austin City Council Member Alison Alter said, citing new EPA regulations that found previously acceptable levels of air pollution would no longer meet new rigorous standards. "Again and again, we have heard that air quality is a major concern."

A decade of construction starts this year on the I-35 expansion along an 8-mile stretch from U.S. 290 East to Ben White Boulevard. The project involves adding more lanes to the highway, including two "managed lanes" in each direction that would be restricted to vehicles with two or more people in them.

Alter's proposal would have made funding for the I-35 project contingent upon the completion of two air quality studies: CAMPO's Regional Mobile Emission Reduction Plan and the Austin MSA Climate Plan, both of which will take stock of existing emissions and suggest plans to reduce them.

Alter's measure also urged TxDOT to help pay for large decks over the main lanes, which will be lowered 30 to 40 feet below ground level through much of Central Austin. The City of Austin is seeking more than $800 million to pay for installing those "caps" plus any amenities on top such as parks, fountains, trees or buildings. UT Austin plans to pay for installing caps from 15th Street to Dean Keeton Street.

"This project impacts all of our communities alike, both commuters and residents, so we all have a vested interest in ensuring that this is the best project as possible," Austin City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes said.

Their concerns were met with skepticism by suburban leaders, who emphasized TxDOT's commitment to integrate any air quality study results into the project plan — portions of which won't start being constructed until 2026.

"We'll certainly incorporate those findings or best practices or whatever their recommendations could be," TxDOT's Austin District Engineer Tucker Ferguson told the board. It remained unclear if the recommendations could be implemented if they concluded the highway expansion's effects on air quality can't be mitigated, which is what critics contend.

"I understand the concerns. I know they're honest and real," Caldwell County Commissioner Edward Theriot said. "But I think it would be fiscally irresponsible to delay and jeopardize that funding."

The meeting at times grew tense as officials from different jurisdictions sparred over the merits of the highway expansion, a plan that has been navigating through funding approvals since at least 2013, when the CAMPO board first endorsed it.

"Madame chair, I'm going to call the question," Burnet County Judge James Oakley at one point declared, a move intended to cut off debate as Alter was asking TxDOT officials a series of pointed questions.

"Really? This is a major decision and you're not even going to let us ask?" Alter responded. Oakley turned away and held up his hand to her. Members in the audience, many of them opponents of the highway expansion, began applauding.

Alter was allowed one final minute to ask questions before the vote. But her motion, which would have required a two-thirds majority to pass, was decisively defeated. Only
fellow Council Members Vanessa Fuentes, Paige Ellis and Natasha Harper-Madison (voting by proxy), and Travis County Representative Amy Pattillo supported the measure.

The CAMPO board then voted to allocate about $4 billion to the I-35 project through what's typically a routine bureaucratic action — amending CAMPO's Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) for 2025-2028. This list of federally funded projects, updated every two years, was CAMPO's most valuable ever, according to manager Ryan Collins.

The massive spending plan was open to public comment for a month starting March 15. CAMPO held six open houses and a total of 20 people attended. The agency said it received 355 comments in person and via email before the deadline. Another 250 comments came in after the deadline.

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 X @KUTnathan.
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