By Angela Enriquez
Ask any Austinite for their thoughts about the city they call home, and chances are some of their strongest opinions will be about Interstate 35.
The large highway is more than just a way to get from Point A to Point B. It has also served to divide the capital city along racial and class lines, between old Austin and new.
The future of I-35 is a constant concern among the people of Austin, more so now as the city’s booming growth appears to have no end.
Residents are tired of waiting in traffic, car accidents, lane closures, and other inconveniences associated with highway congestion. Many residents also envision Austin as a leader in walkability and bikeability among growing cities, where bike and public transportation infrastructure is expanded and made easily accessible. There are also concerns that a history of racial inequality is not being addressed enough through an expansion of the highway.
A community initiative – Future 35 – and an Austin-based organization – Rethink 35 – both have created proposals on I-35’s future.
Let’s look at those plans, what the expansion project entails and what it all might mean for Austin.
TXDOT’s Capital Express Central Project
The Capital Express Central Project by the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) is a proposal to expand an 8-mile stretch of I-35 between US 290 E and SH 71/Ben White Blvd. They propose to remove existing decks, lower the highway, and in both directions of I-35, add two lanes for high-occupancy vehicles (designated lanes for carpools, emergency services, and transit vehicles).
TXDOT is currently in its environmental study and schematic design phase, and construction is anticipated to begin in late 2025. The agency estimates the project to cost $4.9 billion, and that funding is coming from TXDOT and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.
The 8-mile stretch TXDOT proposes to expand is what was formerly known as East Avenue. The 1928 Austin city plan, written by consulting engineers Koch and Fowler, hired by the city council, authorized residential segregation in the plan.
The city plan was created to act as a loophole for the 1917 Supreme Court ruling in Buchanan v. Warley, which prohibited racial segregation through zoning laws. The 1928 Austin plan forced out people of color, in particular Black Austinites, who lived in downtown areas, and move them to the east side.
Before I-35, minority populations were living all across the city, but the majority of Blacks in Austin lived on the east side. To continue segregation and reduce the amount of “separate but equal” institutions the government would have to build and fund throughout the city, the plan designated necessary city services and facilities to only be offered to people of color if they lived on the east side. These included schools, trash collection, plumbing, parks, and other resources cities typically provide for their residents.
The construction of I-35 was subsidized by the federal government, through the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Because freeway construction projects around the country were considered urban renewal, the highways were made to go through cities, often displacing poor neighborhoods made up of racial minorities. TXDOT relied on eminent domain to build I-35 through Austin. By 1962, the highway was completed, becoming a physical barrier that upheld the provisions of the 1928 city plan.
Different Perspectives and Different Proposals
Currently, there are at least two proposals for the expansion project that seek to erase the divisions created by I-35
Our Future 35
The city of Austin and the Downtown Austin Alliance are working alongside TxDOT’s proposal by leading a series of conversations called Our Future 35.
Our Future 35 is a cap-and-stitch proposal, which prioritizes the community’s input in creating spaces along I-35 for public use. The caps could be thought of as land bridges, and their location and use are to be determined by feedback from the community, with TXDOT coordination. The stitches are widened bridges across the highway at multiple spots that would have some travel lanes for vehicles, bike lanes, and safe pedestrian paths.
Our Future 35 calls for a “comprehensive program to reconnect Austin physically, socially, and economically after decades of the divide.” They propose the inclusion of art, landscaping, shading, and other forms of multimodal enhancements to bring the community together.
Rethink 35 is a grassroots campaign opposed to the expansion of I-35 and instead proposes alternatives such as rerouting non-local traffic around Austin rather than through the city. They advise that the already existing SH-130 – a toll road located on the eastern edge of Austin — should be utilized by the non-local traffic, reducing the number of vehicles contributing to congestion and pollution, such as the 18-wheelers that use I-35 to cut through Austin every single day. Rethink 35 also calls to redesign the highway as a boulevard, which would bring many benefits to the city of Austin. Supporters of the Rethink 35 Plan argue that a boulevard would make Austin, “more beautiful and pleasant, gentrification and displacement will be addressed, there will be enormous health and environmental benefits, and getting around Austin will be quicker, safer, and more pleasant.”
Why It Matters
The redesign of I-35 could help address racial inequality and promote sustainable infrastructure and transportation if it is done thoughtfully, carefully and with what was lacking 60 years ago: community input and inclusivity. It will also be a very costly and lengthy process, so getting it right is important.
Everyone in Austin has to live with these big infrastructure projects. But Our Future 35 and Rethink 35 are sending a message that we don’t want to live with the divisions.
How to Get Involved
On Feb. 9, the Texas Department of Transportation will host a public hearing to seek input on I-35 improvements. Click here for more information.
Angela Enriquez is a student at the University of Texas majoring in sustainability studies and geography. During the fall of 2022, Angela was an environmental policy and advocacy intern for the Texas office of Public Citizen in Austin.