The Road to Ruin
I-35 Expansion Puts Progress in Reverse
America’s 10th largest city had the 19th worst traffic in the country last year, according to a recent report. This will surprise nobody in Austin except to the extent folks here thought it would rank worse. The traffic situation is so despised that it has spawned a much-loved local parody account on Twitter/X,, named after a congested highway on the west side of downtown. That highway’s evil twin, Interstate 35, slices through the east side and bears a resemblance to a parking lot most days. To solve the I-35 congestion problem, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) will embark on a $4.5 billion widening project, adding two lanes in both directions to create a beefy twenty-lane highway.
With apologies to Evil MoPac, I am no fan of Austin traffic. So you may wonder why I joined a few hundred fellow Austinites at a recent rally opposing the expansion.
First, some priors: I want to stress that I am not ideologically anti-highway. I love a good road trip, and some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen—from the blinding-white Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, to the rolling green Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, to the stunning vistas of the Pacific Coast Highway—have been from behind the wheel along America’s roads. The nationwide network of roads, bridges, tunnels, and supportive infrastructure, especially the parts that connect the vast open spaces between our cities, is an engineering feat that has driven economic progress in America.
But the I-35 expansion does not represent such progress—if anything, it puts progress in reverse.
For sure, the highway needs fixing. In its environmental impact statement, TxDOT explains:
The proposed project is needed because [I-35] does not adequately accommodate current and future travel demand and does not meet current federal and state design standards, which has resulted in safety and operational deficiencies and can impact crash rates and peak period travel times for all users, including emergency response vehicles and transit.
As someone who tries to avoid I-35 as much as possible but occasionally fails, I do not dispute TxDOT’s evaluation of the highway’s safety and operational deficiencies: it sucks to drive on and never feels safe.
But TxDOT’s assessment that I-35 does not meet current and future travel demand is curious. The department expects that annual average daily traffic on the Central Austin portion of I-35 will rise from around 200,000 vehicles per day now to 300,000 by 2045. This will coincide with expected population growth in the region of 40-to-50% over the same time horizon. That seems reasonable.
Except that in the past twenty years, annual average daily traffic on I-35 has been relatively stable at under 200,000 vehicles per day—even as the population of the metropolitan area has doubled. In other words, there appears to be no historical correlation between population growth and average daily traffic. Over the next twenty years, in a world already changed by work-from-home, the frequency and mode by which people commute is likely to change, especially as Austin builds out its light-rail system and expands its bus network. So even ignoring its own data, TxDOT’s forecast of a 1-to-1 increase in traffic seems specious, at best.
And then there’s the science. Studies show that highway expansions don’t reduce traffic congestion: counterintuitively, new lanes—especially untolled lanes like those planned for I-35—actually increase traffic by inducing new demand. Any benefits of expansion are short-lived as new drivers take advantage of the additional capacity and traffic eventually returns to its pre-expansion speed. In Texas, the Katy Freeway in Houston is the poster child for this phenomenon. In the name of fighting congestion, TxDOT widened the highway to 23 lanes, but within a few years congestion was actually worse than it had been before the project.
Highway expansions are a solution to a problem of their own creation, and TxDOT seems reluctant to learn from its own mistakes. Indeed, TxDOT’s annual average daily traffic forecast for I-35 may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the organizers of the anti-expansion rally put it, “wider won’t work.” Based on TxDOT’s own data, wider isn’t worth it.
Speakers at the rally enumerated other grounds on which to oppose the project—everything from fighting climate change, to supporting Austin’s multimodal transit goals, to ending the legacy of segregation (I-35 has been called the “interracial highway” for its role in splitting black East Austin from white West Austin). So, not only is expansion likely to be futile or even counterproductive, it will undermine Austin’s transit goals, worsen air pollution, and widen the interracial barrier separating East Austin from Downtown.
And it will also displace 111 homes and businesses. The expansion project represents value destruction on a massive scale.
In Confessions of a Recovering Engineer, Charles Marohn of Strong Towns describes the purpose of different types of thoroughfares, distinguishing between roads and streets. A road is a “high-speed connection between two places”—this is exactly what a highway is. A street, on the other hand, is a “platform for building community wealth.” Marohn goes on:
A road creates the greatest value by providing the fastest connection between two places that people want to be…While roads connect places, streets are the framework for building a place. Streets provide the greatest value when they create places that people want to be.
East Avenue was a bustling urban street once lined with many homes and businesses. It was a platform for community wealth, particularly for Austin’s black residents. The construction of the interstate highway through downtown—that is, through an existing place where people lived and did business—destroyed East Side neighborhoods and wealth. It rendered the lots it paved over permanently worthless, unable to generate future wealth. This was a loss not only to the property owners, but to a growing city that would forever lose valuable (taxable) downtown real estate.
Austin replaced a street with a road in the name of serving suburban commuters at the expense of the people who lived downtown. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as the city decided downtown was a place to commute to but not to live in, homes and commercial establishments in the central business district gave way to parking lots and garages—places in which all the people who fled to the suburbs could store their cars after a grueling commute.
In recent decades, thanks to better leadership and smarter policy choices, downtown has again become a popular place to live (so popular that most Austinites can’t afford to live there). Yet I-35 took a significant amount of land off the map for future development, and its expansion will perpetuate that historic pattern of wealth destruction. TxDOT’s plans entail seizing, via its eminent domain powers, 54.1 acres of land and displacing 59 businesses and 51 homes, many of which are depicted on this map created by KUT News. Using KUT’s map, I added up the appraised property values, and by my math, TxDOT will pave over land, homes, and buildings appraised at nearly $170 million.
This number of course does not include the future rents that landlords won’t receive, nor the relocation costs of businesses and families, nor lost revenue, nor any difference in rents or mortgages incurred by the displaced. TxDOT will of course have to pay owners a fair market value for their properties, as well as compensate tenants for some of these displacement costs, all of which is included in the project budget. But the point is that TxDOT is spending taxpayer money and destroying already valuable property to do something that will not actually fix the problem it is ostensibly trying to solve.
When you build or expand highways through places of wealth creation you destroy those places and their power to create wealth.
Most Austinites recognize that I-35 is not up to the job of safely and efficiently transporting Central Texans, but a wealth-destroying highway expansion is not the way forward.
Groups like Rethink35 and Reconnect Austin have proposed imaginative solutions to the I-35 problem that would restore the urban street grid that the highway destroyed, recreating those platforms for building community wealth. Rethink35’s plan would rebuild East Avenue, with I-35 transitioning into a boulevard through downtown Austin. Reconnect’s proposal would submerge the highway through downtown and build a boulevard on top. Rather than require more destruction of productive real estate, both proposals would free up hundreds of acres of valuable downtown land that could be redeveloped, which could help offset the higher cost of tunneling I-35 through downtown.
This idea found no purchase with TxDOT, which dismissed it because the “goal of redeveloped land is outside TxDOT’s authority as a transportation agency”—an authority, to be clear, that gives it carte blanche to seize and destroy valuable, already-developed land. In its final report, TxDOT rejected both concepts because they “would not meet the transportation needs of an interstate highway.” The bureaucrats at the Tautological Department of Tautology seem to have missed the point.
While TxDOT likewise dismissed other proposals, the obvious and maybe simplest solution to congestion is to charge for it, but the governor has proclaimed there will be “no more tolls in Texas.” So that’s out.
Despite opposition from the City Council, community leaders, and many other Austinites, and despite the evidence that highway expansions don’t alleviate traffic, it seems likely that the project will steamroll ahead. Ultimately, TxDOT answers not to voters but to a commission appointed by the governor, and in heavily Republican Texas, the governor does not require the votes of Austin Democrats to get re-elected. So TxDOT will spend billions of taxpayer dollars to trench a wider highway through downtown.
One could not conceive of a more literal depiction of a money pit.
Texas is already a national leader in renewable energy, electric vehicles, and semiconductors, so why is a state at the forefront of cutting edge technology trying to solve yesterday’s traffic problems with yesterday’s “solutions”? Perhaps when all you have is a blank check and a paver, every problem looks like pavement.
Whatever explains TxDOT’s aversion to better alternatives, it’s a shame, for Austin will miss out on a generational opportunity to transform its urban infrastructure and build a city for the future. Widening I-35 won’t work, won’t be worth it, and won’t do anything other than double down on the mistakes of the Twentieth Century.
TxDOT should go back to the drawing board and come back with a plan for the Twenty-First.