HIGHWAY TO HELL
Latest report says I-35 in Austin is a freeway without a future
On the heels of TxDOT beginning their $606 million expansion of I-35 through Austin, a new report has declared the freeway has no future if Americans want to reduce the harmful impacts of construction.
Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) released their 2023 report with 10 campaigns that are working towards transforming freeways into “reparative infrastructure” that addresses and reduces ecological damage, and prioritizes bringing long-divided communities together. All of the highways included in the report are close to the end of their "useful" lifespans, according to CNU.
Austin has long been one of the most heavily-segregated cities in the country since I-35’s construction in the 1950s. And gentrification has all but taken over the city’s historically black and Latino communities east of I-35.
“[I-35’s] location reinforced the racial segregation that began with Austin’s 1928 Plan forcing minority communities to be concentrated in East Austin through racist zoning, policies, and redlining,” the report states. “Today, I-35 slices through Austin’s urban core, creating a barrier between neighborhoods.”
TxDOT recognized that the highway’s infrastructure was nearing the end of its lifespan in 2012, which led to the current three-part expansion plan. CNU asserted that expansion of I-35 would “further exacerbate” existing barriers between the communities on either side of the highway.
“Because of this project’s massive scope, especially in Austin’s urban core, the discussions about what to do with I-35 represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reconnect neighborhoods that enjoyed walkability and access before I-35 was constructed.”
Two local, highlighted campaigns that are advocating for alternatives to expansion are Reconnect Austin and Rethink35. Reconnect Austin has been working for over a decade to introduce lane caps and lane reductions, while “creating new land where frontage roads used to be.” Their proposal of burying I-35 downtown and capping it with a "walkable boulevard" has been their most popular plan.
Rethink35 is a much newer movement that was founded in 2020 in favor of rerouting non-local traffic around Austin, rather than through it. They also push for converting I-35 into a “multimodal boulevard with value capture programs to prevent displacement in nearby neighborhoods and close socioeconomic gaps between communities.”
CNU says the proposals from both organizations “would restore connectivity between East and West Austin, create pleasant and walkable places, and increase the housing supply in a gentrifying city featuring rapid displacement.”
Other freeways without futures in the report include:
- I-787 in Albany, New York
- US 40 Expressway in Baltimore, Maryland
- I-794 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
- State Highway 55/Olson Memorial Highway in Minneapolis, Minnesota
- I-94 in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota
- I-980 in Oakland, California
- State Route 99 in Seattle, Washington
- I-244 in Tulsa, Oklahoma
- US Route 422 in Youngstown, Ohio
I-35 has been included twice in CNU’s “Freeways Without Futures” report over the last five years, appearing in both the 2021 and 2019 editions.
The full report can be found on cnu.org.