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Community members, officials want their voices heard on an alternative to I-35 expansion plan

Members of the community met at Cherrywood Coffeehouse to discuss the proposed I-35 project that would expand it. (Abe Asher/Austonia)

Community opposition to the Texas Department of Transportation's plan to drastically expand Interstate-35 continued this week, with local elected and appointed officials speaking out against the project in droves.

The Capital Express Central project, which would widen I-35 in an eight-mile stretch of central Austin from the Manor Expressway to Ben White Boulevard, is designed to improve the highly-trafficked highway as the population of Central Texas continues to grow.

The current proposed plan, which is undergoing an environmental review, would add two lanes in each direction on I-35, significantly widening the highway, as well as adding additional flyovers and improving access for cyclists and pedestrians. TxDOT says that the changes will "creat[e] a more dependable and consistent route for the traveling public."

Some Austinites—particularly those who live close to the highway—are not pleased. Individuals can give their feedback on the project online through Sept. 24.

Community opposition

A bevy of community leaders, including city council members, rallied last week against the proposal. The city's Urban Transportation Commission gave it an official seal of disapproval Tuesday night, voting in favor of a resolution asking TxDOT to abandon the expansion project or asking the city to do its best to stop its implementation.

That frustration with the plan, which opponents argue will increase noise and air pollution while doing nothing to decrease traffic on the already heavily congested stretch of highway, has been echoed at community meetings.

Brandy Savarese of the Cherrywood Neighborhood Association helped host a meeting about the I-35 project at Cherrywood Coffeehouse. (Abe Asher/Austonia)

At Cherrywood Coffeehouse in East Austin on Wednesday night at an event sponsored by the Cherrywood Neighborhood Association steering committee, State Senator Sarah Eckhardt (D-Austin) said that the highway project needs cooperation between city, state and federal officials on how to renovate in a climate-friendly way that combats economic displacement.

State Rep. Sheryl Cole (D-Austin) agreed—arguing that Austin is not getting the input it should have in the process.

"What can we say? The state has done it to us again," she said. "TxDOT has told us what they won't do, but we can't listen to that and stop from making our voices heard. And I really feel like our voices have not been heard and TxDOT has not taken enough of an opportunity to come out."

TxDOT representatives were present at Cherrywood Coffeehouse, answering questions about possible plans. Some of those present supported TxDOT alternatives to the proposed build, while others voiced support for different measures like obtaining new funding for cap-and-stitch measures and other proposals like one from transportation organization Reconnect Austin.

TxDOT provided alternatives to its I-35 plan to those at Cherrywood Coffeehouse. (Abe Asher/Austonia)

The interstate makes up the Cherrywood neighborhood's western edge, and many of the older homes in the neighborhood predate its initial construction.

"If you look anywhere around the United States and the world, you can see a lot of alternatives (to highway expansion)," Cherrywood resident Lamar Vieau said. "It's not like we need to do this again to see that it doesn't work."

The city of Austin does not have any direct ability to stop the project, and may, depending on how TxDOT precedes, be forced to follow an example set earlier this year when Harris County sued in district court to halt the Department of Transportation beginning planned expansion of I-45 and redoing the project's environmental review. The project has since been paused by the Federal Highway Administration, citing civil rights concerns associated with the project.

A note on the expansion plan stated the project would hurt minority owned businesses. (Abe Asher/Austonia)

Historical, climate concerns

The current plan appears to be at odds with Austin's stated transportation and livability goals, along with having cultural issues, on a number of levels.

I-35, which was called East Avenue before it was incorporated into the interstate system, seperated the city between the white westside and Black and Hispanic eastside in the first half of the 20th century and has long been seen as a race and class dividing line. Two years ago, State Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) told KVUE that the highway is a "scar on the city."

That aspect was not lost on Vieau. "I think it would be great if we could bury it and stitch it over, or at least look at some other ways of moving some of that traffic," he said.

The proposed expansion would also necessitate that the state claim some 150 properties as eminent domain alongside the current I-35, including a number of houses as well as longstanding businesses like the venerable Stars Cafe and the office of The Austin Chronicle.

With the city's stated goal to reduce single-occupancy vehicle mode share from its current level of 74% to 50% within the next two decades, a major highway expansion designed for cars is not expected to help accomplish that.

"We can't just… do what has always been done," Annette Stachowitz, a 61-year resident of Austin originally from Germany, said. "Lots of traffic, add some more lanes. There will be lots of traffic, add some more lanes. And there will be lots of traffic again, and, you know—somebody has to say, hey, let's find a different way."


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