It’s never been more widely understood in the history of transportation infrastructure that adding lanes to highways does not solve the problem of traffic congestion. The phenomenon of “induced demand,” a catch-all phrase used to describe the complex relationship between multiple effects causing traffic to rapidly fill expanded highway space, has filtered through somewhat to the general public — and efforts to outright remove urban freeways from several city centers reflect this shift in awareness.
More people than ever recognize you can’t build your way out of traffic, but the Texas Department of Transportation is planning to try just the same, and Austin will suffer for the next several decades if such a failure of imagination moves forward. TxDOT went live last night with a virtual “public scoping” presentation for the central portion of its I-35 Capital Express project that will expand the highway along the approximately 8 miles between US 290 East and SH 71/Ben White Boulevard, including the stretch passing directly through downtown Austin — just watch the video below:
The I-35 Capital Express Central project proposes to add two, non-tolled managed lanes in each direction along I-35 in the project area. The proposed project also includes various operational and safety enhancements, including reconstructing ramps, bridges and intersections; improving frontage roads; enhancing bicycle and pedestrian paths; and accommodating transit routes.
Managed lanes, such as high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, are a set of lanes within a highway that are separated from the mainlanes, and access is controlled by placing restrictions on use. They are designed to provide a less congested route than adjacent general-purpose lanes during peak periods for qualifying vehicles. HOV lanes are reserved for the use of carpools, vanpools, transit vehicles and emergency responders.
With all this information, the number you need to remember is 20. That’s the total lane count shown in the first two design options for Austin’s expanded section of highway, with the third option dropping it down to 19. I-35 through downtown currently has a total of 12 lanes — we’d be gaining eight. Here’s a view of the three designs shown for the stretch of I-35 passing through downtown Austin:
Even with these (fairly opaque) presentations from TxDOT, we still know so little about what’s actually planned for the highway that we can’t even begin to assess the impact it would have, or more importantly the damage it would cause — and the information we do know, namely that whopping 20 lanes, inspires zero confidence. The single major adaptation shown in these presentations are each design’s potentially grade-separated or tunneled HOV lanes, which might relieve gridlock slightly — but don’t overlook that the most effective high-occupancy lanes integrate congestion pricing in what’s known as an express HOT lane, and the state government under Gov. Greg Abbott has made it very clear in recent years that tolls are not an option here.
TxDOT's plans for I-35 in Central Austin will be public at 5pm tomorrow night here: https://t.co/pcl0aouyXY
Here's what we know so far:
— Brendan Wittstruck (@brwittstruck) November 12, 2020
More ambitious possibilities, ranging from simply including dedicated bus lanes or rail lines in concert with the nascent Project Connect; to the wildly ambitious plans from the locals at Reconnect Austin to bury the entire highway and reclaim the space above, don’t appear to have received any serious consideration from the designers at TxDOT. The only two eyebrow-raising possibilities mentioned in this report for all design options are what the agency calls a “downtown bypass system” and/or a “downtown boulevard concept” — features that aren’t shown in the current presentations, but could theoretically represent an improvement over what’s seen here. It’s not inspiring, but it’s the only aspect with even remote promise.
At the risk of sounding dramatic, the widening of I-35 as seen in these designs would represent a generational failure, one your children will likely spend billions tearing out and replacing. Looking at current numbers, the project might actually cost around the same in billions as Project Connect’s ambitious multi-modal public transit plan — the difference is only a lack of vision, an assumption that even in the face of a global pandemic now forcing possibly permanent changes upon the living habits of hundreds of millions, we will always need more lanes.
And that’s not entirely incorrect. Just as TxDOT hires consultants to affirm the opinions it already has, building more lanes almost guarantees that someday, when those new lanes inevitably grow as congested as the old, we will once again need more lanes — a feedback loop ensuring that Austin will remain divided by millions of pounds of concrete long after nationwide public opinion turns toward other transportation solutions. If you’ve got a better idea, now is absolutely the time to submit your feedback and demand a more thoughtful approach to our city’s future mobility — you have exactly one month to provide TxDOT with your comments.