Lawsuit challenges proposed I-35 highway expansions in Austin

AUSTIN, TEXAS – Taking a high-profile stance against wasteful and harmful highway expansions, the Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG), Environment Texas, and the Rethink35 campaign filed a lawsuit against the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) on Sunday June 26th over TxDOT’s plans to spend over $1 billion to expand I-35 to 19+ lanes in the north and south of the Austin area.

The lawsuit alleges that by splitting its overall I-35 expansion project into three sub-projects — the I-35 Capital Express North (SH-45 N to US-290 E), South (SH-71/Ben White Blvd to SH-45 SE), and Central (US-290 E to SH-71/Ben White Blvd) projects — TxDOT is falsely claiming that these three stretches of I-35 are “independent utilities” to avoid the more rigorous, legally-required environmental review and public engagement of a single larger project. TxDOT’s “Finding Of No Significant Impact (FONSI)” for I-35 South and I-35 North comes despite its plans to considerably expand the North section from 12 to 20 lanes and the South section from 14 to 19 lanes.

“By splitting its I-35 project into separate parts, TxDOT is clearly violating the law,” says TexPIRG Environment Campaigns Director Matt Casale. “For such a major highway project, TxDOT should be undertaking the most rigorous environmental review process, as well as giving the public much more opportunity to meaningfully participate in the conversation.”

Rethink35 is challenging the very basis of the proposed expansion. “Countless examples, including the notorious Katy Freeway expansion in Houston, have shown that widening highways worsens congestion by encouraging more driving,” says Adam Greenfield, Rethink35’s Executive Director. “The public has a right to consider options for I-35 that will actually work, including alternatives to driving, not just expansion. This is also a major equity issue: Widening freeways worsens serious and fatal traffic crashes, air pollution, noise, and carbon emissions, all of which disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color.”

This lawsuit comes as public opinion, locally and nationwide, is turning against new highways and highway expansions. Unprecedented media coverage and advocacy — including TexPIRG’s annual Highway Boondoggles report and the Congress for the New Urbanism’s Freeways Without Futures report (which has featured I-35 multiple times) — has highlighted the ongoing racial injustices and environmental and quality of life impacts of existing and expanded freeways, especially those in urban areas. A recent LA Times investigation found that over one million people were displaced for highways from the 1950s to the 1990s and another 200,000 people have been displaced by federal road projects since. And in February this year, a national Freeway Fighters Network emerged, comprising local groups from coast to coast that are opposing highway expansions, further bringing the issue into the spotlight.

“The game is up on highway expansions and the devastating impacts they’ve had for too long,” says Greenfield. “We look forward to a favorable verdict in court over TxDOT’s regressive plans for I-35.”