Rethink35 talks I-35 legal action
Austin American-Statesman USA TODAY NETWORK
As the droning sound of midmorning highway traffic could be heard nearby, opponents of the Texas Department of Transportation’s expansion plans for Interstate 35 through Central Austin gathered to object to the $4.5 billion project, promising to sue the state in an effort to halt the project.
More than 60 people huddled in the shade Wednesday under Stars Cafe, located just off the highway’s north frontage road, for the “Wider Won’t Work” event. Some carried signs reading, “People over highways,” “No higher, no wider,” “Don’t widen I-35,” and “This is a climate crisis.”
The event, hosted by Rethink35, a group advocating to replace the highway with an urban boulevard, was attended by two Austin City Council members: Natasha Haper-Madison and Zohaib “Zo” Qadri. The chief of staff for Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis, Julie Montgomery, spoke on her behalf.
“I’m pleased to announce that Rethink35, with a growing list of coplaintiffs that will be announced in the near future, will be suing TxDOT over the I-35 Capital Express Project,” said Adam Greenfield, a co-founder of Rethink35.
Rethink35’s announcement comes a week after TxDOT unveiled its final environmental analysis and record of decision — a formal announcement by TxDOT that the project has met federal transportation requirements — for the centerpiece proposal of the three-part highway project: I-35 Capital Express Central, which runs about 8 miles from the interstate’s intersection to the north with U.S. 290 down to where Texas 71 crosses I-35 in South Austin.
The nature of the legal action remains to be seen. Greenfield told the American-Statesman those details would be worked out in the coming months, though he expects the lawsuit
PHOTOS BY JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
would center on the environmental impacts of the project. Greenfield said Rethink35 hopes to file a lawsuit by the end of the year.
TxDOT declined to comment. “TxDOT does not comment on pending or threatened litigation,” Bradley Wheelis, a TxDOT spokesperson, said in a written statement.
TxDOT expects construction to start on the central portion of the expansion project in mid-2024. That construction will last for about a decade, TxDOT officials have said.
Rethink35 has gone to the courts before
Rethink35 had filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to halt the north and south portions of the project, accusing TxDOT of seeking to ease the regulatory process by breaking the project into three parts.
But in June, Rethink35 withdrew that suit to “focus on other legal strategies” surrounding the project.
TxDOT had denied Rethink35’s claims in court filings.
Construction is already underway on the north and south portions of I-35. The $606 million north portion broke ground in March, and the south portion, which is expected to cost $548 million, broke ground last November.
Have Rethink35’s alternatives been considered?
TxDOT enlisted the Texas A&M Transportation Institute to evaluate three of TxDOT’s own proposed alternatives for the highway expansion project and proposals put forward by Rethink35 and Reconnect Austin, a group advocating for TxDOT to put the highway underground.
Published in August 2021, the resulting 35-page report stated Rethink35’s proposal — which envisions turning I-35 into a six-lane road with dedicated bike and bus lanes while rerouting nonlocal traffic around Austin by way of Texas 130 or U.S. 183 — would push traffic congestion onto neighborhood streets and other Austin highways, increasing commuters’ travel times.
Reconnect Austin’s proposal would bury I-35 and place a six-lane boulevard on top of it. Academics with A&M’ Tr’s transportation institute found two components of the proposal would impede feasibility: the “significant added cost” and the uncertainty of needed thirdparty funding.
Leaders of Rethink35 and Reconnect Austin said they felt the Texas A&M Transportation Institute studies were insufficient.
“We don’t feel they were done in good faith,” Greenfield said.
The 8-mile stretch of I-35 where most of the improvements will be made was ranked as the most congested road in Texas for 18-wheelers and the thirdmost congested overall road in the state, a Texas A&M Transportation Institute study found last year.