What If the State Department of Transportation Tore Down Texas Highways

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By Megan Kimble
Drone Photography by Brontë Wittpenn
July 12, 2021

A version of this story ran in the July/August 2021 issue.

On January 19, 2018, shortly before 10 a.m., Robin Lafleur exited Texas Highway 290 at South First Street, as she did every morning on her way to work at Austin Habitat for Humanity. It was a cold, cloudy morning but Lafleur was in a good mood. She finally felt settled in her new home, which she’d bought less than a year before in Cedar Park, a suburb northwest of Austin. It was a Friday and she had happy hour plans with friends after work, so she was wearing one of her favorite outfits—maroon jeggings and a new mauve sweater with matching boots.

She doesn’t remember much about what happened next. As she merged onto the frontage road, a car stopped abruptly in front of her. She slammed into it. When she woke up, she was in a hospital gown at St. David’s South Austin Medical Center—nurses had cut her clothes off her body to take a CT scan. The concussion she suffered kept her out of work for more than three months. “I was told that to heal, I needed to sit in a quiet room and let the time go by,” she says. “It was horrific because the days went by so slowly.”

Before she moved, Lafleur had been renting an apartment less than 10 minutes from her office, but she wanted to own a home in the city where she grew up. She soon realized her nonprofit salary wouldn’t get her very far. If you can’t afford to buy in Austin, Lafleur says, “You’re left up a creek without a paddle. Or you use that paddle and you travel to Cedar Park.”

As the price of housing in Austin has skyrocketed, low- and middle-income people like Lafleur have left the city in droves, seeking cheaper housing in the suburbs strung along Interstate 35—Round Rock and Pflugerville to the north, Buda and Kyle to the south, all of which have at least doubled or tripled in population since 2000. After she closed on her house, Lafleur joined the thousands of other people who crowd I-35 every day to get home, sitting in traffic for nearly 90 minutes to travel 25 miles. “At this point, driving on 35, which I still do every day, it’s a very, very stressful and anxiety-causing event,” she says.

Brontë Wittpenn

Part of I-35 runs through downtown Austin on Monday, April 26, 2021.

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) wants to fix Lafleur’s commute. In early 2020, after nearly three decades of planning, discussion, and community input, the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT, voted to allocate $7.5 billion to the I-35 Capital Express Project, which includes plans to expand an 8-mile segment of I-35 through central Austin.

The stretch of I-35 that passes through downtown Austin is both the most congested stretch of highway in the state and the most dangerous roadway in the city—1 in 4 traffic fatalities in Austin occur on the highway or its frontage roads. The goal of the expansion, says Susan Fraser, the program manager for the I-35 project, is to make the highway safer and more efficient for the more than 200,000 vehicles that use it every day. TxDOT plans to do that by adding managed lanes, restricted to vehicles with two or more people in them.

“I know there’s the mindset that if you build it, they will come,” says Diann Hodges, a spokesperson for TxDOT’s Austin district. “Well, they have come. Anybody who lives or drives in Austin knows the congestion that we’re dealing with. So we’ve got to make improvements to the road that is there to make it accessible to everyone.”

Texas’ population is projected to nearly double by 2050. Most of that growth will happen in urban areas like Austin, which has been the fastest-growing major metropolitan region in the country over the past decade. Texas leaders have decided that to accommodate that growth, the state urgently needs “to get new roads built swiftly and effectively,” as Governor Greg Abbott has promised. Despite the fact that it is much more efficient, sustainable, and safe to move people through crowded cities by other modes—like buses and trains—TxDOT spends essentially all of its funding on enabling seamless car travel. Since 2015, TxDOT has committed more than $25 billion to “congestion relief” projects across the state and has plans to expand highways in Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Fort Worth, and El Paso.

This is how transportation departments across the country have functioned for decades—building ever bigger highways to fix traffic—despite the reams of evidence that it doesn’t work. Between 1993 and 2017, the 100 largest urbanized areas in the United States spent more than $500 billion adding new freeways or expanding existing ones. In those same cities, congestion increased by 144 percent, significantly outpacing population growth. “I think traffic engineers tend to think traffic is like a liquid. If the pipes aren’t big enough, then it gets plugged up and overflows,” says Robert Goodspeed, a professor of urban planning at the University of Michigan. “The solution is building bigger pipes. But all of the evidence says that that’s not true, that instead [traffic] is much more like a gas, meaning the volume of traffic congestion will expand to take up the capacity allowed.”

If traffic can expand, it can also contract. Advocates in Texas are at the epicenter of a national movement asking: What if, instead of building our aging roads back wider and higher—doubling down on the displacement that began in the 1950s and the climate consequences unfolding now—we removed those highways altogether? What if we restored the scarred, paved-over land they inhabit and gave it back to the communities it was taken from?

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On a breezy, warm day in April, State Representative Armando Walle appeared before the House Transportation Committee to introduce House Joint Resolution 109, a measure that would put to a public vote whether to allow for state highway funds to be spent on things other than roadways, including sidewalks, bike lanes, and public transportation. Dozens of Texans testified in support of the bill. About an hour into the hearing, Jack Finger, a member of the advocacy group Texans for Toll Free Highways, testified against the measure. “Do not take my gas tax dollars for the bus, nor for bike paths, nor for sidewalks,” he said. “The local municipalities can pay for their own. To me it smacks at a socialistic attempt to get me out of my vehicle.” HJR 109 was left pending in committee.

The idea that public transit is for socialists and that highways enable free-market capitalism pervades the state’s politics. According to Farm&City, a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable development across the state, Texas is one of only a few states in the country without dedicated state funding for public transportation in major metro areas. Over the past two decades, surveys have found that people who live in these urban areas, as 85 percent of Texans do, have consistently said they would prefer investments in public transit instead of bigger highways. Even the outgoing CEO of TxDOT, James Bass, said earlier this year that he’d like to see more investment in transit: “With the projected population and growth in the state of Texas, I think as we move forward in time, we’ll need to consider investment in additional modes.”

But the Legislature has refused. State law requires roughly 97 percent of TxDOT’s roughly $15 billion annual budget to be spent on roadways. For decades, Texas Republicans have contended that highways are the engine that powers the state’s economy. “Everything we’re doing for transportation infrastructure feeds into keeping Texas number one in the nation for economic development,” Abbott said in January.

It’s the same argument advanced by the Associated General Contractors of Texas (AGC), which represents 85 percent of the state’s highway contractors. Between January 2013 and December 2020, AGC contributed more than $2.5 million to Texas officeholders, most of that to powerful Republicans, and another $2.2 million to Texas Infrastructure Now, a pro-road-building political action committee, according to Texans for Public Justice. In that time span, the group donated $375,200 to Texans for Greg Abbott, $334,950 to Texans for Dan Patrick, and $303,100 to Senator Robert Nichols, the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. Terry Canales, the…



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