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The public told TxDOT they wanted a train instead of I-35 expansion. TxDOT didn’t listen.

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

By Clay Anderson and Miriam Schoenfield

75 percent of all public comments in response to TxDOT’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement were opposed to expanding I-35 through Central Austin, according to data TxDOT released on Monday, August 21. 544 commenters (16 percent of the total) specifically asked TxDOT to build a train connecting the cities on the I-35 corridor instead of expanding the highway, without being prompted.

The document includes responses to the thousands of comments about the $4.5 billion project, which is expected to displace 51 families, 59 businesses and 4 community facilities, 87 percent of which are in the Environmental Justice category. In response to comments asking TxDOT to build regional rail between San Antonio and Austin, TxDOT wrote the following:

“Connecting Austin to other major cities by rail is not included within the scope of this project. Regional rail has been considered in previous studies to improve I-35, such as the Planning and Environmental Linkages [PEL] Study in 2014. Regional rail was not recommended in this study because it would not create a dependable and consistent route for transit, emergency responders and other motorists.”

Even though independent scholarly research suggests a reliable train system on the I-35 corridor would see more than 4 million trips each year, shifting many car trips to transit, TxDOT’s claim that it “considered” regional rail in its planning process is misleading at best.

According to the 2014 Planning and Environmental Linkages Study (PEL) for I-35, regional rail did not receive a detailed study because, like TxDOT wrote in the 2023 FEIS, it would not “create a dependable and consistent route for transit, emergency responders and other motorists.” Other options in the PEL, such as freight-only lanes, were given detailed studies internally by the TxDOT team, which then determined that adding HOV lanes “were the next best alternative to meet the Purpose and Need" of mobility in the region.

Along with the FEIS, TxDOT announced its final Record of Decision, showing the alignment and design of the highway which would stretch to 22 lanes in some areas. The possible “highway caps” along certain segments would require the City of Austin to put up at least one billion dollars, something that City Council has not yet identified a funding source for.

Rethink35, which joined the Restart coalition in mid-August, provided the following statement in response to this analysis of TxDOT’s data:

“When it comes to mobility in our region, it is hard to imagine a worse project than the highway boondoggle TxDOT has proposed. It is well known that widening a freeway doesn’t alleviate, and often worsens congestion. Furthermore, urban freeways are one of the least efficient ways of moving large numbers of people in and around a major metropolitan area.”

TxDOT has not studied in detail the tremendous mobility benefits that regional rail would bring to the cities along the I-35 corridor. We, the Restart Lone Star Rail District coalition, call on TxDOT, the Alamo Area MPO, and the Capital Area MPO to halt the expansion of I-35 throughout Central Texas until a new study of regional rail is released.

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