University of Texas Students Rally Against I-35 Expansion Plans
By Kevin Vu
Reporting Texas TV
AUSTIN, Texas – Chants of “Let us walk, let us ride, no more lanes on I-35,” echoed through the University of Texas at Austin’s West Mall.
Over 30 UT Austin students, professors and Austinites marched through the campus on Feb. 15 to protest against I-35 Capital Express Central Project — a proposal to expand and improve along I-35 from SH 45 North to US 290 East. They traveled from the UT Tower towards the lawn and Littlefield Fountain.
“Having this giant freeway cut right through the center of our town, adjoining the UT campus is incredibly destructive and is also a waste,” said Miriam Schoenfield, a philosophy associate professor at UT and board member for ReThink35, a grassroots organization aiming to stop the highway’s expansion.
“There are so many better things we could do with this land. ”
Schoenfield said the expansion will cause more traffic and displace dozens of homes and businesses. She said this will primarily affect lower-income communities, increasing the historical economic and racial divide caused by I-35.
“The highway is sort of a monument to racial injustice,” Schoenfield said. “People are being harmed for something that’s not for the good of the public. The only people that this will benefit are people in the car and oil industries and things like that.”
Brad Wheelis, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) in Austin, said I-35’s expansion will displace 69 businesses, 26 residential family homes and one apartment complex, but he said TxDOT will work to contact businesses and homeowners to provide relocation assistance.
Wheelis said the highway does not meet the demand of current population and traffic. In order to help alleviate Austin’s expected population growth, the city and TxDOT are working together to expand I-35.
TxDOT estimates the expansion will cost over $4.9 billion, with plans to remove the existing I-35 decks, lower the roadway, and add two non-tolled high-occupancy vehicle managed lanes in each direction along I-35. This will add four lanes to the busy highway.
“We want to be smart about how we rebuild I-35,” Wheelis said.
“We know that we cannot build our way through congestion. What we can do is we can be smart about how we expand, how we move traffic, and so we can mitigate that congestion. You have to do something because there are more vehicles.”
Brian Pena, a government senior at UT and a speaker at the Feb. 15 rally, believes the money should go towards different projects such as public transportation efforts including railways and improved buses, and wants the highway to go around the city instead of through it.
“Across the country we’ve seen similar plans like this,” Peña said. “If you’ve ever been to Katy, Texas, or other major metropolitan areas, we have some of those 20+ lane highways. They don’t work. They don’t reduce traffic.”
As the expansion plan draws closer, Schoenfield said seeing students and Austinites joining together to rally against the plan gives her hope for the future.
“We had students at UT rallying, students at St. Edward’s, a number of different high schools were involved and it was just so inspiring to me,” Schoenfield said.
“I think this upcoming generation has so much potential and it gives me so much hope for the planet … to see folks out there being vocal, to see the way people came together and cooperated to make these events happen.”
TxDOT expects construction to start by next year and end around 2032. TxDOT and ReThink35 encourage people to send public comments and concerns to TxDOT on the Capital Express projects website by March 7.