‘Completely absurd’: Student organization to challenge I-35 expansion to 20 lanes

Madeline Duncan, Senior News Reporter

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said Rethink35 is a new student organization, but it is a new chapter of a larger organization. The Texan regrets this error.

UT students and faculty are organizing to resist the potential expansion of Interstate 35 from 12 to 20 lanes. 

Students formed a UT chapter of Rethink35, a grassroots organization aiming to call attention to the adverse environmental, financial and health effects they say accompany the proposed highway expansion.

Instead of expansion, the group advocates for transforming downtown I-35 to a “green boulevard” with wide sidewalks, bus and bike lanes, said Miriam Schoenfield, an associate professor of philosophy.

“We want to get the highway rerouted around Austin onto (State Highway 130) and these existing roadways so that the space that’s inside can be used by the city for things that we want to use it for —  housing, businesses, walking buses, cars too, but not a giant highway in the middle of the city,” Schoenfield said. 

Journalism junior Shai Davis said she got involved with Rethink35 to make the city more walkable.

“Texas Department of Transportation, TxDOT, they want to expand (I-35) because they think that that will help reduce traffic, but studies have shown that that’s not true,” Davis said. “On a climate change front, we want less cars.”

Adam Greenfield, the executive director of Rethink35, said stopping the proposed expansion is crucial to combating climate change. 

“Texas roads themselves are responsible for about 0.5% of carbon emissions globally, just Texas,” Greenfield said. “We just cannot let this expansion happen. It will be disastrous for the climate, disastrous for safety —  a quarter of people killed in Austin in vehicular incidents are killed on I-35.”

Design freshman Rey Tran said they joined Rethink35 after seeing how large highways took over Houston. 

“I’ve seen these giant 20-lane highways and it sucks being on the highways, and it

sucks to drive on them,” Tran said. “It’s sad to see that taking away from everything that Austin used to be and going away from walkable cities.”

While the expansion of I-35 is supposed to decrease traffic, widening the highway will only increase it, Greenfield said. 

“Widening highways worsens congestion because it encourages more driving,” Greenfield said. “We saw this with the Katy Freeway in Houston, which was widened to 24 lanes in 2011. Three years later, it took 40% longer to complete your trip at rush hour than it did before, so widening highways is actually counterproductive and will accomplish absolutely nothing.”

In June, Rethink35 joined two Austin nonprofits in suing TxDOT for splitting the proposed expansion into three projects. Greenfield said segmenting the projects is an attempt by TxDOT to skirt their legal and environmental obligations.

“The lawsuit is saying that they need to go back and restart the project completely from scratch as one project, and also to do a more thorough environmental review,” Greenfield said. “They’re saying that the northern and southern portions of the project would have no significant environmental impact. Anyone knows that’s completely absurd, so we need them to go back and restart the project.”

UT students are key to calling attention to this issue, Greenfield said. 

“The reason we’re here today is because UT students and faculty could turn the tide on this conversation,” Greenfield said. “We’re going to build an enormous public groundswell of support for what we’re proposing to do, and then we’re going to push (the Austin City Council) to pass a resolution officially opposing the expansion.”