Austin Wants Mass Transit, but the New Infrastructure Law Will Give It a Bigger Highway

AUSTIN, Texas—Multibillion-dollar transportation projects in this Democratic stronghold of Republican Texas show how tough it will be for President


to accomplish his goal of shaking up federal infrastructure investments.

Austin has ambitious plans for new light rail and rapid bus lines and a vision of covering a downtown stretch of Interstate 35 with acres of parks and public spaces.


Steve Adler

is seeking federal funding from the nearly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law for both projects, but he acknowledges those awards will be highly competitive since cities, counties and states all across the country are eager for the money. “Nothing is guaranteed,” he said.

What isn’t in question: a four-lane expansion of I-35 through Austin. Federal highway funding, including about $28 billion from the new law, means Texas has the money to begin construction soon on its Austin project.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler says ‘nothing is guaranteed’ on the federal funding from the nearly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law.

Mr. Biden has repeatedly called his infrastructure law transformative and a chance to rethink public-works spending—financing the kind of projects Mr. Adler envisions for Austin. He and Transportation Secretary

Pete Buttigieg

say they want the money spent to improve social equity and slow climate change; they want fewer new roads, more mass transit.

The law’s fine print could make that mission difficult to achieve.

More than half of the roughly $600 billion in transportation money is being transferred to states through federal highway funding, giving governors and state departments of transportation—not the Biden administration—control over how it is spent.

“There is undeniably more money for transit, walking and biking than ever before. There is even money for new trail programs,” the pro-pedestrian group America Walks wrote about the law. “But the biggest single pot of transportation money was not for people. It’s for cars—specifically, highways.”

Some Democrats in Congress have long said that any infrastructure bill would need to rewrite funding formulas to meet the goals of boosting transit and combating climate change.

But to win enough Republican votes to pass the bill, Democrats shrank their initial request for mass transit and other non-highway programs and ditched a requirement that states repair roads and bridges before building new ones.

I-35 in Austin handles more than 200,000 vehicles a day, a figure expected to increase by 50% over the next 25 years, the state says.

“We’re stuck with a pretty bitter reality here, and that is the Senate is a basket case,” said Rep.

Peter DeFazio

(D., Ore.), the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, whose own more transit-focused infrastructure bill was cast aside for the bipartisan Senate plan.


Shelley Moore Capito

(R., W.Va.), a Republican infrastructure negotiator, said the legislation never would have passed had it not preserved the ability of states to set their own priorities when they receive federal highway money.

States may choose to give priority to expanding roadways in rural areas, high-growth regions or developing job centers that will mean hundreds of commuting workers, she said.

“In certain instances, new capacity is what you need,” she said.

In December, the Transportation Department said it would encourage projects that improve “the condition and safety of existing transportation infrastructure” over those that add “travel lanes serving single-occupancy vehicles.” But administration officials acknowledge this is guidance, not a mandate.

Austin’s red line heads downtown. The city has ambitious plans for new light rail and rapid bus lines.

Still, 16 Republican governors, including Texas Gov.

Greg Abbott,

and Senate Minority Leader

Mitch McConnell

(R., Ky.) responded with letters saying the administration shouldn’t push a social agenda through traditional infrastructure investments.

“Attempts to disallow the use of funding for general purpose widening projects would be biased against rural states and states with growing populations,’’ the governors wrote. “Future prosperity would be negatively impacted if this antigrowth mind-set is allowed to become firmly entrenched in transportation policy.”

Democrat-led states also plan to spend huge amounts of infrastructure money on new or larger highways, even as they tout their climate focus. In New Mexico, Democratic Gov.

Michelle Lujan Grisham

said she wants the money to be “transformational” and then goes on to explain she is excited to build more highway access and airport runways.

“In many states, highway policy has not caught up to climate rhetoric,” said

Kevin DeGood,

director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress, a center-left policy institute. “Expanding highways deepens auto dependence, which locks in additional climate emissions for decades to come.”

The Biden administration can use roughly $100 billion in discretionary grants to advance its policy goals. In many cases, these funds will flow directly to local governments, even in states that might otherwise favor road widenings.

Home to tech startups and festivals such as South by Southwest that draw thousands of visitors, Austin is on track to double its population to 2 million within the next few decades. That explosive growth is giving city planners an almost SimCity-like opportunity to build new ways to get around, including new light rail lines that would run through a to-be-constructed downtown tunnel.

Austin City Council member Sabino ‘Pio’ Renteria says, ‘When the highway went up, it was like a wall that reinforced segregation.’

Texas transportation officials say the city’s projects and the roughly $5 billion highway expansion aren’t in tension, and that Austin will need an all-of-the-above strategy to ease congestion as its population booms.

“It’s not one single solution to get us out of our congestion and growth issues,” said

Tucker Ferguson,

an engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation’s Austin District.

I-35 in Austin already handles more than 200,000 vehicles a day, a figure expected to increase by 50% to 300,000 a day over the next 25 years, the state says. The existing highway cannot accommodate the interstate traffic flowing through Austin without adding more lanes, Mr. Ferguson said.

The state highway department says it has targeted this eight-mile stretch of I-35 for expansion since the 1980s and that it is now considered the second-most congested highway in Texas. Widening it would prevent hours of traffic delays for drivers and lower emissions and fuel costs, the department says.

But highway expansions also trigger the well-documented phenomenon of “induced demand”—adding more lanes to fight congestion only encourages more drivers to use a roadway, erasing any improvements in the flow of traffic.

“You end up with the same congestion on the road that you had before,” Mr. Adler said. “So all you’ve effectively done is increased property values a little bit further out and encouraged sprawl in your city.”

Austin can’t stop the state’s I-35 expansion, and Texas has rejected some of the city’s ideas for modernizing it, the mayor said.

Some Austin City Council members, including

Natasha Harper-Madison,

said they see the highway widening as counterproductive. She said it “cancels out the other actions that support the community’s goals, like mass transit.”

After rejecting light rail plans in 2000 and 2014, Austin voters in November 2020 approved a $7 billion concept that raises the property tax rate payable to the city by 20%. (City officials say the impact on the total property tax bill for an average home would be roughly 4%.)

“We had to change culture,” said

Randy Clarke,

chief executive officer of Capital Metro, the city’s transit agency. “We’re in Texas. Not only do people want to drive. They want to drive big cars and Ford F-150s.”

Infrastructure Spending

Here’s a breakdown on how infrastructure funds will be spent, according to a detailed analysis of the 1,000-page law from transportation analysts at the Brookings Institution.

  • Transportation: $591 billion
  • Highways, roads and bridges: $361 billion
  • Transit: $92 billion
  • Rail: $68 billion
  • Airports: $25 billion
  • Safety: $18 billion
  • Multimodal and freight: $13.5 billion
  • Ports: $11 billion
  • Broadband and other non-transportation related projects: $137.5 billion
  • Total: $864 billion (Brookings arrived at a lower figure than the roughly $1 trillion from the congressional analysis.)

The city has set a goal of reducing the percentage of daily commuters driving alone in their vehicles from 74% to 50% and wants to make the city friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists.

Another ambitious—and currently unfunded—plan calls for covering about 15 acres of I-35, which is recessed below street level through downtown, with parks and other public spaces to better connect east Austin with the rest of the city.

Conditions attached to the last major federal infrastructure investment, President

Dwight Eisenhower’s

1956 highway law, meant that Black and brown neighborhoods in cities across the country were obliterated by pavement, or cut off from whiter economic hubs. Austin was no exception.

“When the highway went up, it was like a wall that reinforced segregation,” said Austin City Council member Sabino “Pio” Renteria, 71 years old, who grew up east of the highway and remembers its construction in the late 1950s and early 60s. “Whites wouldn’t go over to our side. We were stuck with second-class services, second-class education, second-class everything.”


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Austin can’t stop the state’s I-35 expansion, which will mean 20 lanes of highway, turnways and frontage roads in some places. The highway department says traffic in the new lanes will be managed to give priority to buses and other high-occupancy vehicles, but the state rejected Mr. Adler’s request that they be tolled to discourage peak-time commuters.

The state also agreed to remove the unsightly upper decks of I-35 in some areas of Austin and add the new lanes below grade, enabling Austin to cover the highway if it can find the estimated $600 million to $800 million it would cost.

Even with the increased federal highway money from the infrastructure law, the state says it won’t pay for that work.

Write to Julie Bykowicz at [email protected] and Ted Mann at [email protected]

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