AUSTIN, Texas — Austin’s Interstate 35 consistently ranks among the most congested roadways in the state of Texas. A study by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute ranks I-35 from U.S. 290 in North Austin to Highway 71 in South Austin as the third most congested in the Lone Star State. That same stretch ranks as the most congested for trucks for a third year running.  

It has cost Austinites and Texans time and money. But only Austin residents, to some extent, will have a say in what happens to the interstate.

The Texas Department of Public Transportation has been accepting public input and is currently in the environmental study phase of the I-35 Capital Express Central Project

What You Need To Know

  • Austin's portion of I-35 ranks as the third most congested roadway in Texas
  • TxDOT is currently planning a $4.9 billion redesign of the roadway

  • Two candidates for Austin mayor are headed to a runoff with different views on how to move forward with the project

The $4.9 billion project proposes improvements to the roadway, such as removing existing upper decks, lowering the roadway and adding two managed or high occupancy vehicle lanes in each direction. The project also suggests reconstructing east to west cross-street bridges, adding bike and pedestrian paths and supporting existing and future CapMetro routes.

Though Austin’s mayor will have limited say on the project, the two candidates headed to a runoff election share differing views on what needs to be done to solve Austin’s congestion problem.  

“Traffic is one of the perennial problems in Austin, Texas,” Austin mayoral candidate Kirk Watson said. “The road doesn’t work, the road is unsafe.”  

Watson was Austin's mayor from 1997 to 2001. He later served in the Texas Senate from 2006 to 2020. Watson supported the interstate's expansion during his time as a senator and supports TxDOT’s current plan.  

“The TxDOT plan needs to be improved upon,” Watson said. “Over time, we’ve made big changes and I think we need to continue to ask for changes and continued improvements.”  

Watson says the project is good for Austin and Texas.  

“About 80% of the traffic generated on the central part of I-35 starts somewhere in Austin or the Austin region,” Watson said.  

TxDOT says 82% of the traffic on the interstate is local. The statistic is shared on its website along with others to explain why it's determined rerouting traffic around Austin won’t solve congestion.  

Rerouting traffic is an idea being proposed by anti-expansion groups like Rethink35.

“What we’re being presented from TxDOT is not in sync with what the community wants,” Celia Israel, Watson’s runoff opponent, said.

Israel is a former state representative and Realtor. While she secured the most votes in the November election for mayor, she didn’t secure more than the 50% needed to win. Israel also supports rerouting traffic as a viable option.  

“My plan would have support so 18-wheelers can use the Bergstrom Expressway or SH-130, incentivize them to use that. But it’s also got to be something that's better for the environment,” Israel said.  

Israel believes Austin’s portion of I-35 does need work. She wants dedicated transit lanes and on- and off-ramps.  

“Just because you build more lanes doesn’t mean that you made it better,” Israel said. “Cities like Houston have seen that.”  

Houston’s Katy Freeway has been used as an example to counter arguments for expansion. The freeway suffered the phenomenon some call “induced demand,” or the idea that widening highways encourages driving, thus making congestion worse. A report by a media outlet in Houston showed evening commutes increased by 19 minutes.  

Watson believes the managed HOV lanes and auxiliary lanes will help avoid this problem.  

Construction is set to begin in late 2025.  

The runoff elections in Austin are Dec. 13.