Texas DOT Doubles Down on Urban Highway Expansions

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The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) pulled the rug out from under San Antonio last week when it abruptly took back control of a downtown roadway that was the centerpiece of a city road diet and neighborhood redevelopment. 

Six years after ceding jurisdiction of 2.2 miles of Lower Broadway to the city, TxDOT used a technicality to take it back. At its core, the decision stops the city from reducing the seven-lane roadway to four lanes and puts the brakes on community redevelopment focused on walkability and neighborhood revitalization.

But it’s more than a road diet at stake. The decision rankles San Antonio locals who have realized rich returns from changing what was once a blighted freeway exit to downtown into a successful urban neighborhood with new residents, commercial investments, and important cultural destinations.

With this action, TxDOT is doubling down on a series of controversial decisions to prioritize increased volume and speeds of urban highways over local preferences for safety and neighborhood reinvestment. 

The Broadway road diet and redevelopment was supported by a $42-million city bond, approved by 78 percent of voters in 2017. It would have improved the corridor for vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists. Many millions more in local funding for design and planning had been committed. TxDOT had even ponied up $5 million for the road diet. 

Work had already begun on the parts of the project closest to downtown where private businesses spent millions of dollars in new development along Broadway. The state said in its decision that the locally funded and planned project would be too limiting for the operation of the state highway system.

Ironically, the chair of the TxDOT panel, banker J. Bruce Bugg Jr., is a prominent city resident. Bugg told the San Antonio Report: “I feel strongly that if this commission does not take this action today, and capacity is reduced from three lanes in each direction to two lanes … we would allow an action that would be in direct conflict with our stated policy to provide congestion relief for the state of Texas, specifically in San Antonio.” 

Locals say Bugg cares about San Antonio and is heavily involved in making the city a better place for its residents. He helped build the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts and worked with other leaders to create a highly effective program to bring affordable COVID-19 testing to San Antonio.

The decision is “illogical” and “absolutely unnecessary,” according to San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg in an article in the San Antonio Report. Local officials had partnered with private investors over the past six years to imagine and finance a transformation aimed at bringing life to a part of the city choked by the interchange of the I-37 and I-35 highways. 

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