SAN ANTONIO – Nobody likes them, but in a city as large and as reliant on cars as ours, traffic jams are inescapable.
Building and expanding highways have for decades been considered a solution for mass transit and getting people from one place to another.
But recently, there’s been a reckoning of sorts when it comes to highways and how they have historically shaped and reshaped cities - breaking up downtown density, increasing car dependence and, in many cases, dividing communities of color.
President Joe Biden has proposed spending billions to reconnect neighborhoods that have been split up by highways. Some cities have already turned existing highways into boulevards, with dozens more considering similar measures.
But here in San Antonio and Texas, when it comes to transportation news, we’ve been hearing a lot about expansion to keep up with our fast-growing region.
In this episode of KSAT Explains, we take a look at the plans to ease traffic on Loop 1604 and Interstate 35, and why they’re being met with pushback.
(Watch the full episode on-demand in the video player above.)
Despite some of the conversations happening nationally, for some San Antonians, the planned highway expansion projects in our area are coming not a moment too soon.
Watch the video below to hear from three frustrated San Antonio commuters.
Most San Antonio and Bexar County residents can relate to the frustration of sitting in traffic. Bexar County is one of the 20 largest counties in the United States with a population of more than 2 million people.
But as bad as you may think traffic is now, it’s guaranteed to get worse without intervention. Bexar County is expected to grow to more than 3.3 million people by the year 2050 - a huge influx to our already crowded roadways.
It’s one of the reasons the Texas Department of Transportation, or TxDOT, says highway expansion is necessary. And there are two major projects on the horizon targeting Loop 1604 and I-35 - two freeways increasingly becoming among the most congested in the state.
“These are large projects,” said Allison Blazosky, the transportation planning program manager for the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. “They are billions of dollars of investment.”
TxDOT’s plan for I-35 includes expanding a nearly 20-mile stretch heading northeast in parts of Bexar, Comal and Guadalupe Counties. Two 15-mile bridges will be built between the highway’s main lanes and frontage roads. These elevated lanes will add one High Occupancy Vehicle, or HOV, Lane and two general purpose lanes in each direction. The $1.9 billion project is partially funded and is expected to break ground next year.
Data from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute shows that the stretch of I-35 from Loop 410 to Loop 1604 went from the 42nd to the 29th most congested roadway in Texas from 2019 to 2020.
Another project that’s already broken ground will increase capacity on Loop 1604 on the North Side. The $1.3 billion project stretches 23 miles from Bandera Rd. to I-35, and will expand the highway from four to 10 lanes, plus add one HOV lane in each direction.
The work will also include accommodations for bicyclists and pedestrians, and a major overhaul of the Loop 1604/I-10 West interchange. The cloverleaf design will be replaced by a five-level direct connect interchange.
This project is split up into five segments - three of which have already been funded. TxDOT and the Alamo Area MPO are working on securing funding for the remaining two. Work on the first three segments is expected to be completed in 2027.
“I wonder if by the time the project is complete, if by then the traffic in that area won’t need more than just five lanes per side,” said Alfred Rembert, a commuter familiar with driving on Loop 1604 on the North Side.
With the added construction, traffic will only get worse before it gets better. And increased congestion while construction is underway isn’t the only reason there is concern about these projects.
The Loop 1604 project will expand roadway through some of the fastest-growing parts of the region. Advocates say that same land is also some of the most environmentally sensitive in our area.
“That segment that they’re talking about from 35 to 16 goes right through the center of the [aquifer] recharge zone,” said Annalisa Peace, executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, or GEAA. “That’s exactly where we did not want urban development.”
The GEAA is an alliance of 54 member organizations scattered throughout 21 counties in Central and South Texas. The nonprofit’s goal is to promote and advocate for the protection and preservation of the Edwards Aquifer, the primary source of drinking water for more than 1.7 million people in Central Texas.
According to Peace, one concern is that this project will pave over 200 acres of the recharge zone, the 1,250-square mile area where large quantities of water can flow through fractured limestone into the aquifer. But of greater concern to them is that the project includes expanding access roads.
“We know that along those access roads, then you get a build-up of businesses with high, high levels of impervious cover,” Peace said.
Impervious cover refers to any surface that doesn’t absorb rainfall, so that water has to run off. Rapid development that brings with it impervious cover has caused major flooding and other environmental problems in Houston.
With the highway construction in San Antonio, added risk of flooding could be one result. But environmentalists like Peace also worry that whatever is picked up by the new runoff could end up in the aquifer.
“We’re talking urbanization where you have all the pollutants that come with that, say on a roadway or a large parking lot,” Peace said.
In a water quality analysis conducted last year, TxDOT said the impervious cover across all zones of the aquifer would go up to 916 acres - an increase of 236. The total acreage of the aquifer within the project’s limits is 1,090.
In the analysis, the agency proposes that “a combination of vegetative filter strips, grassy swales, wet vaults, and sand filter ponds be designed as the permanent water quality control for the LP 1604/I-10 project.”
Other advocates have concerns about air quality.
“The localized air pollution is equally a part of the problem in communities that live along these highways,” said Bay Scoggin, executive director of the Texas Public Interest Research Group, or TexPIRG, a public interest and consumer advocacy organization.
Beyond environmental concerns, there’s the historic legacy of highways and the disproportionate impact they’ve had on communities of color. In San Antonio, parts of the West and East sides were physically cut off from downtown and its economic engine because of highways.
“They’re actually physical barriers that cut them off, that are very hard to overcome,” said Christine Drennon, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Urban Studies at Trinity University. “Socially, also, these places get cut off. And that remains a problem.”
Then there’s the question of whether highway expansion adequately solves the issue it’s meant to address.
Blazosky says expanding highways can ease congestion, at least temporarily.
“But generally highway projects have something called induced demand,” she said. “Once a project is widened or expanded, people see that there’s some new space flow on that roadway, and it might bring more people from some parallel streets to access that road.”
Scoggin agrees somewhat. He says it’s a matter of “if you build it, they will come.”
“What we know for sure is that when we expand highways in an urban environment like 1604 and I-35, that congestion gets worse every time,” Scoggin said.
Leon Valley Mayor Chris Riley asked TxDOT about that very issue at a recent meeting of the Transportation Policy Board of the Alamo Area MPO.
“So adding lanes solves congestion?” Riley asked. “I’d just like to clarify that because sometimes I hear it doesn’t. That if you add lanes they’re just going to come to it, but it seems like that’s what we’re doing consistently.”
Clayton Ripps, director of advanced transportation planning for TxDOT, responded. He said that the answer is hard to measure, but drivers want ways to get around congestion, and until that demand changes, the best way to do it is by adding more lanes.
“We’re continuing to try to provide that opportunity until a better solution is here,” Ripps said. “The question back is really what is the other solution?”
TxDOT declined our interview request, but they did send us the below statement:
“The Loop 1604 North Expansion and I-35 NEX projects are designed to improve mobility, reduce congestion, and enhance safety along the high traveled corridors. During the planning of any major expansion project, environmental studies are conducted that evaluates the social, economic, and environmental impacts of the proposed project.
To the contrary, studies show that expanding highways does in fact, address congestion. As TxDOT develops congestion related projects much study and analysis takes place to determine the amount of time drivers can save on their trips once the project is complete. We remain committed to addressing congestion across the state, especially in areas where the population is growing so rapidly now, and as the population is expected to increase in the coming decades congestion mitigation strategies not only help commuters, they help with moving freight, accommodating better pedestrian and bicycle connectivity and reducing congestion from the local neighborhoods.
Examples of these projects in San Antonio and other major metropolitan areas are part of TxDOT’s Texas Clear Lanes Initiative.”
The Possible Solutions
So what’s the solution to already congested highways in a county that only keeps growing? Advocates say the answer lies in options.
“What we know is that when we give people other options, they will use it,” Scoggin said. “We do need to educate and change our culture, but first we need to have the infrastructure projects that work for John Q. Public.”
That’s what Scoggin believes could improve our air quality, our health and the way we get around: more walkable cities, more bike lanes and more buses.
“It’s just plain old math that if you put people in a bus, you’re going to have less people in cars and less traffic and less congestion,” Scoggin said.
Blazosky told us she believes highways will continue to be a part of our transportation network in the future, but she agrees that accommodating our rapidly growing city will require more than just highway creation and expansion.
“We are going to need to get about another almost 2 million people around here in the next three decades using essentially the same network of highways that we have today,” Blazosky said. “There’s going to be this challenge to the San Antonio and greater San Antonio community to do that safely and efficiently.”
Scoggin admits it’s challenging for Texans to stop relying on their cars, especially in a state that focuses on bigger and better highways, but he says time is of the essence when it comes to making a change.
“If we continue with projects like this, we won’t be able to change anything because there just won’t be enough options for people to get around,” Scoggin said.
A way to create more walkable cities could include creating more density. Drennon said those plans must be compatible with neighborhoods.
“We have commercial corridors that are underutilized, and that are ripe for redevelopment and that really could harbor a really high population density in a very new way of living that most of us are not used to, but that a lot of the people that are moving in are more familiar with,” Drennon said.
So, what’s the difference in cost for creating multimodal streets versus expanding or building more highways? We’re talking about big sums either way.
“But what we do know is our buck goes a lot further, we get a lot more bang when we’re invested in these smaller solutions at scale,” Scoggin said.
While the Biden administration’s infrastructure plan calls for tearing down highways, not everyone believes that’s a solution. Drennon fears that such a move would ultimately lead to rising housing prices, forcing those in nearby neighborhoods out of their homes.
“Prices are going to go way up,” she said. “It’s happening around the country.”
Advocates hope the community is more tuned in moving forward, and that residents get more involved by attending future TxDOT project planning meetings and giving feedback.
And as it is, the national conversation has already forced more people to pay attention to highways in their own communities.
“I am heartened to think people are waking up,” Peace said. “I think here in San Antonio, perhaps we woke up a little too late for the 1604 project.”