Episode 123: The Texas Freeway Fight with Megan Kimble 

Megan Kimble: 70 years of evidence shows when you add lanes to a highway, cars fill it up. Why are we still doing this? And I will say, I have spent, like, four years reporting that and, like, don’t know that I have a good answer beyond people still persistently believe that driving creates prosperity.

Aaron Naparstek: Hello, and welcome to The War on Cars. I’m Aaron Naparstek with my co-hosts Doug Gordon and Sarah Goodyear.

Sarah Goodyear: Hey, how are you?

Doug Gordon: How’s it going?

Aaron: Good. How are you guys?

Doug: It’s good. I would have been here earlier, but the highway was not wide enough and I was stuck in traffic.

Sarah: [laughs]

Aaron: [laughs] Build another lane. Build another lane. That’s what we need. That’ll do it. So look, so ever since we started this podcast back in the fall of 2018, we have had an item on the agenda that just says “Texas. Do a Texas episode.” So here we are. We’re doing the Texas episode.

Sarah: Okay, but it can’t be like the Texas episode. It just has to be a Texas episode because Texas is big.

Doug: Everything’s bigger in Texas, even podcasts.

Aaron: There are a lot of episodes to be done in Texas, and that is because the state of Texas keeps building and expanding interstate highways through the middle of its growing cities. And we have an author with us today, Megan Kimble. She is an Austin-based journalist and the former executive editor of the Texas Observer. She has written about housing, transportation and urban development for lots of different publications. And her new book, coming out the day this episode comes out, in fact, is called City Limits: Infrastructure, Inequality and the Future of America’s Highways.

Aaron: In it, Megan takes us to the front lines of what I would say is pretty much North America’s biggest battlefront in the war on cars. It is the grassroots, citizen-led fight to oppose the expansion of interstate highways through the middle of Houston, Dallas and Austin. Megan has been following the fight for years now, and she has written a truly outstanding book. I’m gonna say it right now: City Limits is a classic, and will be a fixture on the urbanist zoom background bookshelf right next to The Power Broker. It might even replace The Power Broker. Megan Kimble, welcome to The War on Cars.

Megan Kimble: I’m so delighted to be here. Thank you. I’ve been listening to this podcast, I think, since you launched, so I’m truly honored.

Aaron: That’s nice to hear.

Doug: That’s really nice.

Sarah: Awesome.

Doug: Thanks for being here.

Aaron: So Megan, I wasn’t joking there with your book replacing The Power Broker. You know, The Power Broker is Robert Caro’s classic 900-page story of how the power broker Robert Moses smashed all these highways through New York City and the New York metropolitan region. And it’s really told, for the most part, from the perspective of the power broker himself. Your book is a kind of reverse power broker, you know, told from the perspective of these citizen activists in Texas who are fighting these highways. I’m curious how you got into this. What got you started?

Megan Kimble: Yeah, I’m really honored for the comparison to The Power Broker. I’ll take the comparison to Robert Caro any day. So I was covering housing. I worked at the Texas Observer as an editor, but I also was covering housing, and I wrote a long story about Austin’s effort to update its zoning code in 2019. You know, we haven’t updated our zoning code in the city since 1984. As a result, as Austin has boomed, all of the growth has happened at the fringes and the suburbs and the exurbs. You know, you can see it on a map, it’s just this donut around the city is where all the growth is.

Megan Kimble: So that’s a problem for lots of reasons: environmental reasons, and it creates car dependency. So I wrote a story mostly about kind of housing and the fight to update the zoning code. It was published in late 2019, and then in early 2020, kind of unnoticed by, I think, a lot of people, the Texas Transportation Commission voted to allocate $4 billion to expand I-35 through the heart of Austin, a mile from where I live.

Megan Kimble: And to me, that felt like the same story that no one was really telling as the same story. The fact that our housing policy has created suburban sprawl so that people, even people who want to live in Austin cannot live in Austin, and therefore they are required to get on these highways to get to work, to school, to anywhere worth going to. And so that really feels like kind of the same story, and I just didn’t—I didn’t quite know what to do with that, but I was interested. So I started following TxDOT and the Texas Transportation Commission.

Megan Kimble: And that summer, in the summer of 2020, George Floyd was murdered by police. And in Austin, like in many cities, there were protests. And in Austin, protesters gathered on the I-35 frontage road, which is right outside APD’s headquarters, the headquarters for the Austin Police Department. And at some point, they took I-35. So they—you know, thousands of people climbed onto the highway and stopped traffic on this interstate that crosses the entire country.

Megan Kimble: And I—you know, I saw that happening online and I was like, “I have to go see that.” And so I went down there and saw, you know, people—like, police in riot gear on the edge of the highway. It was this really stunning moment. And for me, it was this kind of light bulb moment of, like, I think a lot of people know about the racist history of highways and how they intentionally demolish Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, but that racism is very present today. It is not gone. It is still very much a present part of how people live and experience cities.

Megan Kimble: And, you know, I-35 in Austin was built on East Avenue, which is the line that segregated the city. So when it was built, it literally created a wall between communities of color and namely Black communities in the heart of the city. And that racism, like, remains. It’s not gone. And so I had this kind of light bulb moment then, and I just sort of was like, oh, the highway is the story.

Megan Kimble: And so I started reporting on highways in Texas, and in doing so, I learned about this massive highway expansion in Houston that will demolish 1,200 homes, many of them occupied by Black and Hispanic people. So we obviously have not learned the lessons of the 1950s and 1960s documented so eloquently in The Power Broker. And in reporting on this highway expansion in Houston, you know, I started talking to grassroots activists there who were trying to stop this $9-billion project. This group called Stop TxDOT I-45. And I found their effort to be really compelling, you know, as a journalist that these, like, primarily young people, people in their 20s and 30s, were trying to organize, going door to door across this massive city to try to stop a highway expansion, which I think, like for most of Texas history, were seeing as inevitable. You know, TxDOT announces a highway expansion, and it happens. That’s just the story. And I found it to be really interesting and moving that there was real opposition on the ground.

Sarah: So talking about widening highways, how many lanes, it’s sort of abstract, right? Like, just, you know, you’re gonna widen the highway. But what is so amazing about this book is how you get into what that means for people on the ground. And you start by talking about a homeowner who finds out that her home is in the way of this highway widening in Houston, and it is anything but abstract to her. So can you talk about maybe her story and what the actual effects are when these billions of dollars are thrown at this problem?

Megan Kimble: Yeah. So every highway widening requires new right of way, and that right of way is typically occupied. People live there, there are businesses there. So in Houston, I met this woman, Modesty Cooper, who’s a Black woman in her 30s. She got a parcel of land in Houston and designed this home from the ground up—she was serving as a civilian in the US military, so she was abroad—you know, this massive undertaking, because she wanted to, you know, put down roots and build a home for herself in Houston, where she grew up.

Megan Kimble: She was still living abroad, still living in Iraq, serving the US military. She comes home, and she finds a letter in her mailbox from the Texas Department of Transportation saying, “Hey, we need some of your property.” And her reaction was, “No, thank you.”

Aaron: [laughs]

Megan Kimble: But she—you know, she called the number on the letter, ended up going in to meet with TxDOT representatives who said, “Hey, we need the land that your home is on, so we’re gonna need to buy that from you.” And she—I think her first reaction was, “No. Like, this is my property, you cannot buy it for me.” And then she learned about something called eminent domain. So, you know, eminent domain is a feature of governments since there’s been government, which is the government is allowed to take private land for public use so long as the owner is justly compensated.

Megan Kimble: So there’s almost no recourse, I think, when a government agency says there is a public good in widening this road, we need your land. All the homeowner can really do is negotiate the price. But in this instance, because so many communities of color were impacted by this project—homeowners and businesses and renters—some people filed a civil rights complaint, including Modesty, saying that the project disproportionately impacted communities of color which are protected under the law. So in early 2021, Modesty filed a civil rights complaint with the government.

Doug: Megan, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about—because, you know, Aaron was saying at the top that your book is like a reverse Power Broker that really talks about the citizens and the communities that are affected. They are the center of the book, not the sort of great man theory of history. You know, I think sometimes when we look at highway widening projects in history, we see the before picture of the thriving Black neighborhood, and then we see the after picture of just the highways and stroads that wipe it out. And we don’t see the in between, which is often two to three years, if not a decade or more of construction, and the gradual withering away of a neighborhood. So, you know, you were mentioning Modesty Cooper, who has invested so much of her personal wealth and effort into building a house. What happens when someone gets that letter that says, “Sorry, you’re gonna have to move. We’ll buy you out of your house,” but what happens to a community when they feel like this is inevitable and they can’t fight it?

Megan Kimble: People leave. You know, a lot of people don’t think they can fight TxDOT on it, so they don’t. So the neighborhood around Modesty, like, emptied out; a lot of the houses around her are vacant. She chose to stay and fight for as long as she could, but a lot of people simply say, “I have to leave my home eventually. I might as well do it now.” So indeed yeah, you see how these communities—I mean, that’s happening in Austin literally right now, that they’re expanding I-35, and so a lot of the properties along the frontage road are getting bought out. And so it’s like you can kind of see it start to happen that these businesses become vacant.

Megan Kimble: I think the uncertainty is kind of the biggest corrosive element. I talked to this homeowner, Elda Reyes. Her and her husband are immigrants, and they bought a house, on Houston’s north side right on the highway frontage road. And they got the same letter saying, “Hey, we need to buy your home,” and they just—you know, Elda only speaks Spanish, and so she had a limited ability to get information about the project until Stop TxDOT showed up at her door and said, “Hey, we can give you information.” But they were in this limbo for, like, five or six years. Like, do we stay or do we go? The project was paused. Now there’s hope. Oh, it’s back on again. Now there’s the dismay. You know, they wanted to put a new roof on their house. They didn’t do that because why would they spend their savings to put a new roof on the house if it’s just gonna get demolished and they’re not gonna recoup that money from TxDOT because TxDOT I think systemically undervalues properties.

Megan Kimble: So, you know, you can see that in Houston. Clayton Homes is a public housing complex that is in the footprint of the highway expansion. And that was sort of gradually emptied out. And now it’s like, I don’t know about crime there, but it’s certainly like an abandoned property. The windows are broken in. You know, it used to be a place where hundreds of people lived and had families and interacted, and those people have now just been dispersed across Houston.

Megan Kimble: So I talked to one renter who was in public housing at Clayton Homes. She got a Section 8 voucher, and she moved to some place that would accept it. And she talked to me about how, like, well, now she has to drive to get everything she needs. She used to live right near downtown Houston, and her son could bike to school. Her daughter was taken care of nearby, her daughter’s child care was nearby. But now she spends her morning and evening driving to pick up her children, to go get groceries and food because the place she lives is not near anything. And she had this very, like, clear understanding, like, hey, this highway expansion perpetuates car dependence.

Aaron: Can you talk a little bit about why TxDOT is so uniquely hard to fight? I mean, the way you describe them in the book, it’s just everybody just sort of seems to assume if you’re fighting TxDOT, you’re gonna lose. And, you know, every state DoT is a little bit like that, but TxDOT seems unique to me in that way.

Sarah: I’m wondering, is it just the scale of the money involved? It just seems like a sort of stupendous amount of money, and you’re in a state that’s a fossil fuel state, and there’s nothing pushing back against it. Like, you know, probably the sums are similar in California, say, but there are all these other forces pushing back against it. In Texas, I would imagine that’s not so much the case.

Megan Kimble: Yeah, Sarah, I think that’s completely right that there’s way more money involved here. You know, I have reported on other state DoTs. Like, Colorado passed a 10-year transportation spending package of $5 billion. And I’m like, that’s half of one highway widening in Texas. So, you know, it’s truly everything is bigger in Texas, including the funding for these projects, so there are simply more of them. I think also, TxDOT has the political support of the Texas legislature, so there is this firm belief of our governor and of our legislature that we should continue widening highways across Texas to support economic prosperity, you know, the Texas miracle, all the businesses are moving here, so we have to create roads to accommodate them. So I think other states, there is a little bit more pushback politically, whereas in Texas, TxDOT essentially has the full support and answers to the governor.

Doug: Okay, so we’ve been talking about Austin and Houston a little bit. Tell us about the fight in Dallas and what the project is there and the reaction to it.

Megan Kimble: So in Dallas improbably there was on the table a highway removal. So there’s an urban planner there named Patrick Kennedy. He moved to Dallas, you know, a decade ago and lived near downtown and started walking to work to his job downtown, and would walk under this elevated highway called I-345, which, you know, I’ve been there. Surrounding it, it’s just like surface parking and public storage. It’s like a very unfriendly place to be. And he would walk back and forth under this highway every day, and he kind of one day was like, “Why is this still here? Couldn’t this be something better?”

Megan Kimble: And, you know, he’s an urban planner, so he has the tools to answer that question. So he teamed up with a friend of his, and they basically made a case for removing that highway, mostly focusing all of the land that it impacts. So it’s a 1.4-mile stretch of highway on the eastern edge of Dallas’s downtown, so it sort of bounds downtown on the eastern edge. It’s an elevated highway; it has a huge, you know, negative impact on the land that surrounds it.

Megan Kimble: So Patrick found that, you know, removing that highway would free up something like 250 acres of land for development, so housing, offices, parks, you name it, you know, right in downtown Dallas. So that is extremely valuable land. It’s also taxable land, so it could go into the coffers of the city of Dallas, which needs that money, like all cities do. And so he sort of made this very compelling case for removal. He started a nonprofit called Coalition for a New Dallas, and basically started just sort of like banging the drum for highway removal in Dallas, which, you know, I think most people know is a pretty car-centric place.

Megan Kimble: So Patrick, through his advocacy, you know, Patrick and others, he got TxDOT to study removing I-345. So they—he got the attention of a transportation commissioner, who I think had sort of an unusual way of thinking about these things, and he thought, “Yeah, sure. Let’s study it.” And so TxDOT produced this document called City Map in 2016 that basically looked at what would it do to remove this highway, you know, if you—it presented several options, including trenching it, you know, various things you do with a highway. But one of them was removal, turn it into a boulevard.

Megan Kimble: And it found that traffic delays would be somewhat negligible because this is one highway in a city full of highways. People will find alternate routes. Turns out congestion would not get that much worse, and you would get a whole lot of benefit. So this document was published in 2016, and there it remained, largely. And then TxDOT sort of started thinking seriously about, like, hey, we need to do something about I-345. You know, it’s in a state of disrepair. Like, we need to either fix it or rebuild it.

Megan Kimble: And so they started going through the NEPA process to look at alternatives for the highway, and they actually included removal as a formal project alternative in their NEPA process, which from what I can tell, is the first time ever TxDOT has done that. I think it was a pretty remarkable win for someone like Patrick, who’s just, you know, basically an urban planner guy walking to work thinking this could be better. So TxDOT actually studied removing I-345, and that conversation, I think, has really sparked a lot of interesting conversations in Dallas around, like, what do we want to build our city for? Like, what are we prioritizing? What do we want the future of Dallas to be?

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Sarah: You talk in the book about the guy at the top in TxDOT, and it sounds like he might be sort of an insurmountable part of the problem. Can you tell us about the Darth Vader of the Death Star that is TxDOT?

Megan Kimble: Yeah, so TxDOT is governed by the Texas Transportation Commission, which is a four-member body of, you know, people appointed by the governor to run the state transportation agency. And the chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission is a man named J. Bruce Bugg, Jr. Classic Texan. You know, shows up to commission meetings in a suit and cowboy boots, is a banker from San Antonio. He does not necessarily have a background in transportation, but he was—in fact, he said as much when Abbott appointed him. But he has essentially the power to decide—you know, he and his colleagues on the Transportation Commission. But he’s been in that position for almost a decade, and he has an enormous amount of power to decide how Texas’s transportation money is spent.

Sarah: If I remember correctly from the book, as far as his expertise, he told the governor, “My expertise is that I get stuck in traffic.” And the governor said, “Bingo, that’s what we need.” Is that right? [laughs]

Megan Kimble: Absolutely right. The directive Abbott gave Bugg when he appointed him was to, “turn dirt and build roads.” The Texas GOP released their party platform in 2022, and it included, like, the freedom of movement of cars as a party plank. So I think to me that answered a lot of my questions around, like, why are we still widening highways if it doesn’t fix traffic? Like, that was the core question of my book. Like, 70 years of evidence shows when you add lanes to highway cars, fill it up. Why are we still doing this? And I will say, I have spent, like, four years reporting that and, like, don’t know that I have a good answer beyond people still persistently believe that driving creates prosperity.

Doug: You know, I think advocates sometimes are talking about something different than what the planners and state DoTs are talking about. So we are talking about fixing traffic and how it doesn’t work to widen a highway, and they are talking about prosperity. And in a way, they’re right. It does create prosperity, just not for the people who live close to the project and are gonna get kicked out of their homes or be choking on more fumes, or have to walk across a highway to get to work. But it does create prosperity for the people in the far flung burbs, the home builders who can put up another sprawly development.

Aaron: Not to mention the road builders and the auto dealers.

Doug: Yeah, the concrete lobby, let’s say.

Sarah: Yeah.

Doug: So, you know, we’ve been talking a lot about the advocates who don’t want these projects and the government that does want these projects, can you talk about some of the other people? Like, who really wants this and how is it being pushed?

Megan Kimble: So one contingency that I was frankly somewhat surprised by, so I talked about this highway removal in Dallas called I-345. So Dallas, like most cities, is extremely segregated. Northern Dallas is prosperous and white, Southern Dallas is low income and predominantly Black. So most people who live in South Dallas drive to North Dallas to go to work. That’s where all the jobs are, that’s where all the job growth has concentrated. And so I talked to a lot of people in South Dallas who said, “Hey, I need this highway to get to work. Like, we have built this city such that I must drive 30 miles to get to my job. Don’t remove it. Like, that’s an insult to injury. You have already segregated the city. Why would you take away the kind of my lifeline to my job?”

Megan Kimble: And I think that is an absolutely fair point. We have built car-centric cities, and as we attempt to transition away from that, like, there’s a cost: some people need to get to their jobs tomorrow, not in 10 years. So that certainly, you know, was a group of people. You know, I think in every city, people who live in the suburbs have to get to work. And, like, many people who live in the suburbs have not done so by choice. They were priced out of Austin, they were priced out of Houston, they were priced out of Dallas. And so they find themselves living farther from the things they need: their churches, their schools, the grocery store. And so there certainly is, like, a lot of, I think, citizen input of, like, “I need this highway. I need—I need this highway to work better for me so I can access the things I need.” And I’m absolutely sympathetic to that point. I think the—like, there’s a pretty clear counterpoint, but I am—I think it’s important to like, elevate the fact that we have built cities such that people rely on these things.

Aaron: And you tell a great story of a couple in Austin, Angel and Michael, who, you know, are an example of these folks who were priced out and, you know, forced to basically drive every day a really long distance, and had very different feelings about, you know, the highway and its potential expansion. Can you—can you tell us a little bit about their story?

Megan Kimble: Yeah. So Angel and Mike are, you know, a young couple. They met in college at Texas State University, moved up to Austin to work after college, were renters just like many people in their 20s in Austin, and decided they wanted to buy a home. And so they started saving up money for a down payment, but by the time they had saved up enough money for a down payment, you know, Austin’s—you know, the price of Austin had gone up and up and up. So they initially wanted to buy in Buda, which is a suburb, you know, 15 miles south of the city, but by the time they were looking, Buda’s too expensive.

Megan Kimble: So they did what so many people do, they drive ’til they qualify. And they ended up in a suburb called Kyle, you know, in a really lovely home. They have—they now have a kid. And Angel commutes back to Austin to work. And initially, she was working in North Austin, which was, you know, almost an hour and a half one way. And it made her crazy. It made her feel irritable. It made her feel like she was just living for the weekends.

Megan Kimble: One detail she told me that I think about a lot is she had, like, an Achilles heel, like, injury because she was just, like, hovering her foot above the gas-brake-gas-brake because I-35 is stop and go.

Aaron: Wow.

Megan Kimble: And this is like small injury compared to the violence that happens on our roads, but I think about it a lot as just like commuting sucks. And she really experienced, like, on her mood, on her well-being and happiness, how that commute impacted her life. And so she’s kind of like her perspective is like, “Why don’t we have a train? Why can’t I get on a train to go up I-35 and get to my job?” And her husband Michael, I think is kind of like a lot of people, has not thought super critically about, like, why does this world exist the way it is? He drives on the highway, and he wants that highway to work better. So he’s like, “Absolutely, add a lane. It will make my commute easier.”

Sarah: Right. But not thinking of what Angel is thinking of, that not only if they took some of that $60 billion and built a train, then she would be riding on it, and other people would be riding on it, and the highway would work better, right? I mean, that would be one way of building something, and getting to spend all that nice federal money and giving it to the contractors and so forth, and yet not doing the thing over and over again that we’ve done so many times: to build a lane when we know that’s not what reduces congestion. But building a good public transit system could reduce congestion.

Megan Kimble: It’s funny. I think also a lot of people don’t think that’s possible. Like, in Texas, all we have are highways. It simply doesn’t occur to a lot of people that we could spend our money differently. And, you know, TxDOT doesn’t do anything to help correct that narrative, but indeed they could choose. The legislature could say, “Build high speed rail. Build a normal rail line.” But it doesn’t feel like a choice, I think. And that’s what I was really trying to do is to, like, demonstrate this is a policy choice.

Aaron: Right.

Doug: And also—and this demand is just such a hard concept for people to understand. I mean, I think we all understand if you have a lot of stuff and not a lot of space in which to put it, you should move to a place with more space and you’ll be fine. And it doesn’t work that way with highways. And the other thing I think that folks like this don’t—like, why would they understand this? It’s not just that one section of highway that’s gonna eventually fill up with traffic. It’s gonna be the entire blast radius of the project as well as in, let’s say, a suburb like Kyle, where more people are moving, and there are more cars. And, like, so maybe this one little section will be cured for a short amount of time, but maybe just getting out of their cul de sac is gonna be a lot harder because of all the highways that are just consuming everything in their path.

Megan Kimble: I was surprised by how many people understand induced demand. They don’t call it induced demand, but Houston has this sort of quote-unquote “gift” of the Katy Freeway, which is the most famous example of induced demand, I think, in the world. The Katy Freeway was expanded to nearly 26 lanes, one of the widest highways in the world, and within five years, traffic was worse. So people in Houston drive on that highway. They know it, they understand it. And I went out canvassing, you know, going door to door with StopTxDOT I-45 as they talked to people about the Northeastern Highway Improvement Project, and I was sort of amazed by how many people were like, “Well, that’s not gonna fix traffic.” Like, people, a lot of people actually understand the kind of wonky term of induced demand.

Aaron: Right. It’s like induced demand is their day-to-day experience, essentially. Yeah.

Sarah: Yeah, exactly.

Doug: And Texas is one big experiment in induced—the United States is one big experiment in induced demand.

Aaron: Right.

Sarah: I don’t know if you guys remember Lina Hidalgo, the Harris County judge, did that great video explainer of induced demand a few years ago. It just made it so clear. And I think that is the frustrating thing: that even when people do understand it, right, and have it explained to them, maybe understand it intuitively like you’re talking about, they still do it because as you say, they don’t have any vision for what else might be possible. And I guess that’s something that I wonder: you know, activists can throw legal wrenches into these expansions, but in terms of just presenting alternatives in any kind of systemic way, that seems like that requires political leadership. And, you know, I’m kind of wondering if that political leadership is in evidence at all or, you know, growing, or if there’s any sort of appetite for that in Texas.

Megan Kimble: No. [laughs]

Sarah: [laughs] Damn!

Aaron: Yeah.

Sarah: I had a feeling that might be the answer, but I was hoping. [laughs]

Megan Kimble: I mean, I’ll just add there’s certainly local leadership. Absolutely. Judge Hidalgo among them. But no one at the state.

Aaron: Well, let’s talk about that. So activists are creating these great organizations, these grassroots efforts in these three different cities, and then they start to come together on more of a statewide level.

Megan Kimble: Yeah, I found that really remarkable. Like, over the course of my reporting, it was really kind of like isolated. The activists in Houston were doing their thing, the activists in Dallas were doing their thing and ditto in Austin. And there was no real, like, kind of communication between them. And I found that even with, like, coverage of these highways is like, there were local reporters in Houston and Austin but, like, no one had really looked at TxDOT, and that’s what really motivated me as a journalist is like, well, there’s this, like, higher-up power that is creating all of these highway expansions.

Megan Kimble: So the activists in these different cities, you know, they, I think, saw what each other were doing, particularly in Houston, kind of when the civil rights complaint—when they filed a civil rights complaint and then the project was paused, I think that really got a lot of notice, not just nationally, but in Texas. And so these groups sort of started talking to each other. I think Covid helped in the sense of everybody learned how to communicate via Zoom. And so it was really easy to say, “Hey, let’s have a biweekly meeting to just talk about what’s happening in our communities.”

Megan Kimble: So literally it just happened like some activists in Austin sent out an email to everyone they knew who was fighting highway expansion in some capacity and said, “Please join a Zoom.” And I went to a lot of them, and literally it’s just kind of like it’s grassroots organizing. That’s basically what they’re doing, but I think on a statewide level, which had never happened in Texas before. And also, I think, you know, no one had really bothered to show up to the Texas Transportation Commission to ask for something different, to say, “Hey, we don’t want this.

Aaron: And so what do they do? They just start showing up at TxDOT meetings?

Megan Kimble: So, you know, Stop TxDOT I-45 has spent thousands of dollars to bus people in from Houston. People have driven from El Paso, which is eight hours from Austin, to testify, to say, you know, “Your decisions are harming my community. I don’t want this.” And so I think largely that movement has happened at the Texas Transportation Commission. During one of these statewide protests, they have—Stop TxDOT I-45 has this giant banner that says, “Do Not Pave Over Us.” It’s like the length of, you know, a big conference room. And they unfolded it and held it in that room.

Megan Kimble: And I thought it was pretty remarkable because I think largely those commissioners have not been challenged. You know, they’re doing what they’re doing, and it—and maybe they read the news coverage, but I don’t think in this power, this is—it’s a government building, you know? They have not actually been challenged by the people, by activists, by citizens. And so I found that to be a pretty remarkable kind of turning point 

Aaron: And how do they respond to that? Does it change their decision making? Are they just sort of shocked that anybody would be opposed to their glorious highway? What does it—what does it do?

Megan Kimble: From my perspective, total apathy. I mean, I worked really hard to get an interview with Bugg and other commissioners, and ultimately did not succeed. But publicly, they don’t react. You know, people have three minutes to testify. Sometimes they get one minute to testify, and they just sit there and they listen and they don’t react, and they turn over the speaker card and call the next person up. The decisions don’t change.

Megan Kimble: You know, there’s a scene in the book when TxDOT is considering its next 10-year budget, which is an $85-billion budget. 85—roughly 85 people showed up to testify, and the Transportation Commission was like, “Whoa, this is so many people! This is an unprecedented number of people.” Again, one person per billion dollars of transportation funding. And so they said, “Hey, we can’t do three minutes of testimony for each person. We’re gonna make it one minute.” So they just like, you know, sped through all these people, some of whom had literally come from El Paso to testify. And then before the last speaker had made it back to their seat, they approved the budget.

Sarah: It does seem to me to be a cause for hope that this organizing has begun to happen. And when these commissioners just sort of breeze through their budget after hearing all of that, what is the reaction of the advocates to that?

Megan Kimble: Well, I mean, this is Texas, so I think a lot of Texans have grown accustomed to cruelty and apathy from our government. So that’s true not just in transportation. So I think anyone who’s an activist in Texas, you know, sort of has figured out how to keep going despite the odds.

Megan Kimble: So that’s one thing, you know, it’s like fighting for the sake of fighting I think is important to a lot of people. The sense of, like, we’re not just gonna let you pave over us without putting up a fight. I think also that it’s like celebrate—there have been real wins. So the activists in Houston did not stop the Northeastern Highway Improvement Project, but by, you know, putting up a fight, filing civil rights complaints, Harris County filed a lawsuit against TxDOT, all of those actions forced TxDOT to the table to negotiate with FHWA.

Megan Kimble: So the outcome of the civil rights complaint was that FHWA sent people to Houston to sort of investigate, talk to people on the ground, collect documentation, and then they went back to DC and did some sort of internal process. And then they spent almost a year negotiating with TxDOT of, how are you gonna change this project to mediate the harms that it causes?

Megan Kimble: And a lot of those would not have happened if activists had not gotten involved. They would have just gone ahead with the project as it was conceived of a decade ago. But I think activists successfully fought for, like, more flood protection, more flood control. They got TxDOT to pay for caps over the highway, so that at least some communities will be kind of reconnected.

Megan Kimble: I think there were important gains in the voluntary resolution agreement that TxDOT signed with FHWA that would not exist had activists not gotten involved. And the same is true in Austin. People here have been fighting for a better I-35 for three decades, and as a result, the I-35 we’re gonna get is going to be better. You know, we’re still getting a 20-lane highway, so from a climate perspective, it’s an absolute catastrophe. But I think there are, like, from an organizing perspective, in terms of the activists, there are certainly wins they can point to.

Aaron: You know, Megan, in the book, you take us to Rochester, New York, where there’s recently been a big highway removal project in the middle of the city. And you even take us to Dallas, where a piece of old highway, I believe it’s called the S.M. Wright Freeway has come down. What does it feel like to be in those places where these urban freeways used to exist and they’re no longer?

Megan Kimble: It is so cool. That’s why I went to Rochester is I wanted to see what it looked like. I wanted to know what it felt like, and to paint a vision, right? We have seen the before photos of these thriving communities. We’ve seen them wiped clean, and we all live with the highways that resulted. Like, I have never lived in a world without highways. Like, that is my entire life. I grew up in Los Angeles; my entire life has been wrapped in highways.

Megan Kimble: And so to go to a place like Rochester and see photos from 2015, 2016, very recent photos, you know, on Google Earth, you can see it, like, what this highway was and did. So in 2017, Rochester removed part of its Inner Loop highway. It was a sunken highway. It filled up the land and brought it to grade, and then since then, you know, the city sold that land to developers who have built housing. And so you can go today and walk along a two lane, you know, city road. It’s got a bike lane, it’s got this really lovely sidewalk with trees. There’s, like, three- and four-storey apartment buildings.

Megan Kimble: And it’s a very cool thing to, like, stand on land that used to be a highway, to, like, conjure it in your brain of, like, cars were speeding here. And you can see that because they haven’t torn out the entire part of the Inner loop. And so the Inner Loop removal ends, and then there’s this bridge, and then there’s the sunken highway. And so there’s a very clear compare and contrast of before and after.

Megan Kimble: And I think what was really moving to me is like, these highways feel like permanent. Like I said, this is like the only world I’ve ever known. I’ve never lived in a city that has good transit. And you go to a place like Rochester and you’re like, oh, it is possible. It’s like they are not permanent. These are just like construction projects, and we can do it in five years. We can do it in two years. Like, it is not the built environment can change very quickly and, like, that can have a profound impact on the cities that we live in. I think for a long time, no one bothered to fight, no one bothered to ask for something different. And this movement is still very young, you know? Like, it’s only been three or five years since there’s really been organized opposition to TxDOT. Like, what happens in a decade? Like, what do those movements accomplish? And that, to me, is exciting and hopeful.

Aaron: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Again, Megan Kimble’s new book, City Limits: Infrastructure, Inequality and the Future of America’s Highways, published by Crown Books, out today. Visit your local neighborhood bookseller if it hasn’t yet been eminent domained by a highway project.

Doug: [laughs]

Aaron: Go pick it up. It’s a fantastic book. You can also find it on The War on Cars store at Bookshop.org. We will link to it in our show notes.

Sarah: And please support us on Patreon. You can go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us,” and pitch in $3, $5 or $10 a month. Hey, $100 a month! [laughs]

Doug: $20 billion instead of on a highway project. Just give that money to us.

Aaron: That’s right.

Sarah: That’s right.

Aaron: We know you’re listening, Bugg.

Sarah: And we will send you stickers, even if you’re a member of the Texas Transportation Commission. You’ll get discounts on merchandise and access to dozens of bonus episodes.

Doug: We want to thank our top Patreon supporters: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, Virginia Baker, Mark Hedlund and the Parking Reform Network.

Aaron: This episode was recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. I’m Aaron Naparstek.

Sarah: I’m Sarah Goodyear.


Doug: I’m Doug Gordon, and this is The War on Cars.

Megan Kimble: So you guys are like my first interview I’ve done for the book, so …

Doug: Wow!

Aaron: That’s exciting. Yeah.

Megan Kimble: So here we go. You’re going to get all the …

Aaron: Here, let’s practice. Megan Kimble, welcome to Fresh Air!

Sarah: [laughs]

Doug: [laughs]

Aaron: No, you’re supposed to …

Megan Kimble: Thanks so much having me, Terry.

Aaron: There you go.

Doug: [laughs]