(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 482: Highway Fighters in Texas

This week we’re joined by Megan Kimble to talk about her book City Limits: Infrastructure, Inequality, and the Future of America’s Highways. We chat about the folks fighting back against highways, the history behind building big roads, and what the future looks like for advocacy.

To listen to this episode, visit Streetsblog USA or our hosting archive.

Below is a full unedited AI generated transcript of the episode:

Jeff Wood (1m 33s):
Megan Kimble, welcome back to the Talking Headways podcast.

Megan Kimble (2m 15s):
Thank you for having me.

Jeff Wood (2m 16s):
Well, thanks for being here again. A lot has happened since we last chatted for episode 403 back in October of I think 2022. I’ve asked you then how you felt about Austin, so perhaps maybe I should ask you now how you feel about Texas more broadly at this very moment.

Megan Kimble (2m 30s):
Oh wow. That’s a loaded question. I mean I still love being a journalist in Texas. There’s so much to cover, but you know, a lot has happened in the political landscape since the last time we talked. That has nothing to do with transportation or housing, which I cover. You know, I just lived through the hottest summer on record in Austin, so that was a bit soul crushing. But you know, I love it here still. It’s spring, the flowers are blooming, the blue bons are out. It’s gorgeous.

Jeff Wood (2m 55s):
Oh, I love it. I love the blue bonnet season. It’s great. And you’re in Mueller now. That’s cool. I flew out of the airport when I was in undergrad for track. We had to go all over the place to run races and so 1998 was still open when I was running my first season. So I always remember like the airport and everything and then now it’s something totally different.

Megan Kimble (3m 12s):
Yeah, I actually was probably here last time we talked, I moved in March of 2020 to Mueller and it’s been really cool to see as it’s gotten built out. And I mean as you know, it kind of comes up in, in my book, like I had this moment of realization just walking my dog one day like oh, I live in a place that used to be an airport. You know, it’s relevant to the discussion of highway removal of like, we can change infrastructure, you know, I like, it’s like you can see I’ve, I’ve looked up on Google Earth, you can actually see the airport footprint and you can see it napped on like current street. So I live on like a former runway, which I just like, I just love that like it’s all, it’s all changeable.

Jeff Wood (3m 47s):
Yeah, it’s a really cool situation. I just remember all the planning for it too and you know, talking with Jim Walker and some other folks and and all the stuff that went into that and obviously there’s folks that wanted more density, there’s some folks that wanted less density and how it ended up is a really interesting story as well. Maybe that’s another, another story for another day. You finished the book, it’s called City Limits Infrastructure Inequality in the Future of America’s Highways. How has it been received so far?

Megan Kimble (4m 8s):
So far great. I mean I’ve mostly just been in Texas. I went to Houston and Dallas and San Antonio and did an event here in Austin and people are really fired up about it. It’s really exciting to have it out in the world and have like new readers come to it who I might not have anticipated. So it feels great.

Jeff Wood (4m 24s):
What’s the response been so far? I mean like what have folks said to you when they talked to you about reading the book or you know, folks that maybe were in the book and maybe didn’t want to be?

Megan Kimble (4m 32s):
Yeah, I have not heard from text dot. I am embracing myself for an email or phone call, so text dot if you’re listening, happy to talk. I mean it’s only been out two weeks so I don’t know that all but the like most dedicated readers have had time to read it. But those that have come to my events have had great questions about like why we’re doing what we’re doing, why we keep doing what we’re doing. I did an event in Houston and several of my sources came and someone in the book is the Moey Cooper who is a black woman in in her thirties who will lose her home when the North Houston Highway improvement project goes forward. She lives right next to I 10, which goes through the fifth ward. So she came to the event which was really rewarding and great to see her.

Megan Kimble (5m 13s):
And also at the event was this woman on Mary Gry who is a black woman in her seventies who lost her home when I 10 was originally built in through the fifth ward. And so in my mind those are like this kind of like generational pair, like they sort of show we are repeating past mistakes o’s family’s home, you know, that is now a highway is like two blocks from where modesty lives. And so like in the, in the book they’re like very much in conversation. I think in my brain they are, but those two people have never met each other but they were both at my event. Oh. And so I got to be like modesty oi, like here’s who you are. Like you know, you’re both fifth warders and they like hit it off. They exchanged phone numbers and that was so rewarding to like watch them have a conversation.

Jeff Wood (5m 54s):
That’s awesome. Yeah, no, I mean something I really liked about the book was was how it was similar in kind of like the idea of talking to folks and thinking about how people interconnected as Conor Daugherty’s Golden Gates, which sources the origins of the YIMBY movement here in California. And there were a lot of personal stories and accounts from people in the fight that you talked about. What were some of the sentiments and feelings though that you got from these folks when you saw them at meetings, when you had them tell you their stories? I mean obviously the two that you just mentioned were key to telling the story of Houston, but I’m, I’m curious like how you felt when you were interacting with folks who were part of the fight and also just dealing with the stress and the uncertainty.

Megan Kimble (6m 30s):
Yeah, I mean I think people and myself when I was reporting this book and activists like sort of oscillate between hope and despair all the time and it really depends on the day and the environment and what’s happening. But I, you know, I talk to people who are in the footprint of this highway expansion in Houston which will demolish 1200 homes. So a lot of people are impacted by it. Most of them, according to text DOT’s own analysis are low income and or minority population. And I think they feel a lot of like despair. Like I heard again and again you can’t fight TxDOT, you know, the highway department comes in, they wanna expand the highway and like the what they want to do gets done. Like if TDOT wants your home, TDOT’s gonna get your home. And so I think that’s kind of the general kind of undercurrent of like a little bit of futility of like well why bother fighting?

Megan Kimble (7m 13s):
But what I chronicle in my book and what is really heartening is like people are beginning to fight. There’s a group in Houston called Stop Text at I 45 and they have mounted like a really remarkable grassroots campaign against TxDOT to try to stop its expansion and or if it’s gonna happen to try to like get concessions and better mitigation measures for people who are impacted. So I think it again, like I oscillate and the people I talk to oscillate all the time between hope and despair around like well the fight is futile but like you still have to fight.

Jeff Wood (7m 42s):
Why did you think it was important to chronicle the fight?

Megan Kimble (7m 44s):
One reason I wanted to chronicle the fight is that it’s very new for a very long time. TexDOT did what it wanted to do and there was essentially no opposition. You know, they have the authority of imminent domain, that authority is enshrined in the US constitution. If TexDOT wants your land to widen the highway, you basically have no recourse except to negotiate a better price. But these highways have like enormous impacts on people’s lives. It’s not just people in the footprint of the expansion, it’s all of the air pollution that we suffer, all the noise pollution and like really importantly all the greenhouse gases that are being emitted and making Austin and Houston and all the places in Texas hotter and drier and harder to live in. And so I think like I was so motivated to chronicle the opposition because it’s such a David and Goliath fight.

Megan Kimble (8m 26s):
Like Tech Dot has so many resources, you know, its latest 10 year budget is like more than a hundred billion dollars. So they have absolutely all the resources they can wait you out and wear you down. And yet ordinary people, young people, people in their twenties and thirties are fighting against Tech dot. And I think that’s like a really remarkable kind of grassroots movement that I feel like is really new and worth chronicling.

Jeff Wood (8m 51s):
I was really heartened to see that there were wins too, right? Because you can fight and then you can lose really badly. But there are also wins, I mean saving some of the units that might have been demolished along I 45 at least getting discussion started at U-S-D-O-T about these topics. Whether or not it worked or not is another question, but I was heartened to see some wins.

Megan Kimble (9m 7s):
Yeah, totally. And like I think for a long time no one really bothered to fight and also like tech out sort of presents its plans, it’s so technical and they have all these traffic models and so they’re very hard for ordinary people to understand. So we should just trust the engineers that what they’re doing is best for us in our city. And I think what stop text I 45 did in a very compelling way is to be like actually we can counter your argument. We don’t believe this is progress. And what you mentioned is like a great example. So the loss at the ballpark is this apartment complex in Houston that it is in the footprint of the expansion. TDO bought that building and started moving tenants out of it and then they like put up construction fencing and were moving forward with demolishing that apartment complex And a volunteered just like a normal person at with Stop text I 45.

Megan Kimble (9m 53s):
This guy Michael Moritz noticed that construction fencing the project had been paused by this point by the federal government. So the federal government told TexDOT, you know, you can’t proceed with any activities related to this while we investigate civil rights concerns, which I can we can talk about later. So they noticed this construction was happening and looked you know, like thousands of pages deep into an appendix in the final environmental impact statement and saw that TxDOT had actually not accounted for demolishing all three buildings. They had only in the EIS accounted for the front building and that yet they were preparing to tear down all three. And I think that speaks to the fact that like with a little bit of scrutiny with just like a little bit of due diligence of reading these very dense 8,000 page long environmental documents like activists can have real wins because again, like for so long this just wasn’t questioned.

Megan Kimble (10m 39s):
So the win is that they basically like saved those two back buildings through a protest. What

Jeff Wood (10m 43s):
Did they do with the buildings eventually? I

Megan Kimble (10m 45s):
Don’t know, there was discussion about turning them into like permanent supportive housing for people exiting homelessness. I dunno if that’s happened yet but that was like the latest I know is that there was discussion about that.

Jeff Wood (10m 55s):
I wanna go back in time a bit because that’s another interesting part of the book. You explore some of the rumored but perhaps lesser known history about the interstate system and I’ve always heard that Eisenhower wast actually a fan of going through cities. He just wanted to go to cities. But you flesh out a little bit more detail about the discussion also about what people were sold by folks like Norman Bel Geddes. And so I wanna hear more about you diving into the history and what you were learning and and kind of that untold part of the discussion, which is maybe they weren’t a good idea at the time and they’re still not a good idea now.

Megan Kimble (11m 26s):
Yeah, totally. I loved that reporting. The historical part of the book starts with the 1939 World’s Fair, which you just referenced. Norman Tis is this industrial designer who came up with this exhibit called Futurama and it basically like sold the future of car-centric cities like cars were still very new. And so he like came up with this massive model showing how we could connect far-flung hamlets with urban areas and those urban areas would be cleaner and more technologically oriented as we had these like wide ribbons of beautiful highways. And I really wanted to start from like a place of empathy of like the car was this amazing technological advancement, like understandably people flocked to it.

Megan Kimble (12m 7s):
Like it gave them freedom, it gave them autonomy. It was a miracle, it was a miracle for travel for a lot of people. And so people started buying cars, you know, by the millions. And you know, fast forward to the Eisenhower administration in 1956, he passes the Interstate Highway Act and I too had heard that, you know, he wasn’t a fan of building highways through the middle of cities. There’s this memorandum that you can find online that captures a meeting in in April of 1960 of him saying, you know, that was against my wishes to build highways through cities. But I was like, well there’s gotta be more there. So I drove to Abilene, Kansas, which is where the Eisenhower presidential library is and where all of his archives are and spent three days going through the archives and didn’t know what I would find.

Megan Kimble (12m 50s):
But when I was there I learned about this guy John Bragdon, who Eisenhower had appointed to oversee the implementation of the interstate highway program. You know, there were like old Navy buddies they met at West Point. And so Bragdon starts looking into the program in 1959 and 1960, he finds out it’s running massively over budget. It was a $25 billion program, it’s running $11 billion over budget largely because states have been taking the like generous federal contribution. The federal government agreed to pay 90% of the cost of construction of urban highways. They had been taking that money and building urban highways to try to accommodate all these millions of cars that were suddenly kind of pouring onto city streets.

Megan Kimble (13m 30s):
And Bragden looks into that and he like asked Congress, he is like, well was the intent of this legislation to allow cities to build highways through them or was the intent really to connect the country to build connections between cities? There’s a report that’s produced, it’s called Legislative Intent with respect to Interstate roots and Urban Areas. And I remember I saw that and I was like, oh this is it, right? Like this is the, the documentation of whether or not this was the intent of the interstate highway system. Like spoiler alert, it was not the intent of the interstate highway program. So Bragden basically writes up his findings in a report, it’s called the Interim Report and it’s a really amazing document that lays out very compellingly how urban highways one were like not what federal money was supposed to be spent on the federal money was for a national objective which was connecting the country.

Megan Kimble (14m 20s):
It’s the Cold War. Eisenhower was really worried about like evacuating cities in case of nuclear attack, moving arms across the country, moving troops potentially across the country. And that like the national aim was connecting the country. So he, he lays that out like this is not what this money should be spent for. And then he ultimately presented this report to Eisenhower. He says, all of the traffic experts agree that the way to solve urban congestion is not through highways, it’s through transit systems. Cities are taking, taking all of this federal money and they’re actively tearing out transit to build roads. And he gives a bunch of examples and he is like we should require cities to undertake proper urban planning.

Megan Kimble (15m 2s):
Highways are put one way to move people and driving is put one way to plan a city. And it’s this really amazing statement which like I think most urbanists today would fully agree with, and it’s happened in 1960, you know this like Republican engineer is presenting to Eisenhower like hey this is not what this money was supposed to be spent on. And so that’s when there’s this memorandum of like, okay so there’s this presentation I found that actual like bragden note cards like what he actually read and presented to Eisenhower. So I have the actual text of that. Wow. I mean I’m like in the presidential library like oh my god, amazing. It’s like quiet, you know, it’s like flushed space. And then Eisenhower’s reaction to this presentation is what’s captured in this memorandum published a few days later.

Megan Kimble (15m 45s):
And in that he says the matter of running interstate route through the congested part of cities was against his wishes and those who had implemented the program that way had done so not following his direction. So I like saw that and it’s like, okay, so Eisenhower did not want it to be this way but like why didn’t he change anything? Bragden had told him like, hey what you should do is tell the bureau of public Roads to give more guidance to states that federal money should not be spent to build urban highways. Well it’s like four years into the interstate program, a lot of money has already been allocated to states and it’s also an election year. So that is captured in like a note by Eisenhower’s secretary who has like a diary that she writes every day of the day’s events, Eisenhower’s reactions and in her diary from that day she says these people were in for a meeting on the Rhodes program and like General Parsons and others think it would be murder to move in an election year.

Megan Kimble (16m 36s):
So like best I can tell like the reason Eisenhower didn’t do anything is he felt like his hands were tied. It would be politically difficult to direct states to do otherwise and he didn’t wanna risk pissing him off in an election year

Jeff Wood (16m 47s):
And it wasn’t even his election either, right? It was Kennedy versus Nixon.

Megan Kimble (16m 51s):
Right. But you know, loyal to his party. Right.

Jeff Wood (16m 54s):
Yeah, no I understand. It’s just interesting because you know, Nixon ended up losing anyway, so it’s like an interesting kind of footnote in the whole history of transportation and road building and Totally, you know, the interesting part to me was like just two words, two words inside of the 1956 statute, local needs quote unquote local needs was what allowed all these people in cities that were road engineers to build these interstate highways that ripped through neighborhoods and things like that. So it’s the language and the legalese and all that stuff is, is really minuscule in in allowing kind of what can happen and what can’t.

Megan Kimble (17m 26s):
Yeah. That local needs is what bragged and asked the Department of Commerce to investigate like Congress’s intent behind those words. Did local needs mean that cities should be able to use this money to solve whatever local problems they want? Or should interstate highways be routed according to like local preference, which is to say maybe on existing routes or where they already have right of way. And that’s when Congress was like, no, the Bureau of Public Roads is kind of applying this to liberally, the intent of local needs is that it should be local needs are subservient to the national interest of connecting the country. This money should not be spent to solve local congestion.

Jeff Wood (18m 2s):
I think this is a question where Urbanists will probably say, well of course this is how it’s gonna be. But I wonder what you think US cities would be like if we had followed Bragg’s report?

Megan Kimble (18m 10s):
Oh man. I mean I thought about that a lot. Like he’s so compellingly lays out how transit is the solution to congestion. So like thinking about how a city like Austin where I live or Los Angeles where I grew up, almost every western city would be different if we had robust transit. Like I think we would be more like Washington DC or New York City. You know, you can see them on eastern seaboard cities that have good transit, they are much more dense, they’re much more walkable. The sunbelt in western US like sprawl defines our cities. It’s kind of hard to imagine but like it’s so compelling to think of a place like Austin or LA that’s like more compact and more walkable that just does not cover so much area because we have transit because transit would be the like the backbone on which a city develops rather than highways.

Jeff Wood (18m 58s):
You did go back and look at a lot of history, which is really impressive, but I’m wondering also how much you were surprised by some of the kind of revisionism we hear today from like think tanks and road advocates and others who you know said kind of that same thing where they’re like roads are the only way and what people want and so we should just continue this direction forever and ever and ever.

Megan Kimble (19m 17s):
Yeah, I mean I was surprised by how kind of like bipartisan or nonpolitical the issue was until like well into the 1980s, like politicians from both parties and congress supported more money for transit and this guy John B. Anderson, the chairman of the House Republican conference, testified on the floor of the house in support of an amendment that would’ve opened up the highway trust fund, which is the basic funding mechanism for highways to transit. And he says drivers should support transit if for no other reason that it will get other people off roads. Like if you, if you wanna be driving, I don’t wanna be driving, you should support transit so that you get me off the road and it’s less congested for you. And so like again throughout the seventies and eighties, transit was just kind of considered, it’s like a very practical solution to urban congestion.

Megan Kimble (20m 3s):
It was like under Reagan that we got a dedicated portion of the highway trust fund dedicated to transit and both Reagan and Nixon who also dedicated more money to transit are on record being like highways are not the solution to all of urban congestion problems like highways. Nixon said something to the effect of like, we know that adding more highways can sometimes make the problem worse. So like I was floored by like how kind of given, particularly having reported in Texas how political the issue is here. Like you know, transit is for liberal socialists and highways are for free market capitalists. That’s kind of the political dynamic today in Texas that is absolutely recent. Like that is a, a recent invention of our political system and for a long time it just wasn’t quite so political.

Jeff Wood (20m 48s):
Yeah, well Clayton, all, we had him on the show a long time ago had a book about, you know, how that kind of partisanship came about and it’s really interesting history folks get a chance to either listen to the show or read the book, but he’s a political science and I think he’s at uc, Santa Barbara now, but he’s really interesting to think about how kind of that politicization happened, which is, you know, expanded the highway system and then voters kind of separate out and have different feelings about what is a priority to them. And so I think at those times in the eighties and seventies and sixties and the cities, cities weren’t really written yet to a certain extent. I mean the Phoenix is and the Houstons of the world were only a certain size and now it’s a totally different ball game as much as they’ve grown. So it’s interesting to see that time and that history and how it played out.

Megan Kimble (21m 29s):
Yeah, absolutely.

Jeff Wood (21m 30s):
There’s a juxtaposition in the book community builders like Los Mintos folks and the Forest Theater folks building something, repairing things, bringing you know, community together and then you have tdot ripping up communities that had been ripped up before or refusing to see value in some sort of revitalization. Was that something you consciously wove into the book?

Megan Kimble (21m 48s):
I mean honestly like not really.

Jeff Wood (21m 50s):
That’s fine. That’s just something I picked up.

Megan Kimble (21m 53s):
Yeah, I love that. I actually, it’s really been fun hearing for readers who pick things up that I’m like, yeah, I love that you made that connection. I mean it’s like I really wanted to show the impacts of these highways and they exist in so many different ways and impact people so differently and to show the kind of juxtapose that with the power that text dot has. So I guess in some ways yes, but maybe not so intentionally.

Jeff Wood (22m 16s):
I guess I was just kind of dumbfounded by some of the lack of response from some of the TxDOT engineers and other folks who just like didn’t see the value in what an alternative scenario could be. Like it was all about cars and moving vehicles and not humans. And I, I feel like that’s something that we come across fairly often in cities around the country and talking about transportation projects, but it was just so vivid in your book.

Megan Kimble (22m 40s):
Yeah, thanks. I mean I really don’t wanna make TDOT the absolute villain. I really do think it’s like the transportation commission directing TxDOT and the governor directing the transportation commission. But at the root of all of this I think is this belief that like cars are freedom cars give us independence and that’s kind of sort of uniquely American and the inability to see beyond that, to consider that actually cars are not freedom for a lot of people. A lot of people can’t drive, a lot of people cannot afford cars. I mean it’s just this kind of disregard for evidence like decades of evidence showing that widening highways doesn’t fix traffic and there is this belief that actually more highways is gonna bring economic prosperity to the state of Texas and that is just the overarching narrative.

Megan Kimble (23m 24s):
And so it really be like a political values conversation. It’s really not a question of engineering or like I think the tech, a lot of textile engineers understand it, you know, they’ll see how those roadways are used, they see the basic geometry that bragged and saw in 1960, which is like people take up far less space than cars do, but they answer to a larger political directive which says, I mean the Texas GOP party platform in 2022 says like we oppose any anti-car measures. So it it becomes not really about

Jeff Wood (23m 56s):
California style.

Megan Kimble (23m 58s):
Yeah, yeah, California style. Exactly. And that, I mean that to me was really revealing an instructive because at that point I had spent almost two years trying to answer the question like, if widening highways in fixed traffic, why are we widening highways promising to fix traffic? And the answer is fundamentally a values one, a lot of people believe that cars create freedom and prosperity and until we like really effectively counter that narrative it will perpetuate.

Jeff Wood (24m 20s):
It’s interesting how that narrative drives the models too, right? Like the transportation models because ultimately they’re using these models and they’re going through these black box simulations and they’re telling you, well this is what it’s telling us. There’s gonna be, what was it, 18,000 hours of delay and like trying to use these kind of really complicated numbers and things to scare people. But you know, we’ve seen what happens in cities like San Francisco, Portland, et cetera, that tear down their highways and the dissipation of cars like a gas rather than a liquid.

Megan Kimble (24m 47s):
Yeah. My favorite example of that is in the I 35 environmental impact statement where, so I 35 cut through Austin, that central segment is an eight mile stretch of highway from south Austin to north Austin. And in the environmental impact statement text dot has this little chart that says if we don’t expand this highway by 2045, this eight mile trip is gonna take 223 minutes, which is three and a half hours, that’s more than three and a half hours. No one is going to take that trip. It is absolutely an absurd premise to project into the future that all of us commuters in Austin are gonna be stuck in gridlock for three and a half hours to travel eight miles across the city. Like people simply won’t take that trip, they will get there by a different mode.

Megan Kimble (25m 27s):
It just is an absurd premise and yet it’s presented as scientific fact.

Jeff Wood (25m 31s):
There’s a Dr Who episode, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Dr. Who, but there’s a doctor who episode and the reboot, basically this whole group of people is just stuck in a traffic jam for thousands of years, hundreds of years. And so they’ve had kids, they’ve done this thing and they’ve been in the same spot, their cars are in the same spot, I guess it’s completely renewable or whatever, but they’ve just been stuck in this place and it reminds me of that every time. It’s like there’s something out there that’s keeping you in here and you’re stuck here but you’re just kind of living your lives and doing your things And it’s, it’s really interesting to see that kind of played out on a, a science fiction show but then also discussed, you know, in E-I-R-E-S and real life, basically that’s what they’re expecting is people are just gonna sit in traffic for their whole lives for three and a half hours.

Megan Kimble (26m 10s):
Yeah. That we are just like somehow mindless robots, they’re gonna take the same routes we’ve always taken. Like people are rational consumers of good. That’s like basic free market capitalism. Like as a good becomes harder or more difficult to access, like fewer people will access it. Like that’s just basic supply and demand and somehow TechNet doesn’t understand that.

Jeff Wood (26m 30s):
Last time you were on the show we talked about this story as a land use story. How is highway expansion specifically in the Texas context related to the housing policies that are happening in Houston and Austin and Dallas?

Megan Kimble (26m 41s):
Yeah, we might have talked about this last time, but I got into this because I was covering housing at the Texas Observer where I used to work and I wrote this long story about Austin’s effort to update zoning code, which hasn’t been done since 1984. And so as a result, like you can’t build anything more dense than a single family home or a single family home with an A DU and most of Austin. So as Austin has boomed, all of that growth has happened in the suburbs. So like Round Rock and Pflugerville and to the south Kyle and San Marcus and like people who may want to live in Austin, people who are not necessarily choosing the suburban way of life are forced on the highway to get to work or school or anywhere that they need to go. So I for when I wrote that story, I interviewed this woman who wanted to buy a home in Austin, but she was like displaced out to the suburbs and was stuck on the highway to get home and to get to work.

Megan Kimble (27m 30s):
And then a few months later tech stock comes along and allocates $4 billion to wide 9 35. And I just was like, oh those are the same story, right? That like people are forced out of the city to afford a home to build generational wealth even though they may not choose to have to drive so far, they’re forced onto the highway to get back to Austin. And so like the suburbs and the, and highways are like mutually reinforcing, they emerged at the same time. Highways were initially justified as a way to get people home to the suburbs. The kind of federal housing policy that led people to move to the suburbs. A massive subsidy of mortgages out kind of far away from city centers led to the kind of justification of highways. So those two have always been mutually reinforcing.

Megan Kimble (28m 11s):
And I think it’s like especially true in places like Austin that are in the midst of an affordability crisis where we can’t build anything more dense in a lot of land in Austin. And so people who might wanna live and walk and bike to where they’re going are driving and like it’s just like until we fix housing policy, like you know, in some way text out’s response is understandable, people are moving all along. I 35, a lot of people rely on that highway, let’s widen it like they are. Like teched is sort of responding to demand. And so part of this is like the city of Austin needs to lessen that demand. They need to let more people live closer to where they’re going.

Jeff Wood (28m 49s):
That’s an expensive elevator. Yeah. You got a lot of press in there chatting with folks about the book. Is there a question or a topic that you wish was talked about more?

Megan Kimble (28m 60s):
I mean I have talked a fair amount about it, but like climate change really motivates this book. Transportation is the leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the US on road emissions and Texas alone account for half a percentage of global worldwide emissions. And that stat absolutely stunned me when I learned it. Again, it’s like very deep in a textile technical document, but like I, I can kind of talk endlessly about how terrified I feel about climate change and how the prospect of these highway expansions is like only going to make it worse. So like I mentioned at the top of the show last summer was like one of the hottest on record in Austin. There was, I think there was a string of like 45 straight days over triple digits in Austin and at the last day of that stretch of triple digit days, text out approved, formally approved the I 35 expansion.

Megan Kimble (29m 50s):
And that combination felt so tired to me like it, like I have been reporting on this stuff for four years and so I sometimes like it’s like become intellectualized to me. I’m like a little bit desensitized to some of the outrage around that people experience and that like it’s justifiable for you know, homeowners, those in the footprint. But that really hit me. I really felt that on an emotional level of like, Austin is my home, I would like to continue living here for a very long time and like we are actively making it worse and harder to live here. So there’s all this conversation around like tech parks and like how do you make the highway better and more integrated into the city? How do you research communities? Biden is talking about that and it’s just like really I’m like, we are fundamentally making the problem worse by making this highway so much wider and incentivizing so much more car travel and therefore emissions.

Megan Kimble (30m 41s):
I understand that it’s obviously a political statement because climate change has become politicized, but like I want people to see driving in highways as fossil fuel infrastructure and like that absolutely motivated a lot of my reporting,

Jeff Wood (30m 53s):
I think the most disappointed I was in reading the book and not because of you, you know, the writing was good and so it made me disappointed was, was the reaction of the feds to the I 45 stoppage and what happened afterwards and you know, oh we can’t cont we have no control of the secretary. It was like, well no, we’re, this is process. NEPA is the way it is. And it felt so, it felt so disheartening to feel like powerless in that people that had power felt like they didn’t have power, right? Like this, this cycle was just gonna repeat itself because nobody was changing the structure underneath. They were just saying, well this is how it is and that’s the way it is, so we’re just gonna let it go. For me, that was a part where I just like, was just like, ugh, my shoulders, I could feel my shoulders like slump.

Jeff Wood (31m 36s):
I was just like, what’s the point? You know? And I, I’m gonna keep doing this, I’m gonna keep doing the podcast, we’re gonna keep talking about this stuff and it’s important, but it just feels sometimes futile.

Megan Kimble (31m 46s):
Well that’s what I mean, like the oscillation between hope and despair. Yeah, pretty constant. I will say in response to that, something I learned that I didn’t know because I too, when FHWA paused this expansion in Houston, I was like whoa, this is so significant. Like Biden and Buttigieg have come in with this like commitment to racial justice, like they are gonna do something different. But what I learned is they actually don’t have the power to do something different because of how the service transportation program is set up. And I learned most of this from Beth Osborne at Transportation for America. So like shout out to Beth for teaching me most of what I know about federal transportation policy. But she worked at DOT and what I learned is like from her is that states like tech dot get their money through formula funding.

Megan Kimble (32m 28s):
So FHWA like doesn’t have that much power over how TxDOT spends its money. TDOT cannot violate the law. That’s essentially the only, the only authority the federal government has is to come in and say whether or not they violated the law. And so I think it is like a little dangerous when Biden and Buttigieg are out there making commitments to sustainability and racial equity when they actually do not have the power to follow through on those commitments. And so we are left with states, it absolutely causes me despair as well. But like what I learned is like the place to make changes at states. So like state legislatures and governors have a lot of power and so Congress should write a better surface transportation reauthorization that gives Congress more power to oversee the transportation program.

Megan Kimble (33m 13s):
But like in the meantime, states which are much more accessible to voters like state legislatures and governors can do so much to change how money is spent. And like I just went to Colorado, I reported on the Colorado Department of Transportation, which is doing really incredible things in response to a state mandate. So like it is absolutely a fight that needs to happen at the state level. Yeah.

Jeff Wood (33m 34s):
And Bruce Bug, I mean what a super villain, right? I have this question, what do you like more ice cream or cake?

Megan Kimble (33m 44s):
I get that reference. I get it. I don’t want either.

Jeff Wood (33m 51s):
I get, it’s a reference to in the book basically he says for I 45 we’re gonna have our ice cream and our cake by, you know, delaying the allocation of funding for the project and building some other highways and then building I 45 later. And neither of them seem like treats to me, but that’s, that’s maybe just me and you. I don’t know. Also, you know, one of the things that struck me too is end up being, you know, in Austin at the time too, is why does, why does Los Manus keep getting screwed? And the people that are, that are people that are involved with them because they’re such an institution and yet they keep getting pushed around and obviously the Los Manus, the restaurant got pushed out by a developer and then the school that was formed from Los Manus is now, you know, under threat of being moved by T tot because of the I 35 expansion.

Megan Kimble (34m 32s):
Yeah, I don’t know exactly why that school has had such a hard go of it. I mean I think it just speaks to the fact that it’s really expensive to live and do business in Austin and you know, it’s not unique to Austin that like childcare centers are having a really hard time, like a lot of childcare centers closed during the pandemic. But it’s just like, yeah, it encapsulates the heart of Austin, right? It’s says like Spanish immersion preschool, the origin story is so distinctly Austin that it emerged out of this Mexican restaurant and right there, like, I mean for a lot of the time that I was reporting the book there like facing this existential threat of their continued existence and that was, that story was like one of the most moving to me because like a homeowner losing their home is absolutely devastating.

Megan Kimble (35m 12s):
But this still represents 200 families lives like, it’s like the anchor for their lives. Like childcare is every day twice a day you are there dropping your kid off, picking your kid up. It’s like where we are caretaking our young people and like it’s not just like that they are going to get displaced by this highway. It’s like what kind of future are we leaving for these young austinite? Like what kind of city are they gonna grow up in?

Jeff Wood (35m 35s):
Yeah, it’s frustrating and I feel like again, it goes kind of back to where I feel like transportation policy just doesn’t take people into account only cars or money even for that matter. I mean I feel like Michael Morris and some of the hostage taking

Megan Kimble (35m 48s):

Jeff Wood (35m 49s):
Feels just like a, a quid pro quote type of situation where it’s not necessarily about building a highway that might help people get to where they want to go, but it’s like, oh well we have eight, $9 billion from the feds, we gotta use it now or else it’s gone or we’ll take it away. You know? And so it’s not like those things can’t get reallocated. I mean yesterday I wrote in my newsletter about the seven 10 Highway, you know, taking all their money almost $800 million and reapportioning it in and obviously Dallas with Patrick Kennedy who’s featured in your book, you know, the Dart has actually reallocated some money for the subway and thinking about transit a little bit differently. So it’s not just a like a roads problem, but it’s just like we can reallocate money if we want to, but we just decide not to. And, and so, you know, those threats are looming and frustrating as well.

Jeff Wood (36m 31s):

Megan Kimble (36m 31s):
They’re not new. That is what I found looking through newspaper archives. I found dwi Greer was the Austin district engineer in the 1950s. I found a newspaper article where he comes to Austin city Council in like 1940 or something and says, well if you don’t want this East Avenue highway, like say so and we’ll take our money elsewhere. And that is exactly what Bruce Buck told Houston in 2022. Like, Hey, if you don’t want this highway expansion, like we’re gonna take our $9 billion elsewhere and do something else with it. So it’s absolutely a, a threat. And city leaders I think kind of understandably don’t wanna lose an investment in their region. Like that highway expansion is an expansion, but it also builds more modern flood infrastructure.

Megan Kimble (37m 15s):
It like has lots, it has safety improvements. So there are lots of like important things that that money comes with. But what some leaders like Bug and Morris are saying is like, well if you want those things, if you want the good things like flood control and a safer highway, you have to accept an expansion.

Jeff Wood (37m 30s):
Yeah. And jobs too, right? I mean the spending of that much money, I mean obviously that creates a economic development incentive that’s unmatched. I mean 8 billion, 10 billion, $15 billion, that’s a lot of money. And so, you know, some of that money gets into the pockets of workers and people and gets redistributed, but it’s hard to fight back against that much, that much capital.

Megan Kimble (37m 49s):

Jeff Wood (37m 49s):
Houston recently passed a ballot measure asking for fair representation on the MPO board and, and I feel like this gets to the discussion we were having a little bit earlier about impact and, and who has impact and who can make decisions and whether or not the president and and the Secretary of Transportation actually have power. And so instead of going at the highway itself, the activist ends up going at the decision making apparatus, which is I think very innovative but also interesting as well.

Megan Kimble (38m 13s):
Yeah. And that story gives me a lot of hope. This is this grassroots group of just like normal people who have other jobs who formed to oppose a highway expansion and they saw kind of why do these highway expansions keep getting proposed? Like what is the kind of engine behind this? And they saw that a lot of that power lies with their metropolitan planning organization, which is called the Houston Galveston Area Council. And every city has one. They’re basically basically like regional planning bodies and they help allocate federal transportation money. But in most cities, those metropolitan planning organizations, the composition skews to suburban members. So there are more suburban members or suburban members have much higher voting power compared to their population. So the city of Houston has way, there’s like the core population in the Houston Galveston area region, and yet they have like two or three votes even though that’s where most people live and also where most people of color live.

Megan Kimble (39m 2s):
And so this group, you know, to stop Texas I 45, some of these volunteers were like, Hey, could we change that? Could we force the Houston Galveston area councils metropolitan Planning organization to have proportional voting proportional to population? And I think that’s important because all along during this I 45 fight, local leaders opposed it, the mayor opposed it, the Harris County judge opposed it. Harris County sued TDOT to try to stop it and yet they really had no say. And so the whole point of this ballot measure was to say, Hey, our elected representatives in the city of Houston should have more power to decide what happens in Houston. And so they, they went door to door, it’s called, it was prop B prepare for Houston. And they knocked on like, I think more than a hundred thousand doors across the city.

Megan Kimble (39m 44s):
I wrote a story about it for City Lab. And so I went out and canvased with them and it was this like really remarkable effort. It’s so wonky, it’s like even explaining to you, you know what I’m talking about. And it’s so wonky and I, it was like so amazing to see volunteers just knock on normal people’s doors and explain this kind of obscure governmental body that most people had not heard of. Explain how it was not serving them, not representing them and saying, Hey, do you want it to represent you? Do you want it to be different? And so it was on the ballot in November and it passed with like a wide margin. And now there’s this fight in Houston of like making that body more proportional to population and ideally in the future that means that they will not approve a massive highway expansion when it comes through and negatively impacts a lot of Houstonians.

Jeff Wood (40m 28s):
I asked Beth about this actually Beth Osborne about this, and there was a little, there’s a sentence in the infrastructure act about NPOs and rethinking them. And I think it was mostly for new NPOs and she told me that I, I was reading into it maybe too much. But I think that that’s kind of something that should be used by more people to try to grab back representation for their cities, which make up these large proportions of populations, but they’re underrepresented because of the suburban allocation of of seats on them. And you know, something like this happened in San Diego actually recently where Jerry Brown actually said, oh we need to reapportion how the MPO represents the region because it’s not really fair right now. And they ended up getting very close to doing road pricing because of that. So it’s interesting to see what can hap actually happen if you actually get the representation to work out in, in the favor of the larger population, which is, you know, San Diego or Houston or whatever the main city is in any of these metropolitan planning organizations, which are set up by the feds to dole out transportation money.

Jeff Wood (41m 20s):

Megan Kimble (41m 20s):
And also like giving people to understand what they are. I mean, even when I started reporting on this, like my eyes would just glaze over. I’m like, I dunno if I can cover this. It’s so boring, it’s so wonky. But they’re hugely important for not just how transportation funding gets spent, but in Houston it’s flood mitigation money. So a lot of what galvanized people in Houston is that the city of Houston suffered most of the damage from Hurricane Harvey, but got like an absolute fraction of percentage of the federal recovery money. And that was because of actions the NPO took. So that’s like, is like a real impact on people’s lives. And I think making, again these like very wonky, bureaucratic, governmental bodies, like real, like their actions have consequences on real people. And I think the grassroots group there did a really effective job of communicating that.

Jeff Wood (42m 3s):
Well, I think one of the lessons that I take from the book is that people want something different. I think there are many people who are just living off inertia. Many people at Tech Stop for example, but at some point, you know, politicians and the folks that create this can’t have their proudest moment be a 22 lane freeway, right? Yeah, yeah. And still win elections. And so I feel like there’s small amount of movement, but it’s positive movement. And there were many times where the book made me sad. I actually, when they were talking about the littles, I was like a little bit teary-eyed. ’cause I, ’cause I have a little as well and I just care about this stuff a lot. And so I think that that’s kind of something to take away is that there’s, you know, there’s hope on the horizon and and if we just keep pushing we might actually get there.

Megan Kimble (42m 43s):
I think so. I mean you mentioned at the top of this Connor Dougherty’s book about the housing movement and I really see the like anti freeway movement maybe where the gibe movement was like a decade ago. Like it’s still very new. A lot of this, like this group stop Textile 45 has been around for five years. Like what could they accomplish in 10? What could groups in other cities across the country, there are freeway fighters in almost every city in the country and they’re beginning to talk to each other. I went to Cincinnati this fall for the first like annual gathering of the freeway fighters network. So I had talked to, there were like 25 groups from 17 states and they’re talking to each other, they’re strategizing, they’re trying to create a, a larger national movement out of what we’re like sort of disparate kind of isolated campaign.

Megan Kimble (43m 25s):
And so I think like indeed people want something else, like more and more people are negatively impacted by car dependency. It is increasingly becoming a climate fight as young people see these highways and the emissions that they create emissions our cars create and say like, no, we don’t want any more of this. Like climate leaders don’t wind freeways. And so that like really heartens me that kind of overlap of climate activists with freeway fighters.

Jeff Wood (43m 49s):
Yeah. And yeah, thanks Kirk Watson.

Megan Kimble (43m 54s):
Yeah, our climate mayor is gonna wind climate

Jeff Wood (43m 56s):
Mayor who put in the money initially to do it. I know Megan, the book is City Limits Infrastructure, Inequality and the Future of America’s Highways. Where can folks pick it up? Because I think everybody should have a copy.

Megan Kimble (44m 7s):
Thank you. You can buy it anywhere you buy books. Local bookstores are great. I also will give a plug to the audio book, which I narrated so people can listen to it on their commuter walking around their city or on their bus or train ride.

Jeff Wood (44m 18s):
Oh, awesome. Thanks Megan for joining us. We really appreciate your time.

Megan Kimble (44m 22s):
Yeah, thank you for having me.

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