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June 29, 2023

Roads to Everywhere

By: Audrey McGlinchy

(Episode 2) I-35 is more than a road. It’s been sculpting Austin’s housing scene for more than 60 years, encouraging endless sprawl and making gridlock a lifestyle. Take a drive with us through the highway’s history.

The full transcript of this episode of Growth Machine is available on the KUT & KUTX Studio website. The transcript is also available as subtitles or captions on some podcast apps.

Announcer There has been a lot of excitement in America for the last six years.

Audrey McGlinchy On March 29, 1962, several busses stopped on a road in downtown Austin. Out of them walked dozens of girls from local high schools. Some wore pleated plaid skirts. Others wore dark jumpers over collared shirts. All of them wore white gloves.

Announcer These colorful, often festive occasions didn’t commemorate holidays or historic anniversaries.

Audrey McGlinchy Once off the bus, these girls formed a line stretching across the road, blocking it. Men gave speeches. A marching band played.

Announcer These occasions came complete with all the trimmings.

Audrey McGlinchy The girls laughed as two guys in dark suits pretended to cut the air around them, as if the line they had formed was a ceremonial ribbon. Because, you see, this was a celebration. A grand opening of a road.

Announcer What is this big road? Where is it going?

Audrey McGlinchy Well, not just any road. A superhighway … to the future.

Nathan Bernier Are you rolling?

Audrey McGlinchy I am rolling, yes.

Nathan Bernier We are rolling. All right.

Audrey McGlinchy We are turning onto the frontage road of I-35.

Nathan Bernier I’m gonna try and merge on, oh shoot.

Audrey McGlinchy Okay. Ope. Nathan’s trying, trying to be a safe driver and I’m distracting him.

Nathan Bernier I’m not going to get any accidents today.

Audrey McGlinchy Awhile back, I went for a drive with my colleague Nathan Bernier. He’s going to join me for this episode. Nathan covers transportation for KUT. And on this day, we drove on I-35 through downtown Austin.

Audrey McGlinchy Um, And how does congestion look today on I-35?

Nathan Bernier It’s pretty busy on I-35, surprisingly enough, uh …

Audrey McGlinchy It’s about, what, almost 11 a.m.?

Nathan Bernier 11 a.m.. And we’re going, mmm, 10, 20, 15 miles an hour right now.

Audrey McGlinchy Tens of thousands of people going to work, delivering stuff, going home, getting their kids, many of them driving dozens or even hundreds of miles in one day.

Nathan Bernier This is it, though, right? I mean, we’re going to pull up the upper deck and a skyline of Austin is going to grow out of the horizon.

Audrey McGlinchy The thing of dreams, sitting in, uh, sitting in traffic.

Audrey McGlinchy This particular highway is just one way people in Austin get around. But driving is the way everyone and everything gets around the city.

Audrey McGlinchy We’re, you know, driving by Bank of America, a Shell Station. You can see some of the tallest buildings of downtown, but you can’t- You’re not, we’re not quite getting the full view of downtown just yet.

Nathan Bernier It’s coming up.

Audrey McGlinchy It wasn’t that long ago that Austin was a more rural place. You didn’t have to go far to find yourself out in the country. But as Austin got bigger, so did the roads. And they filled up with more and more people. More roads. More people. More people. More roads. You get it.

Audrey McGlinchy Okay, so now we’re getting close to 15th Street. And this is about the place where those dozen or so women in that photograph that I found fanned out across this highway as it opened for the first time to Austinites in 1962. And it’s what, I mean, 1962. So for more, just over 60 years, people have been driving on this stretch of I-35.

Nathan Bernier Oh, it’s insane. And think about all of the people and things that have driven along here. I mean, millions of people, definitely, including celebrities.

Audrey McGlinchy Probably.

Nathan Bernier Definitely.

Audrey McGlinchy [laughter]

Nathan Bernier Presidents of the United States of America and other countries, perhaps.

Audrey McGlinchy Presidents also have to go on highways. And then I think of, like, all the materials. You know, you see all the huge commercial trucks that drive up and down I-35, um, delivering who knows what. And what? This stretches from Laredo to Duluth, Minnesota.

Nathan Bernier Pretty much, I mean, almost everything, if you’re in a house, it’s very likely that everything your house is made of traveled on I-35 at some point. That beer in your hand, maybe that traveled, that likely traveled along I-35. I mean, everything travels along I-35, it’s insane.

Audrey McGlinchy To wax poetic, it’s like this artery pulsing through the body of America.

Nathan Bernier It is.

Audrey McGlinchy All right. You should drop me off now, cause that was terrible.

Nathan Bernier [laughter]

Audrey McGlinchy Pull over. I’m ejected from the car.

Nathan Bernier Alright, I’m exiting here.

Audrey McGlinchy So what does I-35 have to do with housing in Austin? Well, everything. Without highways, Austin would look a lot different than it does now. For better or for worse, I’m Audrey McGlinchey. This is Growth Machine: How Austin Engineered Its Housing Market. Episode two: Roads to Everywhere.

Audrey McGlinchy By the mid 1940s, Austin was a city of 100,000 people, a 10th of its population today.

Nathan Bernier And the city was geographically smaller as well. It just took up less land. The southern boundary of Austin didn’t go far past Oltorf Street, so in the early forties, St. Edward’s University was outside the city limits.

Audrey McGlinchy To the west, Lake Austin was a boundary, and to the north, 51st Street was one of the boundaries. Then East Austin stretched to around Airport Boulevard.

Nathan Bernier Getting around was not great. A lot of city roads were still unpaved. The city had not even paved Lamar Boulevard, north of 24th Street, in the mid-forties.

Audrey McGlinchy Which is wild to think about, like, half of Lamar is just a gravel road.

Nathan Bernier Anyway, back in the forties, Austin was a much smaller city.

Audrey McGlinchy Yeah, and harder to get around.

Nathan Bernier But that all changed when everyone got a car.

Audrey McGlinchy By the end of the 1930s, America was only a few decades away from the horse and buggy. But there were already 30 million cars on the road.

Actor Buick’s beauty, smooth safety surge acceleration and its million dollar ride.

Actor 2 Look at those lines. There’s true streamlining for you …

Nathan Bernier But the roads were not that great. So there was a movement to build a network of superhighways.

Actress Can’t you see that this highway means a whole new way of life for the children?

Nathan Bernier Congress was studying whether to build an interstate highway system. But then … World War Two happened.

Announcer 2 All America offers its pattern of life and work to meet the demand for protection.

Nathan Bernier World War Two slowed down efforts to build the interstate highway system, and the war also slowed the production of cars. GM became the largest military contractor in the country, making machine guns and anti-aircraft cannon.

Announcer 3 As General Motors makes victory its business.

Nathan Bernier Ford stopped making cars for civilians.

Announcer 4 The Ford Motor Company has thrown the full weight of its engineering resources behind the nation’s defense efforts.

Nathan Bernier Most people couldn’t even buy a car because of rationing.

Announcer 5 Supplies were short on everything from shoes to gasoline was doled out. No stamps, no salt.

Audrey McGlinchy So imagine living through the most destructive and deadliest war in human history, with all this deprivation in the United States.

Nathan Bernier And then it all ended in 1945.

Announcer 6 Throughout the world, throngs of people hailed the end of the war.

Audrey McGlinchy Car companies started making cars again, and Americans were hungry for them.

Singer [music] I’m in love with you, baby. Let me ride in your automobile.

Actor 3 Today, the automobile is part of any American scene.

Actor 4 Clean and sleek and strong.

Actress 2 Like so many people these days, we live in the suburbs. And three weeks ago, we bought another Ford. It’s a whole new way of life.

Nathan Bernier Gas was cheap. In today’s dollars, about two bucks a gallon. Credit was easy and cars were being pumped out like hotcakes.

Actor 5 Chevrolet is the first in the industry to achieve the riding and driving thrill of a lifetime. There’s never been anything like it before.

Actress 2 Now I’m free to go anywhere, do anything, see anybody, any time I want to.

Audrey McGlinchy If you never had that freedom before, it must have felt amazing.

Singer [music] Let me riding your automobile.

Audrey McGlinchy And more people than ever could afford it.

Nathan Bernier From 1945 to 1955, the number of vehicles in the U.S. doubled to more than 60 million.

Audrey McGlinchy In a single decade.

Announcer 7 Through quality mass production. New Chevrolets are made each year, which millions of people can afford.

Nathan Bernier And now people wanted to do everything in their cars. Want to have dinner?

Audrey McGlinchy Drive in restaurants.

Nathan Bernier Want to go see a movie?

Audrey McGlinchy Drive in movie theater.

Nathan Bernier Want to make a deposit?

Audrey McGlinchy Drive in bank.

Announcer 8 Where the cashier works behind a bulletproof glass …

Nathan Bernier Millions of people in their cars would change American culture forever.

Singer [music] Oh, you’ve got a good little car, baby. Two minute drive … It don’t run like no buggy.

Audrey McGlinchy And now, with the car at the center of American life, there was enough political support for the federal government to put a lot of money on the table for an interstate highway system. $25 billion. That’s what Congress approved in 1956.

Nathan Bernier The legislation was signed by President Dwight Eisenhower. The Federal Aid Highway Act.

Announcer 9 The most talked about phase of the act is the Interstate Highway System, a 41,000 mile network of our most important roads. Most of these roads will be four, six, even eight lane expressways, constructed for through traffic. They will take the over-the-road driver from city to city, coast to coast, at highway speeds — even through large population centers.

Audrey McGlinchy The plan was to route highways very close to town centers, to bring people into the city where they could do their business and spend their money.

CoC member So that’s why I say, speaking for the Chamber of Commerce, if there’s any highway improvement to be done, let’s improve the roads that bring more people into Connersville.

Nathan Bernier Whether it’s Dallas, Detroit, Denver. Everyone’s getting a highway.

Audrey McGlinchy Including Austin.

Nathan Bernier In the 1940s, the head of the State Highway Department showed up in Austin. His name was DeWitt C. Greer, and he’s a super important guy when it comes to the development of highways in Texas. He would actually wind up running the state highway department for the next 30 years, almost. He became known as king of the highway builders.

Audrey McGlinchy Anyway, so this king of highways comes to Austin leaders and says, ‘Hey, your city is not big enough to be our first priority. We’re going to build a highway in Dallas and San Antonio, but then we’ll get to you. So you guys better get ready and start figuring out where we should put this thing.’

Nathan Bernier So the city highway planners started looking at some routes, two or three of them, and they presented them to the state officials. And some of these routes were kind of interesting. One possible route for I-35 would have set it up San Jacinto Boulevard, but that passed through University of Texas property.

Audrey McGlinchy Can’t really put a highway over UT.

Nathan Bernier Right. And then there was Red River, that was considered as a route. But at the time that ran through what was the Austin Country Club Golf course.

Audrey McGlinchy God forbid the golfers be interrupted by a highway.

Nathan Bernier Can’t have that. Finally, in February 1945, all the government officials agree, ‘We’re going to put the highway down a street called East Avenue.’

Audrey McGlinchy And the planners had several reasons for choosing East Avenue. First, it was wide. Much of it was already 200 feet wide. And that was how wide they needed the highway to be.

Nathan Bernier It was actually called la Calle Ancha or the Wide Street by Mexican-American residents who lived nearby.

Audrey McGlinchy It wasn’t always full of cars. It was also this social place. Large, grassy medians cut through the road and people would picnic in these medians. They’d play baseball. Even horses grazed there.

Nathan Bernier So East Avenue, planners argued, was already the right dimensions for a highway. It was already a busy thoroughfare, but there were some other factors as well.

Audrey McGlinchy Highway planners across the country were choosing routes that tore through communities of color, even sometimes literally rerouting the highway to avoid white neighborhoods. In the last episode, we talked about how I-35 eventually became this dividing line between East and West Austin, a dividing line between communities of color and white people. But before that, East Avenue was this dividing line.

Nathan Bernier Banks used East Avenue as a marker to decide who they would lend money to. You might have heard of the term redlining. Well, that’s basically where mortgage lenders took maps of cities and they drew red lines around neighborhoods where they would refuse to give mortgages to people. Most of the time, those neighborhoods were black neighborhoods, east of East Avenue, redlined. So essentially, these communities were left out of home ownership for decades, and that would have ramifications generations down the road.

Harrison Epright I do remember when East Avenue was the distinct street. And I remember seeing the concrete, some of the concrete laid and seeing some of the huge pipes going in for the construction of Interstate Highway 35.

Nathan Bernier That’s Harrison Epight. He was born in Austin in the mid-fifties, and he grew up in East Austin in what was a redlined neighborhood. Right now, the area has completely changed. There’s a Whole Foods there. So that’s where I met him. We sat out on the patio at Whole Foods right next to I-35 and talked about the highway.

Harrison Epright It worsened segregation for those people who could not move. Or those who chose not to move. And then the land was devalued over here. That, I guess you could say redlining was the worst thing of all. But certainly that along with I-35, it became an unofficial, an unofficial barrier.

Audrey McGlinchy But even before they could start building this highway barrier, officials realized they needed to make more room for it.

Nathan Bernier Even though East Avenue was still 200 feet wide, it wasn’t wide enough.

Audrey McGlinchy So in 1948, the city started seizing people’s property. Dozens of homes and businesses were taken by the city.

Nathan Bernier One of those homes was on Claremont Avenue. This is a street. It’s one of the first streets after you cross over Lady Bird Lake on the north side of the lake. It’s basically a block long right now because most of it was taken for the highway.

Audrey McGlinchy On this street in the early 1950s, there was this one story house. There was a picket fence, a chicken coop in the backyard. And it belonged to this guy.

Ilus Hall Ilus J. Hall. 32, 132 years old.

Mark No, no. 102.

Nathan Bernier That’s his son, Mark.

Ilus Hall Oh, yeah. Yeah. I’m not, I’m not 132, that’d make me a little bit older. [laughter]

Audrey McGlinchy Ilis, who, to be clear, is 102, was born in Oklahoma in 1921. He came to Austin because he was stationed at the Bergstrom Air Force Base.

Audrey McGlinchy When he left the Army, he bought the house at 1008 Clermont Avenue.

Ilus Hall First house ever.

Audrey McGlinchy Ilis lived at this house with his wife for a few years. Then the city came knocking.

Nathan Bernier At first they said they’d only take part of his lot, and Ilis thought he’d be able to stay.

Ilus Hall And then they come back and said, ‘No, that’s not enough. We gonna to take all of it.’ I tried to get ’em to let me have back half. They wouldn’t do it. They said, ‘Well, we’re going to take over.’ [laughter]

Audrey McGlinchy The city of Austin offered Ilis $3400 for his home.

Nathan Bernier $3400? 3400? Does that sound right?

Ilus Hall [laughter]

Nathan Bernier That’s not very much by today’s standards.

Ilus Hall You couldn’t buy … [laughter]

Nathan Bernier At that point, he made a little gesture where he’s holding up his fingers to show a very small amount, you know. So I don’t know what that home would be worth now, Audrey, but I imagine quite a lot.

Audrey McGlinchy Yeah. A home on that street is actually for sale right now. And according to Zillow, it’s listed for about one and a half million dollars. So the city takes his home and Ilis moves out in the mid fifties. Here’s his son, Mark, again, asking him a question.

Mark Were you wanting to move at that time anyway, or was that something that was kind of forced on you?

Ilus Hall Well, I don’t know that it was forced on me, but in a way it was too, because I would’ve lived there for some time, I know, if I hadn’t sold it.

Audrey Once the city seized all this property, including Ilis’ house, the state was able to finish the last segment of I-35 through Austin.

Nathan Bernier But before they even finished building I-35 in the early sixties, an engineer for the Texas Highway Department, Ed Bluestein, whose name you might recognize from a local boulevard, he said four lanes is not enough. So the city, he said, needed to start immediately getting more land to build six lanes downtown. And that’s how wide I-35 was when it opened in 1962.

Actor 6 This is the American dream of freedom on wheels. An automotive age traveling on time-saving superhighways.

Audrey McGlinchy You have to remember that highways were still this really novel thing. Around this time, the Dallas Morning News actually ran a story explaining to readers how to use the entrance and exit ramps of this highway.

Actor 6 We have become the nation on wheels, with more motorized mobility than ever dreamed of before.

Nathan Bernier It’s hard to understand what this was like now because we just take it all for granted. But the highway changed so many things. Of course, we talk about people’s land getting taken, dozens of homes. I-35 cemented the segregation of East Austin.

Audrey McGlinchy And it did this other big thing. The highway opened up a bunch of new land. You could suddenly drive so much faster across the city and beyond. You could live farther away, ten, 20, 30 miles outside Austin and get to work downtown in still a reasonable amount of time. Suddenly, there was a new frontier. More after the break.

Audrey McGlinchy So I-35 opened in Austin in 1962 and suddenly you could drive from downtown to the outskirts of the city in, I don’t know, ten minutes, and park your car outside your lovely new home.

Actor 7 We in Austin can be proud of our beautiful residential district, and the Nash Phillips Corpus Company has contributed many of the fine homes in and around our area, finer homes at lower cost.

Audrey McGlinchy What you’re hearing is an ad for this new development called Windsor Park. You might know it better as a neighborhood in northeast Austin, just north of the Mueller development.

Nathan Bernier Back then, right on the edge of town.

Actor 7 More home for the money, and quality at no extra cost.

Nathan Bernier Some of the first homes were built in Windsor Park in 1955, around the same time as they broke ground on the interstate. Once the highway was finished, developers built more and more houses in this area.

Nathan Bernier This is it. This is the future. People have returned from World War Two. The government’s putting all this money into building homes.

Nathan Bernier And not just building homes, but backing mortgages, making it much easier for people, and to be clear, almost exclusively white people to buy a house.

Actor 8 Funny thing about wanting a house, how it hits some young couples. All of a sudden.

Actor 9 The home they’ve always dreamed of, the happiest investment they have ever made.

Actor 10 Maybe I better add a few more rooms back here.

Actor 11 For the hopes and dreams of everyone, there’s a home they can call their own.

Actress 3 Oh, darling, it’s going to be just perfect.

Actor 11 That’s right.

Nathan Bernier Highways poured gasoline on the flames of homeownership. These big roads gave us easy access to more land, land that people could build on.

Nathan Bernier By 1972, a decade after I-35 opened in Austin, the city had grown substantially, annexing nearly 40 square miles of land. To put that in other terms, Austin increased its geographic size by nearly 60%.

Nathan Bernier Yeah and over the next two decades, Austin, as a city became less dense, meaning the city’s residents are spreading out, living further away from each other. It was a new age of growth, the age of suburban living on steroids, also known as sprawl.

Jean Claudia Scherer From a layperson’s term, we probably have a visible association with sprawl.

Nathan Bernier This is Jean Claudia Scherer. She’s a professor of community and regional planning at UT-Austin.

Jean Claudia Scherer We kind of know it when we see it.

Actor 12 The streets become filled with crowds of workers and shoppers.

Jean Claudia Scherer Low rise commercial development, strip malls.

Actor 12 Then in the evening, the workers stream home again.

Jean Claudia Scherer More driving involved.

Actor 12 And the business section becomes a ghost city.

Jean Claudia Scherer Sometimes it has a negative, aesthetic connotation.

Actor 13 Onward and upward go the subdivisions. One development here, another down the highway, competing to lure more people to the open spaces.

Nathan Bernier So what does all of this have to do with housing prices?

Nathan Bernier Well, it’s hard to build new housing in Austin for a bunch of reasons, but mainly because of building regulations and opposition from people already living in the city. We’ll talk a lot more about that in a later episode.

Nathan Bernier But it’s all good because people can just build further out. The outskirts of the city and the suburbs become this release valve, taking pressure off central Austin to build more and to make more room for people.

Nathan Bernier So instead, people who can no longer afford the central city can just get on the highway and drive until they find a place they can afford.

Nathan Bernier In real estate, this is called drive until you qualify.

Nathan Bernier So imagine you’re on I-35 driving through Austin and you don’t make enough money to qualify for a mortgage there. So you keep on driving, maybe to Pflugerville.

Joshua Long And maybe Pflugerville wasn’t affordable, so maybe you had to drive to Maynor.

Nathan Bernier This is Joshua Long. He teaches environmental studies at Southwestern University in Georgetown, a suburb north of Austin.

Nathan Bernier Now Maynor’s getting a little expensive, so you keep driving, on to Hutto.

Joshua Long Oh, gosh, Hutto’s now gettin’ a little pricey. Maybe I gotta, go to Elgin. You drive until you find a place that you can afford.

Nathan Bernier And as Joshua just said, highways, they let us drive farther to qualify, qualify for a home outside the city. Where nowadays, they’re are a lot cheaper. But there are so many costs associated with living farther away. Your rent or your mortgage may be lower than in Austin, but other things start to add up.

Joshua Long You got to make choices about what vehicle you’re going to purchase.

Nathan Bernier Do you have a big family, so you need an SUV? Or maybe you’re concerned about the environment so you get a Prius. Either way, it’s a monthly car payment.

Joshua Long Is gas, you know, $2.89 a gallon or is it $4.50 a gallon? You know, we’ve seen that in the last few years as fluctuations.

Nathan Bernier Yeah. This time last year, regular gas in Austin was more than 4.60 a gallon. Now it’s down to about three bucks.

Joshua Long Suddenly, your home budget fluctuates so much with these changes in the market.

Nathan Bernier So there’s the cost of gas. The cost of buying a car. Car payments. And then car maintenance and insurance. Stuff like that.

Nathan Bernier Driving everywhere in a car also has environmental impacts. It’s one of the biggest contributors to climate change, and the pollution from engine emissions also makes air quality worse, which is bad for people who struggle with things like asthma.

Nathan Bernier But there’s another hidden cost of living in the suburbs, and it can fluctuate as wildly as the price of gas. And that is the time you spend in traffic.

Rick Perry The time that’s spent in traffic is time that is away from work, it’s away from family, it’s away from some other pursuit.

Nathan Bernier This is Rick Perry in 2006, back when he was governor of Texas, and he’s announcing the opening of another superhighway.

KXAN announcer You’re watching KXAN on the news at ten.

KXAN reporter Fastest highway in the country is now open. Barricades were moved off the entrance ramps to the new S.H. 130 …

Reporter This afternoon, after three years of construction, the 85 mile an hour speed limit will be the highest in the country …

Reporter 2 This road’s so clean, you could probably eat your lunch off of it. And right now they’re taking the barriers off the new state Highway 130 …

Rick Perry Thanks to Highway 130, traffic flowing north and south along one of America’s most important trade corridors are now going to have another option.

Nathan Bernier And the building of this new highway did just what I-35 did 40 years before it. It opened up new land for development. Here’s Joshua again.

Joshua Long Think about Hutto. I mean, nobody was living in Hutto, you know, 15 … I shouldn’t say nobody, it was a very small town just 15, 20 years ago. And since the implementation of the toll road, bringing access to all this land that was easily developed and easily subdivided into neighborhoods, Hutto has boomed. You build a road, things will grow up around the road.

Nathan Bernier S.H. 130 goes through Hutto. Since S.H. 130 opened in 2006, the population of Hutto quadrupled to about 40,000 people.

Nathan Bernier Four times what it was before the highway was built. That’s wild.

Nathan Bernier Yeah. From 2006 to now, four times. It is insane. And this idea that highways dictate growth, where people can live. For Joshua, it’s not just an academic theory. He lives in Georgetown, America’s fastest growing city.

Joshua Long Georgetown went from a sleepy, extremely conservative small town, where 20 years ago you had to have a membership to drink in a bar in Georgetown. Yeah, you had to buy like a bar membership to drink. And now downtown is a party every weekend. And for a few years there, we’d walk around, be like, ‘Gosh, this is perfect.’ And we talk about how we’re in the sweet spot that this is going to change because the secret’s out. Everybody’s moving to Georgetown, it’s the cool place. And that’s certainly happened. It’s a pain. I mean, to get, literally to drive about two and a half, three miles in Georgetown right now can take you 15 to 20 minutes on a bad day. And that’s traffic that’s actually worse than some parts of Austin.

Nathan Bernier As much as Joshua has seen Georgetown change and some of that not for good, in his mind, it makes sense that there’s all these people moving there.

Nathan Bernier Homes in Austin on average sell for more than half a million dollars. But just outside the city, homes are cheaper. In Georgetown, you’ll pay about $100,000 less for a home.

Nathan Bernier If you have children and you want a backyard, or maybe you just have a dog and you want a backyard or you need space for a home office. Sometimes suburbs are your only option.

Nathan Bernier And we made it easy for people to move out here. We built highways like I-35. There’s large swaths of open land ready to be built on.

Nathan Bernier And we’ve made it increasingly difficult to live in Austin for all the opposite reasons. There’s not a lot of land to build on, and there’s a lot more restrictions on what you can build.

Nathan Bernier I guess what we’re trying to say is the suburbs make sense.

Nathan Bernier [dog barking] Except for this one dog, it’s a quiet morning in Georgetown. It’s 8:00, and Hunter Holder is heading out to his tech job in Austin.

Hunter Holder I wasn’t planning on buying a Tesla, but even with, like, Texas, like, you know, artificially keeping gas like, pretty cheap, it’s still expensive to own a gas vehicle just in general.

Nathan Bernier Hunter moved to Georgetown last year from the Dallas area. At first, he and his husband lived in an apartment in downtown Austin while they looked for a home to buy.

Hunter Holder And that was really nice. That was like a wonderful experience, being able to, like, walk or like bike anywhere I wanted. I was seriously considering, just like living in Austin. But once I saw the home prices, I was pretty dismayed that we couldn’t find a place that we could afford. Yeah. So right now we’re on S.H. 29.

Nathan Bernier Keep in mind, this is someone who works at a big tech company.

Hunter Holder And, you know, paid pretty darn well and I can’t afford to, like, buy in Austin. I imagine most of the people here who actually own places in Austin already owned them before because, you know, three, four, five years ago, it was affordable. And that’s changed very drastically.

Nathan Bernier So Hunters Husband, who’s a realtor, spent weeks looking for homes they could afford.

Hunter Holder You know, scoping out the good areas and the right houses and everything like that. If I didn’t have him, then I’d probably not be, uh, owning the house. I’d probably be renting just like a lot of other people.

Nathan Bernier They found a house last summer in Georgetown.

Hunter Holder The checklist was enough space for two of us and our dog. Having like a yard for the dog to, like, play in and poop and, [laughter] as well, as like being reasonably close to amenities like grocery stores, and, I love it. It’s totally great. But yeah, the commute to work is pretty monstrous. Uh, we’re getting onto I-35 and it’s a huge number of cars going about 20 miles per hour. Some of them just totally stopped. This is fairly normal on a workday.

Nathan Bernier Hunter spends a lot of time commuting and that gives him a lot of time to think about how much time he spends commuting.

Hunter Holder I lose about 2 hours a day, like on average, about 2 hours a day, driving to and from work and, you know, maybe doing errands along the way. So, you know, time is money as well. And so, no, it’s really not worth all the time that I lose.

Nathan Bernier So we wanted to know, would he by the home in Georgetown again if he had to make the choice all over, knowing what he knows now.

Hunter Holder Uh, man. I’d probably … I’d probably think about renting for a little while longer and then, you know, trying to scope out a place in Austin, um, that, that … I don’t know how well it would work out, you know, because rental prices are also pretty high. But that’s what I would try to do, I think.

Nathan Bernier On this morning, Hunter made it to work in less than 40 minutes.

Hunter Holder Actually, today was not too bad. Usually it can be like up to an hour. You just never know.

Nathan Bernier Hunter is not alone. Each morning, the waves of traffic coming into the city are filled with people who can’t afford to buy or rent in Austin. Granted, commuters spend more time in their cars in cities like Dallas and Houston, but on average, people living in the Austin area spend almost an hour each day getting to and from work. And despite building more and more highways over the past decades, commute times have gotten longer.

Nathan Bernier Thanks, Nathan.

Nathan Bernier Thank you, Audrey. I like talking about all this stuff.

Nathan Bernier Wait, but, how are you getting home today?

Nathan Bernier *sigh* I’m going to drive down I-35.

Nathan Bernier Happy driving.

Nathan Bernier The way we’ve built roads in Austin determines in part where people can and cannot live. And now that we’ve gotten on this highway, it’s really hard to get off.

Nathan Bernier On March 29th, 2023, dozens of people gathered on a grassy strip just off the frontage road of I-35. They stood in front of a dirt mound. Some wore suits and ties. Others dressed more for the occasion in neon yellow safety vests.

I-35 Announcer Good morning, everybody. We will get started. Thank you for joining us today.

Nathan Bernier Exactly 61 years to the day I-35 opened in Austin, people were celebrating another opening of the highway; this time the beginning of construction to expand I-35 in north Austin.

I-35 Announcer You know, breaking ground on the I-35 Capital Express North project is a major step forward for us.

Nathan Bernier If you’ve ever driven on I-35, you know it’s bad. Traffic is terrible most times of the day. In an attempt to make this better, the Texas Department of Transportation is widening the highway.

Nathan Bernier At the ceremony earlier this year, there were no girls holding hands and forming a ribbon like back in 1962. This time, officials gripped golden shovels and flung dirt as confetti flew into the air. There was no marching band. Instead, they played recorded music of a marching band. But just like in 1962, men made speeches.

I-35 Speaker It’s going to be a $7.5 billion project, the largest tech stock project in certainly in the history of the city of Austin, to alleviate all this congestion.

Nathan Bernier Just like when they first built this highway, about 100 more homes and businesses will be bulldozed to make way for the expansion. Unlike that celebration back in 1962, this time there were protesters.

Protestors No more highways. No more highways. No more highways …

Nathan Bernier Building highways in Austin is not so politically popular anymore. No city council members came to this ceremony in March. The mayor wasn’t there. No one from Congress. Mostly just state employees and bureaucrats from other agencies.

Gerald Doherty So you just have one formally elected official.

Nathan Bernier And this guy, former Travis County Commissioner Gerald Doherty.

Gerald Doherty I love this project because it moves traffic more freely. I mean, let’s face it, 95% of us are going to get in our cars because that’s what we have to do to live our lives.

Nathan Bernier As Austin keeps expanding, growing outward in what feels like endless waves, Doherty has a point. The expansion of I-35 could make it easier to live farther out, encouraging more and more people to drive in search of those lower housing costs until the highway fills up with all these extra commuters and the congestion returns and costs go up gas, car maintenance, time. And before you know it, the cries get even louder: just one more lane to help me get home.

Nathan Bernier Growth Machine is a production of KUT and KUTX studios in Austin. It’s produced by me, Nathan Bruner, Marissa Charpentier, Mose Bushnell, Jimmy Moss and Matt Largey. Production help from Heather Stewart. Technical help from Jake Perlman and Rene Chavez. Stephanie Federico is our digital editor. Special thanks to Sinclair Black, Elizabeth Mueller, João Paulo Connolly, Ann Cook, the Texas Archive for the Moving Image, the Austin History Center and the Prelinger Archives. There’s more at I’m Audrey McGlinchey. Thanks for listening.

This transcript was transcribed by AI, and lightly edited by a human. Accuracy may vary. This text may be revised in the future.


August 18, 2023

Grow or Die

(Episode 7) Now that the machine has done its job, what now? We explore some of the existential questions that Austin’s housing market has wrought.


August 10, 2023

Pigs in a Parlor

(BONUS — Deleted scene!) We go back 100 years to tell the origin story of modern zoning.


August 4, 2023

There Go The Neighborhoods

(Episode 6) Austin last re-wrote its land development code in 1984. Sounds boring, right? Well, that rewrite made it harder to build denser forms of housing. We explore the history of zoning in Austin and the opposition to changing the rules today, which could make the biggest difference in fixing Austin’s affordability crisis.


July 27, 2023

Welcome to Silicon Gulch

(Episode 5) Not that long ago, Austin’s economy was sleepy, to put it mildly. People came here for UT, to work for the state or for the military. A little more than 50 years ago, a bedsheet changed everything — including the housing market.


July 20, 2023

Fertility Drugs for Cars

(BONUS) We talked in episode 2 about cars and roads — and how they affect where we live. We didn’t talk about one other way that cars affect housing: making places to put all the cars.


July 13, 2023

Smart Growth or Dumb Growth?

(Episode 4) When a new mayor came to power, he found what he thought would be a compromise — a way to bring new businesses and build housing for all the people coming to Austin without threatening the city’s ecological gems. It turned out to be more complicated than that.


July 6, 2023

Listen to This Podcast or We’ll Poison Barton Springs

(Episode 3) In the 1990s, Austin voters passed landmark protections for parts of southwest Austin that sit on top of the aquifer that feeds Barton Springs. That set off a chain of events that had a profound effect on how the city would grow in the coming decades.


June 29, 2023

Roads to Everywhere

(Episode 2) I-35 is more than a road. It’s been sculpting Austin’s housing scene for more than 60 years, encouraging endless sprawl and making gridlock a lifestyle. Take a drive with us through the highway’s history.