The Texas Department of Transportation, in part using money generated by the Texas 130 tollway, has revived dormant plans to build toll lanes on Texas 71 from near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to Texas 130.
Officials estimate the 2-mile-long project, which could begin before the end of 2014, will cost about $140 million and take two years to complete.
The tollway will run from just east of Presidential Boulevard, the airport’s main entrance, to just beyond Texas 130. It will have free-to-drive frontage roads with three lanes in each direction — Texas 71 currently has two lanes on each side for much of this stretch — and two toll lanes in each direction, TxDOT executive director Phil Wilson told the American-Statesman on Wednesday.
The project will also include eliminating a dogleg in FM 973, which now hits Texas 71 in two spots about 500 feet apart east of the airport. Given that, the frontage roads will have one fewer traffic light than exists now on Texas 71 at FM 973.
The improvements will begin west of Presidential, including widening the overpass at Presidential, but drivers will be able to use that bridge without paying a toll, officials said.
Combined with the removal of a Texas 71 traffic light at Thornberry Road west of Presidential, expected to happen in March, and an ongoing project to build an underpass on Texas 71 at East Riverside Drive, once the toll project is complete the highway would have no stops for almost 15 miles.
“You’ll be able to have a nonstop trip all the way from MoPac to 130,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, adding that he and a variety of transportation officials have been meeting to discuss the area’s highway priorities. “This helps from a lot of different directions, including Bastrop County.”
Construction of toll lanes on Texas 71 between U.S. 183 and Texas 130 had been on local transportation plans during the 2000s, but were dropped when TxDOT’s finances tightened.
The current long-range transportation plan for Central Texas shows only a $17 million project, to start in 2015, to widen the road to six lanes. And TxDOT already planned to remove the FM 973 dogleg.
But TxDOT, as part of a 50-year agreement with a consortium led by Spanish toll road builder Cintra, last year received a $100 million windfall. The consortium paid that money for the right to build, operate and, it hopes, profit from the southern 41 miles of Texas 130 over the next half century. The magnitude of the payment was tied to the speed limit on that portion of Texas 130, which TxDOT set at 85 mph.
That section of Texas 130 runs through two TxDOT districts, centered around Austin and San Antonio, and TxDOT officials decided that $59 million of it could be used for the Texas 71 project. The remainder of the project budget will come from $20 million already set aside for the FM 973 project and a TxDOT loan of about $60 million to the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, Wilson said.
The mobility authority, which currently owns and operates the 183-A and U.S. 290 East tollways, would take over the Texas 71 tollway once construction is complete. The authority would pay back the TxDOT loan out of toll revenue — Wilson said the loan terms are not yet set in place — and then keep the rest for operating costs and, potentially, surplus money for other projects.
TxDOT officials said they anticipate obtaining environmental approval faster than would be typical for such a project because the expanded road also would lie within existing TxDOT right of way. The Federal Highway Administration has already cleared the FM 973 changes, officials said. TxDOT is depending, as well, on shortcuts in the federal review process approved by Congress last year.
“In the transportation world, this is really happening fast,” Wilson said.
Watson said that the decision to leapfrog the Texas 71 project to the head of a long line of area highway projects was based on its manageable cost, given the available $59 million from the Texas 130 deal, as well as the chance for a quick environmental review.
“Their thinking about it was not just to hang on and wait,” Watson said. “Instead, there’s a sense of urgency that if you can get it done, get it done. Move it up.”