- Ben Wear American-Statesman Staff
Several key Central Texas highway projects — including expansions of U.S. 183 in North Austin, U.S. 290 in Southwest Austin and Interstate 35 through the heart of the area — are once again in limbo after Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick last week staked out firm anti-toll positions.
“Right now there’s a billion dollars worth of projects on hold, between 183 and Oak Hill,” said Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority.
The I-35 project, estimated to cost $8 billion to add toll lanes and other improvements from Round Rock to Buda, was still several years from construction. But it too has fallen under a cloud after the Abbott and Patrick toll condemnations, a message from on high that persuaded Texas Department of Transportation officials to abruptly shut down work on toll lanes.
“In response to public comments received, we are developing a plan to scrub the (10-year construction plan) of any toll roads in the proposed revisions,” TxDOT spokesman Bob Kaufman said in an emailed statement.
And Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Bruce Bugg, an Abbott appointee who until very recently had been pushing for up to 17 urban toll lane projects in that 10-year plan, said the commission “fully understands and is committed to continue to use the funding from Proposition 1 and Proposition 7 for non-tolled projects.”
Those constitutional amendments, approved by Texas voters in 2014 and 2015, redirected to TxDOT revenue from existing fuel and sales taxes. The amendments included a provision, added at the insistence of anti-toll lawmakers, that the money could not be used on toll projects. And Abbott, when he ran for governor in 2014, told voters he would address traffic needs without raising taxes or levying more tolls.
Patrick kicked off the flurry of activity Thursday with a letter he sent to Bugg — and shared with the press.
“It is surprising and disappointing to learn that TxDOT created a plan to add managed toll lanes to virtually every major roadway currently under consideration,” Patrick wrote, noting that through Proposition 1 and Proposition 7, TxDOT now has an additional $4.3 billion a year to spend on roads.
“TxDOT’s proposal to add managed toll lanes is simply not consistent with the policies set forth by the Legislature,” Patrick’s letter said.
Despite the prohibition on spending for toll roads, TxDOT planned to commingle that restricted cash with money borrowed on the bond market or from the federal government for the U.S. 183 and I-35 projects as well as many of the other proposed toll projects. In the case of U.S. 183 North (MoPac Boulevard to RM 620), the plan was to spend the TxDOT funding to add to the road’s existing free lanes and the borrowed money on the toll portion of the project.
State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, on Nov. 9 had officially requested an attorney general’s opinion on whether that sort of funding mixture is legal. The attorney general has six months to address Pickett’s query.
Abbott’s office was at pains to say it had already been discussing the toll lane issue with the Transportation Commission before the Patrick letter, asking it “to not include new toll roads” in the 10-year construction plan.
But the turnaround in TxDOT policy was swift and unexpected, mobility authority officials said. The staff of the local toll agency had a meeting scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Friday to hammer out final details on a cost-sharing and construction agreement for the $500 million U.S. 183 North project. The commission less than a month ago had voted unanimously to tell the TxDOT staff to make that deal, using $120 million in TxDOT cash and $380 million to be borrowed by the mobility authority.
That meeting, Heiligenstein said, “was abruptly canceled at 8:15 a.m. Our guys were actually in the Greer Building lobby (TxDOT headquarters), waiting to go up. … At this point, all of our stuff is on hold.”
That freeze might not include the addition of lanes and flyovers on the Texas 130 tollway, a project set to begin within a year that would include no money from Propositions 1 and 7. And the mobility authority said it will continue with an environmental study of adding toll lanes to South MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1), work budgeted by the Legislature several years ago.
Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat, only three weeks ago had announced the new vision for I-35, which included two adding toll lanes on each side. Watson, echoing what TxDOT leaders have been saying, said that even with the additional $4 billion annually, the department is still $1 billion a year short of its estimate of how much new money it needs to keep Texas traffic at its current level.
“And actually reducing congestion would cost even more,” Watson said in a statement. “Unless our leaders are willing to find the new money needed to invest in transportation infrastructure, all they are offering Texans is lip service. Talk is cheap. Roads are not.”