Austin vision for I-35 makeover now includes two toll lanes per side


Officials Monday laid out an $8.1 billion vision for expanding I-35 from Round Rock to Buda.

That would include in Central Austin two levels of lanes below ground level and demolition of the upper deck.

TxDOT intends to spend $20 million on an environmental study of the revised concept for expanding I-35.

Texas officials are doubling down — way down — on their plans to add toll lanes to Interstate 35 through Austin.

A couple of years after pitching the idea of adding one toll lane in each direction, highway officials are now talking about adding two lanes with MoPac-style variable tolls to each side of I-35 from Round Rock to Buda and channeling those lanes well below ground level through much of Central Austin.

That long-range plan, announced Monday, would include eliminating the upper deck that runs between Martin Luther King Jr. and Airport boulevards, replacing those two free lanes on each side with added freeway lanes tucked under the frontage lanes. The next level down would contain the toll lanes.

This complex three-level design through Austin’s core, which officials have dubbed the Capital Express, would be similar to what the Texas Department of Transportation did recently with Interstate 635 in Dallas. Drivers in the lower level are not in a tunnel, but in the bottom of a double-decker road with strips of light cutting through the median.

RELATED: Officials explain how LBJ TEXpress lanes work in Dallas

And it would be very expensive: $8.1 billion for 33 miles from RM 1431 in Williamson County to Texas 45 Southeast near the Hays County line.

The concept, to squeeze what amounts to 12 expressway lanes into a narrow Central Austin corridor bordered by cemeteries, hospitals, hotels and office buildings, would involve tucking some lanes under those above them in what TxDOT calls a “cantilever” approach.

To the north and south of Central Austin — where TxDOT owns broader strips of land along the highway — the design probably would include just one or two levels, with the new toll lanes and reconfigured free lanes at the same elevation. The plan, as contemplated now, would not include adding free lanes, said Terry McCoy, TxDOT’s Austin district engineer.

This hyperambitious expansion of what was already a $4.3 billion plan for I-35, a 2015 vision with just one toll express lane on each side and added free lanes in some places, has emerged in part because the Texas Transportation Commission has signaled that it remains open to funding “managed lanes.” Such lanes, like the newly built toll lanes on MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1), have tolls that rise and fall as the lane gets more or less crowded, ensuring that traffic keeps moving.

RELATED: See what drivers are paying on the MoPac toll lanes

If local community leaders say they want TxDOT to build lanes with variable tolls as a means to combat congestion and provide faster lanes for transit buses, “the commission will consider that,” Chairman Bruce Bugg said at a commission meeting last week.

And TxDOT officials last week specifically indicated that they are willing to devote more agency dollars to major projects in the state’s largest metropolitan areas, even if tolls are involved. Of a list of 16 such projects statewide laid out in that commission work session, 14 involved adding lanes with variable tolls.

That would seem to be a shift from Gov. Greg Abbott’s stance, from his 2014 campaign and speeches since then, of addressing the state’s highway needs without raising taxes or imposing more tolls. That would be possible, he said, because of the added $4 billion a year or more generated for TxDOT through reallocations of existing taxes approved by voters and the Legislature in 2014 and 2015.

RELATED: Proposition 7 redirects $2.5 billion of state taxes to roads

But TxDOT officials and some commission members have said over the past year or so that even that ample flow of new money is not enough to pay for megaprojects on expressways in the state’s largest cities. Abbott appointed three of the commission’s five members and recently elevated Bugg, a San Antonio bank executive, to the chairman’s post.

Kirk Watson, Austin’s longtime state senator, said Monday that he supports the I-35 toll lane concept because of what it could do for transit as well as individual drivers. He said it is important to go big with two toll lanes a side even with the greater cost.

“You’re only going to do this through downtown Austin once in my lifetime, and the lifetime of my grandchild,” he said.

Watson and McCoy both said there is no specific plan at this point for ginning up the money for all 33 miles. Rather, they said, the point is to put I-35 in position to be ready for funding as the commission allocates it or as toll-backed borrowing occurs.

AND THEN THERE WERE EIGHT: Central Texas’ growing roster of toll roads

To that end, McCoy said three ongoing environmental studies for the north, central and south sections of I-35 through Central Texas will be combined into a single review for the entire 33 miles. That omnibus study will center on a design that would have two variable toll lanes on each side.

That $20 million study, using the three engineering consulting companies that were already reviewing I-35, should be done by the end of 2019, McCoy said. Construction, when money can be found and attached to the project, almost surely would begin in the center of Austin.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Local

Police: Man lured his boss outside of house and shot at him in Austin
Police: Man lured his boss outside of house and shot at him in Austin

A man angry at his boss fired a gun four times at the man and the man’s house in South Austin on Valentine’s Day after saying he was coming over to get some tax documents, an arrest affidavit said. Victor Smith, 30, was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Smith...
Woman accused of punching stranger at bus stop for not giving her $1
Woman accused of punching stranger at bus stop for not giving her $1

A woman is accused of punching a stranger who declined to give her a dollar at a bus stop in North Austin and then continuing the attack on the bus, according to an arrest affidavit. April Miller, 37, was charged with assault with injury, a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. The victim told police she was at a bus stop at North...
Cyclist Andrew Tilin, author of ‘The Doper Next Door,’ dies in wreck
Cyclist Andrew Tilin, author of ‘The Doper Next Door,’ dies in wreck

An Austin cyclist who had written a book about how supplemental testosterone affected his bike racing performance died Saturday after he was struck by a truck while changing a flat tire on the side of the road. Andrew Tilin, who wrote “The Doper Next Door,” was riding with a group of cyclists from Grupo VOP, a cycling club, along RM 620...
New mural unveiled at 12th and Chicon in Austin
New mural unveiled at 12th and Chicon in Austin

People passing by the mural at 12th and Chicon streets used to be greeted by the immense images of famous black legends Michael Jackson, James Brown and Tupac Shakur. Now, a new mural at the same spot features all of them, plus such Austin household names as musician Gary Clark Jr., East Austin hip hop artist Charles “Nook” Turner and Latin...
Man arrested in stabbing in Southwest Austin, police said
Man arrested in stabbing in Southwest Austin, police said

Update 4:30 p.m.: Austin police have arrested a man accused of stabbing another person during a family disturbance at an apartment complex on Monterey Oaks Boulevard in southwest Austin. The victim, who was male, was taken to the hospital and received life-threatening injuries, said Austin Senior Police Officer Jeremy Bohannon. Police were notified...
More Stories