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Higher tab for U.S. 183 toll lanes approved, over critics’ objections

Authorities have officially accepted the higher price tag for the proposed U.S. 183 toll lane project in North Austin: $650 million rather than the $225.7 million approved less than a year ago.

That steep hike, first reported last month by the American-Statesman, drew rhetorical jabs Monday evening from critics who questioned how the lower estimate made it into the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s long-range plan last May.

“That’s an enormous amount for a single 8-mile project,” said Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance. “How is it that this project could triple in cost in just nine months?” Bunch called for the board of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which is planning the project and would build it, to review the cost increase.

The CAMPO board Monday evening approved an amendment to its 2040 transportation plan for Central Texas, incorporating the $650 million estimate for adding two toll lanes on each side of U.S. 183 from North MoPac Boulevard to RM 620. The project also includes adding flyover bridges at each end, an extra free lane in each direction from about Braker Lane to near Anderson Mill Road and about $5 million of new bike and pedestrian facilities.

The vote was 16-1, with Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea opposed. Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt abstained.

Officials with the mobility authority ascribe the increase to significant changes in the project’s design that emerged during an environmental analysis now nearing its end, as well as estimated inflation of the cost to the year when construction is expected to begin, 2019.

But they also acknowledge that the original $225.7 million figure, approved as part of the metro area’s long-range transportation plan in May, fell short of a rigorous estimate. The number, mobility authority Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein said in January, was more or less a placeholder left over from the 2010 version of the CAMPO long-range plan.

“I can’t imagine why these flyovers wouldn’t have been in the original plan,” Shea said, adding that she was concerned that other proposed mobility authority projects would see similar price jumps in the future.

The flyovers at MoPac added $117 million to the original cost, mobility authority officials estimate. At the north end, two flyovers would be built connecting U.S. 183 to RM 620. In addition, just to the south of where those flyovers come to ground level on U.S. 183, the project would include short bridges running over the free lanes that would allow drivers to get to and from the toll lanes in the median. Added cost: $147.7 million.

The additional free lane on each side — which would bring the total general purpose lanes to eight through that stretch — added an estimated $90.2 million. The latest estimate also includes $69.4 million to inflate all the costs to what they would likely look like when the project actually begins in 2019.

The mobility authority, as is generally the case with toll roads, would sell bonds for much of the project’s cost and pay back that debt with toll revenue. The agency would also hope to get the $90.2 million for the added free lanes — or even a higher figure — from the Texas Department of Transportation, Heiligenstein said in January.

The authority had a consultant do a “sketch level” traffic and revenue study demonstrating how much borrowing the toll revenue could support, Heiligenstein said, but it was based on a lower project cost than $650 million. The authority hasn’t released that study.

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