Estimated cost triples for U.S. 183 toll project in North Austin

The price tag for adding two toll lanes to each side of U.S. 183 north of MoPac Boulevard, which only eight months ago was officially listed at $225.7 million, has nearly tripled to $650 million.

That higher cost, officials said, could make it harder to finance the expansion, but they have yet to figure out how much borrowing could be supported from tolls on the road, or how much funding in state grants the project might get.

Officials with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which is planning the 8-mile-long project and would build it, ascribe the radical increase to significant changes in the project’s design that emerged during an environmental analysis now nearing its end. That includes two flyover bridges at the north end, where U.S. 183 meets RM 620 and the Texas 45 North tollway, and two more at U.S. 183’s interchange with MoPac, as well as the addition of a free lane on each side of U.S. 183 for about half the length of the project.

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

“That is a 2011 number, and it just sat there and didn’t get changed,” Heiligenstein said, adding that it didn’t include direct connecting bridges (commonly known as flyovers) at either end. “It could have been changed (for the long-range transportation plan), but then we would have had to change it again after the environmental study was done.”

Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea, whose Precinct 2 includes much of the length of U.S. 183 involved here, said that officials with the mobility authority and Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization were less than forthcoming in pushing for a $424.3 million amendment to the long-range plan to reflect the new cost estimate. When the change first came up before the CAMPO board in November for a required public hearing, the background information given to the board was less than two pages long and included a basic map merely showing the length of the project from MoPac to RM 620, said Shea, who serves on the board.

“I was genuinely shocked when I saw the size of the increase, and so little information in the backup,” Shea said. “So I asked, ‘What’s contributing to this near tripling of cost?’”

The other CAMPO board members, she said, “were exasperated and wanting me to hurry and wrap it up after about three questions.”

The $424.3 million amendment, scheduled for action this past Monday, instead was delayed until the board’s Feb. 8 meeting.

Shea got few answers that night in November, although the mobility authority has since given her a more detailed accounting of the added costs. Heiligenstein also shared that breakdown with the American-Statesman.

The flyovers on the south end, one in each direction, will run between the toll lanes now under construction on MoPac and the two on each side that would be built in the median of U.S. 183. Estimated cost of those flyovers, along with merging lanes between MoPac and the flyovers that would be several hundred feet long, added $117 million.

At the north end, two flyovers would be built connecting U.S. 183 to RM 620 to the west. In addition, just to the south of where the 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 added free lane on each side, bringing the total general purpose lanes to eight through that stretch, would add an estimated $90.2 million, money which Heiligenstein said he hopes would be supplied by the Texas Department of Transportation as a grant. The new estimate also includes $69.4 million to inflate all the cost estimates to what they would likely cost when the project actually begins, estimated now to be 2019.

CAMPO’s long-range plan, under federal law, must be “fiscally constrained,” meaning no project may appear on the list unless its sponsoring agency (the mobility authority in this case) can credibly claim to have money lined up to build it.

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 that $90.2 million from TxDOT or even a higher figure, Heiligenstein said.

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 cost lower than $650 million now on the table.

Texas Transportation Commission members, reacting to opposition to toll roads from some legislators, have been re-examining how much cash they will put into toll roads in the future. It isn’t clear what stance might emerge from that review.

“Depending on where the department’s policy lands,” Heiligenstein said, “will make a huge difference.”

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