The Texas Department of Transportation has a contractor lined up to add a lane to each side of Texas 130 through Pflugerville, a popular commuter route that often backs up during rush hour.
But the $36.7 million contract with OHL Construction is now caught up in the freeze on toll road projects — even though the project would be an expansion of an existing toll road, funded with toll road revenue. It would not use money from the gas, sales and energy taxes that have been the target of grass-roots anti-toll groups.
“The planning and (bidding) has been done. The contractor is ready to go,” said Rep. Celia Israel, a Democrat whose state House district includes much of the idled Texas 130 project. “TxDOT knows I’m frustrated. But they’ve been put in a political situation by a noisy sliver of the electorate.”
OHL Construction last month submitted the lowest bid among 12 companies to add a toll lane to each side of Texas 130 from U.S. 290 to Texas 45 North. TxDOT practice traditionally has been for such bids to slide immediately onto the Texas Transportation Commission agenda for what amounts to rubber-stamp approval. And the OHL bid was $2.5 million below what TxDOT engineers had estimated the project would cost.
But TxDOT staff, under pressure from Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Republican activists to cease building toll projects, removed that expansion of Texas 130 and OHL’s low bid from the December commission agenda. And on Thursday, the commission approved a long list of project bids that conspicuously did not include the Texas 130 expansion.
It is unclear when, or if, the project — along with a related lane addition on Texas 130 from U.S. 290 to Texas 71 and yet another project to build three more flyovers at U.S. 290 — will be revived.
Toll critics ‘are stirring up the hornets’
Terri Hall, executive director of Texans for Toll-free Highways, has been calling to end toll roads for more than a decade, mostly to little policy effect. But this fall, those years of argument paid off when more than 230 conservative groups and individuals sent a letter to TxDOT, Abbott, Patrick and others decrying a TxDOT plan to build 18 toll projects in Texas metro areas.
Those projects, which in almost all cases would have involved use of some tax money, were scrubbed from TxDOT’s 10-year plan in December.
The Texas 130 project, though different in character and funding, was swept up in the purge. Hall said TxDOT should be eliminating toll roads, not expanding them, no matter the source of funding.
“We’ve been trying to get the tolls off of 130,” Hall said. “We’d rather see that money (that would otherwise fund expansion) be used to buy down the debt.”
TxDOT currently owes about $2.4 billion on the four-road Central Texas Turnpike System, which includes Texas 130. That debt is scheduled to be fully paid off in 2042. The $36.7 million allocated from system surpluses to the Texas 130 lane-addition project amounts to about 1.5 percent of that debt.
Israel and other toll advocates say the problem with the blanket opposition to building toll roads (or expanding them, in this case) is that TxDOT, even with an infusion of $4 billion a year or more in recent years from redistribution of existing state taxes, has nowhere near enough money to address growing traffic.
Toll opponents, she said, “aren’t providing us any new answers. But they sure are stirring up the hornets.”
Israel said the increasingly heavy use of Texas 130 — which has led to significant slowdowns during rush hour north of U.S. 290 and thick morning traffic between U.S. 290 and Texas 71 — indicates that a large percentage of Central Texans see tollways as a boon, not a bane.
“On certain days, it’s bumper to bumper on 130,” she said. “It’s rooftops and schools and infrastructure. As usual, our roads are playing catch up.”
Hall, who lives in Comal County, dismissed the heavy traffic on the road in eastern Travis and Williamson counties, saying that people who use Texas 130 don’t have a viable free alternative.
“I don’t think that ridership can totally equate to people buying into tollways,” she said.
Bruce Bugg, chairman of the transportation commission and an Abbott appointee, was not available for comment on Texas 130, TxDOT’s press office said. And Abbott’s office likewise did not respond to a question about the project shutdown.
Other Texas 130 phases affected
Other Central Texas toll projects, including proposed toll lane additions to Interstate 35 and to U.S. 183 in Northwest Austin, likewise have been indefinitely delayed by the commission in the wake of Abbott’s and Patrick’s newly stern attitude about charging for roads. But those projects would have used money generated from constitutional amendments passed by Texas voters in 2014 and 2015, an allocation that seemingly would run afoul of specific prohibitions in those measures.
What became known as Proposition 1 in 2014 (sending some oil and gas tax revenue to TxDOT) and Proposition 7 in 2015 (giving TxDOT a slice of state sales taxes) had language saying that the money could not be used for toll projects. TxDOT had planned to finesse that prohibition by spending the tax money to add free lanes to those urban roads, while using borrowed money for the toll portions of the projects.
But that questionable commingling of funds is not what was set to happen with Texas 130, which was planned for expansions in three phases.
TxDOT’s Austin-area turnpike system, while carrying a mountain of debt, is generating more than enough money to make yearly payments on that debt and cover operating expenses. Those surplus funds would be used to build the added lanes on Texas 130 from Texas 45 North to Texas 71 (a total of about $125 million, with expansions broken into two phases), and to contribute $40 million for one of the new flyovers at U.S. 290, which would have no toll charges attached to it.
An additional $80 million for the other two flyovers at Texas 130 and U.S. 290 would be supplied by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which would sell bonds and then repay the debt by imposing tolls on those two bridges. The mobility authority, under a pending agreement with TxDOT, would build that project.
That agreement also has been put on hold, mobility authority Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein said. The agency had already completed construction design documents and was ready to seek bids for the work.
“We spent millions of dollars on the design elements, which are now on the shelf,” Heiligenstein said. “We all know where the politics are on this.
“I think all of this will get cleared up. When, I don’t know.”