I-35 toll lanes in Austin cut from long-range transportation plan


The Texas Transportation Commission, under pressure from Abbott and others, sliced all tolls from its plan.

A long line of Austin officials asked the commission to keep I-35 toll lane plans alive, to no avail.

Anti-toll activists have argued that Texas voters, in OK’ing more tax money for TxDOT, opposed new tollways.

State transportation officials, reacting to anti-toll pressure from Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, voted Thursday to remove all new tollway projects from a key 10-year construction plan — including what would have been the addition of two toll lanes to each side of Interstate 35 through Central Texas.

That 5-0 vote came despite the pleas of nearly a dozen Central Texas political, civic and business leaders — including Austin Mayor Steve Adler, state Sen. Kirk Watson, Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and Capital Metro board Chairman Wade Cooper — to keep the I-35 express lanes in the plan.

“A vote today to exclude I-35 from the (10-year plan) is a mistake that will take Texas into a future of worsening gridlock,” Watson wrote in a letter read to the Texas Transportation Commission.

This fall the commission had been moving toward adding up to 15 toll projects to that long-term plan, arguing that, despite an annual infusion of $4 billion or more of tax money into the Texas Department of Transportation since the passage of constitutional amendments in 2014 and 2015, some large urban projects would not be possible without selling bonds and charging tolls. And as late as Thursday’s meeting, at least one version of the plan still had the I-35 toll lanes and a huge toll project for Interstate 635 in Northeast Dallas.

RELATED: Abbott, Patrick hit the pause button on toll projects

But the commission was under great pressure from Abbott and Patrick, who in turn were reacting to conservative, anti-toll activists who had argued that Texas voters assumed new toll projects would cease when they approved two constitutional amendments directing more tax dollars to TxDOT. Those amendments specified that influx of money could not be used to build toll lanes.

Watson’s letter said anyone who argues that TxDOT now has enough money to address all of the state’s transportation needs is either “misinformed, disingenuous or pandering.”

But the intent of the commission, the five-member panel that oversees TxDOT, was clear.

“This will have the effect of removing all the toll elements” for projects added Thursday to the $70 billion plan, commission Chairman Bruce Bugg said just before Thursday’s vote.

Whether to allow generate additional funding for transportation in the future, Bugg said, is a “policy decision” for state leaders and the Legislature, not the appointed commission he leads. Transportation commission members are named by the governor and confirmed by the Texas Senate.

“We are indifferent to the source of funding” for road projects, Bugg said, but not indifferent to taking on traffic congestion.

Removing the toll lanes planned for I-35 takes away the most substantive proposal to add capacity to a congested stretch of highway routinely rated among the worst in the country.

RELATED: Austin author’s Facebook rant captures everyone’s feelings about I-35

The plan approved Thursday still includes some I-35 improvements over the next decade — ramp, overpass and frontage lane projects costing hundreds of millions of dollars — that would be paid for with tax money and have no tolls.

But the heart of the planned overhaul was the addition of two lanes to each side of I-35 that, as with North MoPac Boulevard, would have variable tolls that rise as the lanes get more congested. Charging tolls would have allowed substantial borrowing to pay for the lanes.

The overall I-35 plan, officials said earlier this fall, would cost $8 billion. The entire Austin district of TxDOT, which includes 11 counties, would get $2.3 billion for highway expansion over the next decade under the plan approved Thursday, officials said.

Thursday’s action could affect other pending Austin toll road projects as well, including expansion of U.S. 183 in North Austin, South MoPac Boulevard and the U.S. 290/Texas 71 “Y” at Oak Hill.

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which operates four of the area’s eight tollways, might be able to build some of those projects without TxDOT financial assistance, but likely not all of them, officials said this week.

Bugg, in remarks before the vote, said he had directed TxDOT’s staff to develop a plan to address the state’s Top 100 congested highways with nontoll projects. But he made it clear those improvements might take more money than is currently allocated to TxDOT.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Local

Jury gives life sentence to man suspected of numerous attacks on women
Jury gives life sentence to man suspected of numerous attacks on women

A man accused of a series of attacks against women in North Austin was sentenced to life in prison on Friday. Nicodemo Coria-Gonzalez, 27, was convicted of aggravated sexual assault this week in connection to an attack on a 56-year-old woman along an isolated dirt path in April 2016. DNA evidence linked Coria-Gonzalez to the crime. After the conviction...
3D-printed gun creator Cody Wilson arrested in Taiwan
3D-printed gun creator Cody Wilson arrested in Taiwan

Two days after authorities filed sexual assault charges against Cody Wilson, the Austin man at the center of the national debate over 3D-printed guns, Taiwanese law enforcement officials took him into custody in that country’s capital with plans to return him to the United States. Wilson was arrested in the Wanhua District of Taipei, Taiwanese...
Cold front could bring heavy rain to Austin area Saturday, Sunday
Cold front could bring heavy rain to Austin area Saturday, Sunday

A cold front moving into the Austin area Saturday morning will likely bring thunderstorms to the region, making for a wet kick-off at the Longhorns’ home football game this afternoon. But it won’t actually be very cold, National Weather Service meteorologist Eric Platt said. Temperatures should still reach the mid-80s all weekend, with...
Texas agency dumps proposal to raise retired teachers’ health premiums
Texas agency dumps proposal to raise retired teachers’ health premiums

The Teacher Retirement System of Texas officially decided Friday to ditch a proposal to raise health insurance premiums for retired teachers under age 65. The system’s board over the summer had considered raising premiums for about 68,000 retirees and their dependents by $50 a month in 2019. But amid pressure from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, board...
Paxton’s office warns AISD in flap over church’s gay-marriage beliefs
Paxton’s office warns AISD in flap over church’s gay-marriage beliefs

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office on Friday warned Austin school district officials against blocking a Christian church that opposes gay marriage from using district facilities, saying such action would violate state law and the First Amendment. Celebration Church of Georgetown has been holding services most Sundays since Aug. 26 at...
More Stories