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

11:38 a.m. Friday, Dec. 15, 2017 Local

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.

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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.

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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.