Toll officials hold off on U.S. 183 bidding in wake of toll storm


Toll authority was set to begin talking to contractors about the U.S. 183 toll lanes from MoPac to 45 North.

The toll agency is prepared to add two toll lanes on each side U.S. 183 at a cost of $380 million.

An earlier plan to add free lanes as well, at TxDOT’s cost, has been shelved over legal concerns.

Local toll road authority officials, caught up in a statewide backlash against pay-to-drive projects, delayed an effort Wednesday to build toll lanes on U.S. 183 north of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1).

But the delay in the $380 million project to add two toll lanes to each side of U.S. 183 from MoPac to Texas 45 North, requested by Texas Department of Transportation officials under pressure from Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, could be short.

“I hope we’re able to address this next month, or at least in the next 30 to 60 days,” said Ray Wilkerson, chairman of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority board.

The mobility authority board Wednesday held off on seeking construction companies to do the project, which under the current thinking would include no added free lanes and require no money from TxDOT. Instead, the mobility authority would borrow the entire cost of the project on the private bond market, paying back the debt with toll revenue.

Plans for the road, and the potential cost, have swung back and forth over the past two years.

The mobility authority had originally planned a project similar to what is on the table now, and TxDOT officials signed off on that approach. But later the state agency proposed adding free lanes in several spots on that stretch of U.S. 183, an attempt to have four free lanes on each side throughout those eight miles rather than the mix of three and four lanes that now exists.

TxDOT, under that plan, would have contributed $120 million to what would have been a $500 million project, and the two transportation agencies were poised to begin final design of that approach earlier this fall. TxDOT officials at that point had decided to oversee construction themselves, rather than letting the mobility authority handle the project.

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

TxDOT had intended to use revenue from two constitutional amendments that passed in 2014 and 2015 for its contribution to the project. But then the agency and state political leaders began to hear from conservative groups who contended that doing so on U.S. 183 and other proposed tollway projects would violate the law.

Those amendments, commonly referred to as Proposition 1 and Proposition 7, included language that said the tax money redirected to TxDOT could not be used on toll projects. TxDOT officials had argued that the money would be used for the free lanes rather than the toll portion of the projects.

But the blowback extended beyond that legal question. The activists — with public support in November from Abbott and Patrick — argued that the public’s approval of the two amendments amounted to a general repudiation of toll road construction in Texas. What that will mean to TxDOT and mobility authority policy going forward, and to the U.S. 183 toll project, remains in flux.

“Given all the feedback the department (TxDOT) is getting from various folks, they want some time to work this out,” said mobility authority Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein.

The mobility authority, under a letter signed in October by TxDOT Executive Director James Bass, will have more time to get the project off the ground. The authority in April had officially declared its intention to build the project on what is legally TxDOT property. Under state law, it then had six months to begin the construction procurement process.

But that action was delayed this fall when TxDOT briefly took charge of the project. The Oct. 19 letter from Bass now gives the mobility authority until this April to begin the bidding process for construction.

The letter goes on to give the authority until late 2019 to break ground on construction.

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