The Oak Hill tollway project, delayed for a generation, has been rejuvenated — and with the tolls removed.
Last fall’s sudden clampdown on toll projects by state officials, it appears, may have laid the groundwork for moving forward a highway expansion that seemingly had stalled. Paying for the project, however, could still be a challenge.
“It wasn’t just on the back burner,” said Terry McCoy, Austin district engineer for Texas Department of Transportation, on Wednesday. “It was off the stove entirely.”
On Friday, TxDOT officials will release a draft environmental statement showing six or more expressway lanes on U.S. 290 from where the current freeway ends east of William Cannon Drive to near Circle Drive, with at least four frontage roads alongside. There would be two flyover bridges connecting U.S. 290 to Texas 71 at the Oak Hill “Y,” with the freeway section on Texas 71 extending about a mile to Silvermine Drive.
The U.S. 290 freeway would be elevated at William Cannon then dip below current ground level east of the “Y” and stay sunken until near Scenic Brook Drive.
TxDOT will hold a federally required public hearing on the project May 24, officials said, and hopes to have environmental clearance for the project by sometime this fall.
Construction could begin as soon as 2020, McCoy said this week.
Although TxDOT appears serious about completing a project the agency touts as needed — interim intersection improvements completed just three years ago “are nearing the end of their useful life,” McCoy said — obstacles remain.
McCoy said the project already had $62.5 million allocated to it as a toll project, and that his district can put another $125 million into it, for a total of $187.5 million. Still, construction will cost an estimated $400 million, McCoy said, with another $150 million needed for purchasing added right of way, completing final design work, relocating utilities and overseeing construction.
The added right of way will consist of about 75 acres spread across 80 parcels, McCoy said, with an estimated cost of $26.5 million.
“We’re still looking to fill that funding gap,” said McCoy, who added that removing the toll aspect “opens up the funding streams that were not available before.”
TxDOT revenue tied to two recently approved constitutional amendments, which redirected sales taxes and oil and gas taxes to the agency, cannot legally be spent on toll projects. Nor can some gas tax money that, under a 2015 state law, was put back into TxDOT’s hands after having been diverted for many years to the Texas Department of Public Safety.
State Rep. Paul Workman, a Republican whose district includes the Oak Hill area, became involved in the project several months ago after the tollway chill, according to McCoy and other officials. Aside from working with McCoy, Workman said he talked to Texas Transportation Commission chairman Bruce Bugg about converting the Oak Hill “Y” to a non-tolled project.
“He is receptive to the idea,” Workman said. “I’m hopeful that between now and the time we break ground that we will have cobbled together enough (funding) to do the whole project at once.”
The alternative, he said, would be a first phase of building only the frontage roads, followed by the expressway lanes in a second phase. However, it is not clear if such a first phase would improve the clogged traffic on U.S. 290 and Texas 71 in the area, and it would extend by several years the duration of construction at the “Y.”
Doing the project as a non-tolled highway will require action as well by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board. The current CAMPO long-range plan shows the Oak Hill project being tolled, and it would have to be amended for the freeway project to commence.