TxDOT plan now foresees no tolls on I-35 expansion in Central Texas


The 10-year plan does not include most of the $8.1 billion to design and build the full project.

The TxDOT plan includes $440 million for a freeway through the Oak Hill ‘Y’ and $245 million for Loop 360.

A project to add toll lanes to U.S. 183 would be carried out by the Central Texas toll agency.

Major expansions of Interstate 35, the “Y” at Oak Hill, U.S. 183 in North Austin, Loop 360 and RM 620 are among hundreds of highway projects listed in a 10-year state transportation plan set for consideration and possible approval Thursday by the Texas Transportation Commission.

In a major departure from previously announced proposals, though, the $8.1 billion overhaul of I-35 through Central Texas would include the addition from Round Rock to Buda of nontolled managed lanes in each direction. In practice, that would mean high occupancy vehicle lanes — sometimes referred to as carpool lanes — that only vehicles with at least two or perhaps three people aboard would be allowed to use.

The Texas Department of Transportation and local legislators had previously said the addition of lanes to I-35 would be possible financially only with tolls — and the borrowing that charging tolls allows. Now, TxDOT’s “unified transportation plan” for fiscal 2019 through fiscal 2028 assumes that the agency eventually will expand I-35 without charging tolls.

However, the draft plan on TxDOT’s website does not include most of the $8.1 billion to design and build the full project. Instead, it includes more than $700 million in development costs. How the agency will come up with the lion’s share of the I-35 project’s cost, and when, remains undetermined in this year’s version of the plan.

Several years of environmental review and engineering would have to be done, and the additional money found, before such a major project could break ground. Smaller projects along I-35, including at U.S. 183 in North Austin and William Cannon Drive in South Austin, have been underway for several years.

The 10-year plan includes $440 million to extend the U.S. 290 freeway, which for two decades has ended just east of the Oak Hill neighborhood in Southwest Austin, through that highway’s confluence with Texas 71 to west of RM 1826. Texas 71 would likewise become a freeway from U.S. 290 to near Silvermine Drive.

As TxDOT officials had previously indicated, this project also has morphed from a tollway to a nontolled project.

Also in the plan: the widening of RM 620 from Texas 71 to north of Lakeway for $59 million, and $245 million to add overpasses to Loop 360 from Walsh Tarleton Road in Southwest Austin to Spicewood Springs Road near the Arboretum. The timing of those projects — both of which had already been made public — is not listed in the plan.

The plan also references a $500 million project to add toll lanes and, perhaps, some short stretches of free lanes to U.S. 183 between MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and Texas 45 North. That project has gone through several iterations over the past two years, with some of them involving TxDOT funding. However, the plan now calls for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to undertake the project on its own, with bonded debt.

This fall, the Transportation Commission is expected to consider an agreement between TxDOT and the mobility authority granting the toll agency license to build the project on the TxDOT highway.

Several of these projects were thrown into limbo late last year when Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick took public stances against building any new toll road projects. TxDOT was able to move some projects into the nontolled category, in Central Texas and elsewhere, because of greater than expected proceeds from Proposition 1, the 2014 constitutional amendment that directs some oil and gas severance tax revenue to TxDOT.

The agency, which had estimated it would get $770 million through Proposition 1 this year, instead will get about $1.3 billion, officials said, because of increasing oil prices and production. Proposition 7 will direct state sales tax of $2.5 billion, a figure estimated to climb in the coming years, to TxDOT, and the agency now receives another $500 million or more each year in gasoline taxes that previously had been allocated to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

James Bass, TxDOT’s executive director, reminded the Texas Senate’s Transportation Committee on Monday that state law sunsets Proposition 1 in 2025, a loss of highway revenue that the Legislature could reverse through statute because the sunset provision was not part of the constitutional amendment. Similarly, parts of Proposition 7 will expire in 2029 and 2032.

The 10-year plan, officials said, assumes that the Legislature will pass a law to push back that Proposition 1 sunset date.

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