breaking news

It’s official: Baker Mayfield selected No. 1 in the NFL draft

TxDOT reconsiders plan for U.S. 183 toll lanes


Highlights

The state agency had tentatively agreed to supply about a fifth of the project’s overall $650 million cost.

That money would come from funds constitutionally banned from going to tollway projects.

TxDOT’s $120 million would go to added free lanes, with borrowing for toll lanes, but could cross a legal line.

The U.S. 183 North toll project, which aims to add two toll lanes to each side of the highway north of MoPac Boulevard, has been thrown into flux and potentially delayed — part of the collateral damage from growing anti-toll sentiment among the state’s leaders.

Officials said some alternatives are being examined, such as building the 8-mile expansion project with no tolls, adding only segments of free lanes or perhaps creating high-occupancy-vehicle lanes.

These talks come just weeks before authorities had planned to start lining up a contractor to do the final design and construction.

Texas Department of Transportation officials Thursday downplayed the evolving situation with the project, which comes at the end of five years of planning and a $7.5 million environmental study completed in April 2016 that concluded toll lanes were the best option. In March, the Texas Transportation Commission, which governs TxDOT, voted to include $120 million for the project in the agency’s 10-year plan.

PREVIOUSLY: Estimated cost triples for U.S. 183 toll project in North Austin

“The commission is not backing away” from the U.S. 183 North project, Marc Williams, TxDOT’s deputy executive director, said Thursday. “They’re just going through a period of due diligence. I know there’s some angst out there for some people. But it doesn’t reflect where we are right now.”

The news about U.S. 183 and tolls comes in a week in which the Transportation Commission, for the first time in 40 years, removed toll charges from a state highway. The commission voted Thursday to end tolls Sept. 1 on Loop 375 in El Paso and Texas 255 near Laredo. The Legislature, through Senate Bill 312 this spring, had mandated that the two roads become free to drive.

“We went too far, too quickly (with tolls), and the pushback is beginning to mount,” Rep. Joe Pickett, an El Paso Democrat and former House Transportation Committee chairman, told the commission. “We have still not solidified what is good and what is bad.”

In the 2013 and 2015 sessions, the Legislature submitted two proposed constitutional amendments to voters to reallocate to TxDOT $3 billion to $4 billion a year in existing taxes. Both proposals stipulated that none of the money could be used for tollway projects.

Voters approved those amendments as Proposition 1 in 2014 and Proposition 7 in 2015. And now the tollway prohibitions in both measures are playing a key role in what is going on with U.S. 183, officials said.

ALSO READ: I-35 makeover could be caught in move back to a Texas without tolls

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which TxDOT designated to do the U.S. 183 North expansion, had planned to add two northbound and two southbound toll lanes in the median of the freeway. The toll lanes would be connected to MoPac’s soon-to-open toll lanes with flyovers, and the project also was to include flyovers to RM 620 west of U.S. 183.

But the mobility authority, at TxDOT’s request, amended the design to add free lanes to sections of U.S. 183 where the road narrows from four lanes on each side to three. The state agency wanted to ease congestion caused by those bottlenecks and tentatively agreed to cover $120 million of the $650 million construction cost for the entire U.S. 183 North expansion.

The TxDOT contribution for those free lane segments was to come from Propositions 1 and 7, and the mobility authority planned to sell bonds for the rest of the project, which would be repaid using revenue from the new toll lanes. However, that mingling of funds could be seen as running afoul of the constitutional prohibition of spending money from Propositions 1 and 7 on a toll project.

“They’re really concerned about where they go with this Prop 1, Prop 7 money, and rightfully so,” said Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the mobility authority. “The auxiliary lanes were their idea, and I think that could be addressed and separated. But that’s where the discussion and concern is.”

ALSO READ: Agency drops toll from 1 of 3 flyovers planned at U.S. 290/Texas 130

Transportation Commission Chairman Tryon Lewis and TxDOT Executive Director James Bass declined to comment Thursday, and Williams would not provide detail on what alternatives might be on the table.

But Heiligenstein acknowledged that at least some consideration is being given to adding lanes to U.S. 183 with no tolls, which would take bonds and loans out of the equation. Even with the added money coming into TxDOT coffers from Propositions 1 and 7, and somewhat lower construction costs because of having no toll facilities, Heiligenstein said finding the money for the project could be difficult.

“I don’t see how they could, because that’s a big project,” he said. “There are a lot of big projects around the state that are not going to get done if we eliminate tolling.”

Another option: Do the U.S. 183 improvements as two projects, one adding the free lanes and another involving the express toll lanes. Or TxDOT could choose only to fix the bottlenecks with the added sections of free lanes, a much cheaper project.

The mobility authority had planned in August to begin its procurement of a contractor to do final design and build the project as laid out in the environmental study.

“We’re not doing anything until this all gets figured out,” Heiligenstein said. “We’ve suspended activity until the department makes its call.”



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

Explosive device with note found outside Beaumont Starbucks, police say
Explosive device with note found outside Beaumont Starbucks, police say

Police found an “explosive device” at a Starbucks in Beaumont early Thursday. “The device, believed to be a legitimate explosive device, was rendered safe by the FBI and ATF bomb technicians,” Beaumont police said in a statement.  As a result, Beaumont police are urging their community not to open or touch suspicious...
Austin City Council renames two streets named for Confederate leaders
Austin City Council renames two streets named for Confederate leaders

Robert E. Lee Road and Jeff Davis Avenue are no more after the Austin City Council on Thursday voted to remove the names of the Confederate leaders from the two Austin streets that bear their names. Instead the road that ambles along Barton Creek into the Zilker neighborhood will be named for Azie Taylor Morton, the country’s first and only black...
Onyeri guilty on all 17 counts in case tied to Judge Kocurek shooting
Onyeri guilty on all 17 counts in case tied to Judge Kocurek shooting

A federal jury returned guilty verdicts on all 17 counts against the Houston man accused of shooting Travis County state District Judge Julie Kocurek to preserve a white-collar criminal enterprise that swept up victims in Southeast Texas, Louisiana and Austin. The verdict that could send 30-year-old Chimene Onyeri to prison for the rest of his life...
City Council approves action plan to end homelessness
City Council approves action plan to end homelessness

The Austin City Council on Thursday approved an action plan aimed at ending homelessness after an annual census found a 5 percent rise in homelessness in Austin and Travis County compared with 2017. The action plan, which includes forming public-private partnerships, calls for $30 million a year to move toward a systematic community approach that can...
JUST IN: Austin firefighter charged with DWI, suspended for 60 days, memo says
JUST IN: Austin firefighter charged with DWI, suspended for 60 days, memo says

An Austin firefighter was suspended for 60 days after he was charged with DWI, according to a disciplinary memo. An Austin police officer pulled over Matt Harvey on Nov. 14, the memo says. He failed a field sobriety test and refused to provide a blood sample, the memo says. Police arrested him and obtained a search warrant for his blood, and those...
More Stories