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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
Ben Wear has covered transportation since 2003 as Austin’s explosive growth has put more strain on area roads. He has scrutinized the spending at Capital Metro, tracked the tug of war over plans to build Texas 45 Southwest and provided the most authoritative coverage of efforts to expand MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and revamp Interstate 35.