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CAMPO members wary of Mobility 35 project’s price tag

Tuesday, January 15, 2013 by Kimberly Reeves

Mobility 35, a joint project between the Texas Department of Transportation and the City of Austin, has a large number of small projects underway along the Interstate 35 corridor, but it may take billions, not millions, to achieve long-term fixes.


TxDOT Engineer Terry McCoy provided CAMPO with a laundry list of short- and medium-term projects along the Williamson-Travis-Hays stretch of I-35 at Monday night’s CAMPO meeting. In return, the regional planning group pledged its support for the ongoing effort in a resolution that supported the Mobility 35 effort but was amended to insist on “active involvement with regional partners.”


Improvements along the corridor, in larger-scale transportation terms, are some modest upgrades across three counties: northbound ramp improvements between 53rd Street and Barbara Jordan near Mueller and around Parmer Lane; reverse ramps in Round Rock and upgraded frontage roads through Georgetown; and expectations to improve multiple major intersections along the interstate through Hays County.


An entire website is devoted to describing some of the solutions that are being proposed within existing funds:


But these are solutions that resolve three-to-five year congestion problems, not the significant long-term challenges to the Interstate 35 corridor.


“If I’m adding up as I go along, just the numbers up there are $123 to $125 million worth of projects,” Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long said, referring to McCoy’s PowerPoint presentation. “Knowing that most of those are in the upfront phases, and we have very little funded after that, I think we’re really talking about a $2 billion project to fix everything.”


Long’s estimate might be conjecture, but she’s probably in the ballpark when it comes to fixing the price in a long-term major corridor fix. The Katy Freeway expansion project in Houston, which added lanes from Katy all the way into downtown Houston, was originally envisioned as a $1 billion project. The final price tag was closer to $2.4 billion.


How did population centers like the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and Houston handle their own freeway expansions? Long asked. McCoy’s carefully worded response, about the need to break bigger projects into pieces or look for a private partner, would suggest Katy Freeway-style funding was not in Central Texas’ immediate future.


Such answers would be consistent with recent messages from the Texas Department of Transportation. TxDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson recently told North Texas leaders the agency needed at least $1 billion more a year to handle existing road maintenance. New construction outlooks are grim.


At Monday night’s meeting, Long noted that 63 percent of the funding for the current short-term Williamson County projects came out of local funds. “We can’t fund a $2 billion project with local dollars,” Long said.


Future transportation improvements along I-35 could be an added lane within the existing right of way, similar to MoPac’s managed lanes, said Council Member Chris Riley. Mayor Lee Leffingwell suggested a tolling arrangement would not be a big surprise for interstate expansion.


Georgetown Mayor George Garver looked for assurance that the recommendations tracked actual population growth. Current projections put Williamson County growing even faster than Travis County over the next two decades. McCoy said.


Council Member Bill Spelman wanted to be assured that projects offered the proper bang for the buck, given their cost. McCoy assured him that a return on investment was a key part of evaluating a project’s viability.

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