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Transportation staff puts $400 million in road projects on the table

Wednesday, June 11, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Austin Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar Tuesday presented Austin City Council members with a menu of options for road improvement projects that might grace a potential November 2014 city transportation bond. The full price of all the projects – much of it for Interstate 35 – mentioned by Spillar amounts to more than $400 million in area road improvements.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell underscored the notion that the city does not have the bonding capacity, even with a tax increase, to pick up the $1.185 billion price tag that the addition of the full scope of projects, including urban rail, would bring. Still, he believes that a significant addition of road infrastructure improvements is necessary for any passage of a bond program that would pay for rail.


“This menu has been developed with a respect for what people in this city have been clamoring for – all of the people in this city, the majority of its people – and it’s also been developed, frankly, to have appeal to voters,” Leffingwell said.


As currently projected, the urban rail project will cost city tax payers just over $700 million, with the federal government slated to pick up the other half of the $1.38 billion price tag to build the system. On Tuesday, Leffingwell steered staff toward a roughly $900 million bond initiative. If approved, it would cost taxpayers an additional 6 cents per $100 of property tax valuation.


With time running short at Tuesday’s work session, Council Member Chris Riley was alone among Leffingwell’s colleagues who chimed in on the matter. He offered concern about the inclusion of what he called “old school” road construction projects.


“We have shifted back to the old school of really just trying to just pour money into the major highways that really are not going to foster the sort of walkable environments that Imagine Austin focused on,” Riley said. “I just want to raise a concern about the balance that we are seeing in this mix, in so far as it really does not appear to offer a lot of opportunities for the type of mixed-use redevelopment along corridors that is envisioned in our comprehensive plan.”


Riley’s statement came before Leffingwell’s description of the reasoning behind the types of roads included in the city’s menu.


Spillar listed seven general road improvement categories for Council members to consider. They include $120 million for new access ramps and other work at the I-35 intersection with East Riverside Drive – a project that Spillar notes coincides well with future potential urban rail construction in the same spot – $90 million for improvements at I-35 interchanges with Oltorf, Stassney and William Cannon, $130 million for the I-35/183 interchange, and $80 million to provide access to Austin Bergstrom International Airport from SH 71, among other items.


Riley requested an extended amount of time for he, Leffingwell, and their colleagues to discuss the issue further when it resurfaces next at a joint Capital  Metro/Austin City Council work session set June 17. Council members are set to formally weigh in on the road projects June 26.

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