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Watson’s I-35 plan: No need for a bond election

Thursday, May 26, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

State Sen. Kirk Watson will reveal several ambitious proposals for infrastructure investments in Interstate 35 on Thursday, and none of them involve asking Austin voters for permission this November.

Watson, former mayor of Austin, is set to deliver his suite of ideas at a Downtown Austin Alliance-sponsored luncheon at a hotel on the south shore of Lady Bird Lake on Thursday afternoon. However, on Wednesday, he gave the Austin Monitor a preview of his plan.

“Doing nothing on I-35 is not an option,” Watson declared in laying out his thesis. “Hoping that things will just get better, I, frankly, think is a reckless activity.”

Of course, doing something on I-35, he acknowledged, will require large capital investments. He explained that Mobility 35, the partnership between the city of Austin, the Texas Department of Transportation and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, has identified $4.3 billion worth of projects along the corridor from Williamson County in the north to Hays County in the south.

TxDOT has already found money for some of those projects, Watson said, but other sources will have to be tapped to complete the vision. For example, he suggested using money from the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority’s Regional Infrastructure Fund, an account to be filled over 25 years with $230 million of revenue from the upcoming toll lanes on MoPac Expressway.

Watson also said new toll lanes on I-35 will help pay for themselves and other related projects. Those lanes, he added, will be open to transit fed by park-and-rides up and down the corridor.

“This will be the largest transit project in the history of Central Texas,” Watson told the Monitor.

As for the city of Austin dipping into its coffers to fund improvements on a regional roadway, Watson painted it as an important investment, albeit one that he thinks can be done without raising ad valorem taxes. His plan will offer ideas such as tax increment financing and tax increment reinvestment zones. Watson also said that since the city can borrow money at a lower interest rate than TxDOT, the state agency could offer to pay the city back on any debt it racks up in order to fund certain I-35 projects.

In any case, Watson drew the line at proposing a bond referendum in November, a move that all but eliminates that scenario from the city’s ongoing discussion about local mobility investments. The news should come as a relief to advocates who have been pushing for bond money to fund sidewalk, bicycle and light rail projects. Competition from a costly highway proposition could have smothered those grassroots efforts.

“That’s, frankly, part of the reason I’ve worked so hard to try to come up with this concept,” Watson said. “Because I want to free up the ability to do those kinds of things.”

Photo by LoneStarMike (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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