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State officials steamroll toll lanes out of I-35 plans

Friday, December 15, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

The Texas Transportation Commission drove the Capital Express into a bar ditch on Thursday morning.

Despite a full-court, bipartisan press from local political and business leaders, the commission voted unanimously to strip from the Texas Department of Transportation’s 10-year construction program the recently debuted plans for four tolled express lanes on Interstate 35 in Austin.

Just before motioning to approve the 2018 Unified Transportation Program, an exhaustive list of mobility projects to be funded within the next decade, without the toll lanes for I-35, Commissioner Jeff Austin declared, “Our leaders, our governor and our lieutenant governor, have spoken and they’re the ones that we take guidance from. We listen to them and they’re the ones that help dictate and guide transportation policy.”

Austin was referring to the abrupt offensive against toll lanes mounted by Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick last month. Both men maintain that two constitutional amendments that redirect money from the state gas and sales tax back into TxDOT’s coffers preclude the spending of those funds on toll projects.

Voters overwhelmingly approved those two amendments known as Proposition 1 and Proposition 7 in separate elections in 2014 and 2015. Together they are providing TxDOT a boost of more than $4 billion each year.

However, the plan dubbed the Capital Express that would demolish the upper decks of I-35 in central Austin, lower the highway below grade and add two new managed toll lanes in each direction was expected to cost $8 billion. In a letter to TTC Chair Bruce Bugg, state Sen. Kirk Watson said that sum is unattainable without the help of the tolling option. He also took an apparent swipe at Abbott and Patrick.

“While we have more money than before, the funds are insufficient to address the state’s infrastructure needs without other sources of revenue, including tolls. Those who suggest otherwise are misinformed, disingenuous, or pandering,” Watson wrote.

He argued that managed lanes with demand-responsive toll rates are effective complements to non-tolled lanes because they enable more reliable travel times for both cars and transit vehicles. Scrubbing the I-35 toll lanes from the UTP would be a mistake that would ensure worse gridlock, he predicted.

“Doing nothing is not an option for our community or our state. And yet, we’re eliminating just about all the tools needed to do something and do it well,” Watson concluded.

Mayor Steve Adler appeared before the commission in person and also suggested that the long-planned reconstruction of the interstate won’t be able to move forward without a tolling option, as unpopular as that might be for drivers.

“I recognize that this is a difficult choice and I recognize that it is a political decision, and I would hope that different communities could make different choices about what fits with their local values,” Adler said. “And I appreciate the opportunity to come before you today to say that in this community our priority is … finding the money to do the work on I-35.”

Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty also addressed the commission, saying Patrick’s sudden condemnation of toll roads was “a little bit of a blow” to him.

“It really spooks me to think that anybody would think that we now have enough dollars to take care of all of the needs,” Daugherty said.

He added that he would try to meet personally with both Patrick and Abbott to discuss the issue with his fellow Republicans. And he stressed the importance of keeping tolls as a financing option. Using a metaphor that was repeated by multiple people throughout the morning, he referred to them as a “tool in the toolbox.”

“I know it’s trite to say that, but we need to do everything we can,” Daugherty stated.

In the end though, neither his words, nor the mayor’s, nor those of Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Chair Will Conley, state Rep. Celia Israel, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chair Wade Cooper or representatives from the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Circuit of the Americas and the Alliance for Public Transportation in Austin were enough to change the minds of the five members of the commission.

After the vote, TxDOT’s deputy executive director gave a general preview of how the short-circuited plan to rebuild I-35 will get back on track.

“Over the coming months and years ahead, our commission and our districts are going to be continuing to work with our metropolitan planning organizations and state and local elected officials to come up with a solution to those challenges within the available revenue and revenue sources that we have to work with,” Marc Williams said.

Williams also pointed out that any planned projects for upgrades to general purpose lanes on I-35 are still in the UTP. However, the commission’s vote creates a cloud of uncertainty over other local toll projects planned by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, including the 183 North Mobility Project, Mopac South and the Oak Hill Parkway.

In a phone call on Thursday afternoon, Israel told the Austin Monitor that the members of the commission were apparently under extreme political pressure from Abbott and Patrick.

“I think they knew better and they caved in,” she said. “So now we’ll just go back to the community – and that includes the business community – to say: Your voices need to be raised.”

Photo by Todd Morris made available through a Creative Commons license.

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