New toll lanes tabled, for now, after state transportation vote

I-35 and Oltorf Street (KXAN Photo/Frank Martinez)
I-35 and Oltorf Street (KXAN Photo/Frank Martinez)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Up until Thursday, the Texas Department of Transportation was still considering including new toll roads in its 2018 Unified Transportation Program, or UTP, despite receiving backlash from Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick last month.

The Texas Transportation Commission was briefed Thursday with the December update for TxDOT’s long-term construction program. About 15 projects discussed in October were not included in the revised 10-year plan. However, two projects comprised of tolled elements remained on the table: Interstate 35 in Austin and Interstate 635 East in Dallas.

Despite hearing from a long list of supporters — political representatives and economic leaders in the Austin area — Commissioner Jeff Austin III motioned to approve the 2018 UTP update, with the stipulation to exclude the two projects with tolled elements.

The commission voted unanimously making it so the current plan has no tolled elements. However, those could be added back in as more discussions continue because the UTP is considered a “living document” that is updated as needed and re-adopted every August.

“Obviously there’ll be continued discussion and dialogue with the local officials and with our commission and policy decisions that will influence where we go in the future with those projects and other managed toll projects around the state,” said TxDOT Deputy Executive Director Marc Williams.

TxDOT staff received 254 comments before the Dec. 11 deadline for public input on the UTP. The state agency says 92 percent of those comments were in support of toll-managed roadways or projects.

Prior to the vote, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, sent a letter to commissioners on Thursday, continuing his support for managed lanes, which he said will provide greater congestion relief than non-tolled lanes.

“They create reliable trip times for transit, encourage van and carpooling and improve travel times in adjacent general-purpose lanes,” Watson, who backs tolls on I-35 in Austin, wrote.

Watson’s letter, which an aide read to commissioners, said toll lanes across Williamson, Travis and Hays counties reflect the support of thousands of Central Texans.

“Now, these people are being ignored while the opinion of groups with little-to-no presence in Central Texas are able to stall and potentially kill not only the I-35 project, but also the US 183 North and MoPac South managed lane projects, the Y in Oak Hill, and additional capacity on SH 130,” Watson wrote. “A vote today to exclude I-35 from the UTP is a mistake that will take Texas into a future of worsening gridlock.”

Only one person spoke in opposition of toll roads during Thursday’s meeting. Don Dixon said all roads should be fair and low-cost for everyone. To him, that means striving to use transportation funds to make sure any new roads are non-tolled.

“Toll-free. Hassle free. Equal for all. That is the very best system and I’ll stand behind that, forever,” said Dixon, who also believes tolling I-35 would be detrimental to businesses along the interstate.

“Being free and available to every one of our customers was a tremendous benefit. If you put a toll on it that limits benefit, limits people getting to your customers. A lot of people can’t afford 15 cents a mile or a dollar a mile,” said Dixon.

Texas Transportation Commission Chairman J. Bruce Bugg, Jr. said he will use dedicated tax dollars from Proposition 1 and 7 to build new, non-tolled roads while meeting the challenges of the state’s growing population.

Texas voters approved those propositions in 2014 and 2015, with the stipulation that the additional transportation funding not be used on toll any roads. Since 2015, TxDOT says it has invested $15 billion in non-tolled projects.

“If funding streams are insufficient, for additional highway capacity that is needed by our growing population, the source of any new funding streams is a policy decision,” Bugg said. “Not for this commission, but our state leaders in the Texas Legislature.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said fixing I-35 is a priority and he understands that the decision whether to have more toll lanes is a difficult one.

“No one likes paying tolls and that’s real clear,” Adler said. “At the same time, no one likes spending their days stuck in traffic.”

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