A funding gap for the I-35 Capital Express project in Austin got a lot smaller Thursday, as the Texas Transportation Commission voted to allocate $3.4 billion as part of TxDOT’s 10-year transportation plan.
Commissioners acknowledged concerns from the public and elected officials in other parts of the state about whether the time is right for changes to the state’s Unified Transportation Program, or UTP. Revenues that fund TxDOT, including oil and gas taxes, are expected to drop as a result of the economic damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Commission Chairman Bruce Bugg pointed out that the UTP is a guide rather than a “budget or a guarantee.”
“It is the responsibility of this commission to look ahead to the future needs of Texas,” Bugg said. “Gov. Greg Abbott and I both believe the I-35 Capital Express project is a statewide strategic priority.”
Bugg said the project will help the state’s economy and ease congestion on a highway that has a number of the state’s worst traffic bottlenecks.
The portions of the project between State Highway 45 North to U.S. 290 East (Capital Express North), as well as from Ben White Boulevard and State Highway 45 Southeast (Capital Express South), are funded. Construction on those sections is set to begin in 2022.
More extensive plans for the project through downtown Austin have been on hold because of a lack of funding. As it stands now, construction would begin in 2024 or 2025, with work completed by the end of the decade.
Commissioner Alvin New said that timetable means the commission could wait to approve the funding until later this year without significantly delaying the project.
“I just want us to have more money available and to be more cautious,” New said. “I ask that we slow down and move this to the 2021 UTP process which will be finalized in 60 days and fund it more slowly.”
But other commissioners agreed with TxDOT staff members who said keeping the project in the 2020 plan would allow preliminary work to go forward, with the ability to adjust later if funding isn’t available.
“With the north and south segments of the project fully funded and moving forward, I do have concerns that if we don't address the central portion of the project, it may create a massive bottleneck for Austin, which will make the current congestion even worse and more costly,” Commissioner Laura Ryan said.
The proposal would add two non-tolled, managed lanes in each direction on I-35 through Central Austin. TxDOT is looking at using HOV (high-occupancy vehicles) lanes, similar to those in Dallas and Houston. Options include shifting the interstate underground, but no designs have been finalized yet.
Even some supporting the project called on the commission to explore using tolls to help fund the expansion through Central Austin, but that is off the table. The commission’s action still leaves $940 million to be allocated for the project. $633 million of that will come from money originally sent to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization for road projects in the Austin area, the rest will come from the 2021 UTP.
The total for the project would be $7.5 billion.
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