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One Big Way to Cut Austin Traffic: Have I-35, SH 130 Trade Places

Filipa Rodrigues/KUT News

It’s no secret Interstate 35 congestion takes a toll on Austinites.

Out of a list of Texas’ 100 most congested roadways, the portion of I-35 running through central Austin is the fourth most congested in the state. Meanwhile, State Highway 130, out east of I-35, is open for business.

Officials have tried all manner of incentives to divert traffic from I-35 to SH 130, including the lure of an 85 mph speed limit.

But SH 130 is tolled and I-35 isn’t. That has some folks asking if we’re tolling the wrong road.

“Tolls are a good way to manage congestion,” says Chris Bradford, a local attorney who blogs about transportation and development issues. “

130 isn’t congested, it’s not going to be congested for the foreseeable future,” he says. “If you want to get people to go from the congested road to the uncongested road, you have to toll the congested road. Instead, they’ve tolled the uncongested road, which, not surprisingly, hasn’t really changed traffic patterns.”

This isn’t the first time Bradford’s voiced this concern. Back in 2007, he wrote:

“… They've tolled the wrong road. Make SH 130 free, and congestion price the hell out of IH 35.  Through traffic will take SH 130.  Locals will carpool, or take mass transit, or travel off-peak, or just pay the toll.  IH 35 won't look a parking lot 10 hours a day.”

That suggestion isn't as far fetched as it might sound.

In August 2011, the I-35 Corridor Advisory Committee suggested "redesignating" SH 130 as I-35: removing tolls on 130 as it passes through Austin, and converting lanes in both directions on 35 into dynamically-priced toll lanes – charging less or more at any given time depending on the amount of traffic present. (You can see its suggestion here.)

“The hurdles to that really are huge,” says TxDOT spokesperson Kelli Reyna.

It’s state policy that freeways cannot be converted to toll roads. (However, new capacity can be tolled - similar to what the city is planning for Mopac.)  And a similar proposal was deemed so large a cost couldn’t accurately be tabulated.

But with I-35 congestion in Austin alone costing as much as $110 million worth of costs in delays per year, it may be an idea ready for a broader reception.

“If you went and switched signs in the middle of the night,” Bradford laughs, “would anybody know?”

Until then, TxDOT is asking the public for ideas on more manageable changes to I-35. A series of open houses is underway now through Thursday.

TxDOT spokesperson Kelli Reyna says some ideas they’re considering include tweaking freeway exchanges and intersections at areas like 51st Street and Riverside Drive. “We’re hoping that by making these smaller changes, we’ll be able to make some sort of impact until we can maybe come up with a long-term solution,” she says.  

You can add your voice at And have your say in the comments: is Austin tolling the wrong road?

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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