(The Center Square) – A plan to build additional lanes on Interstate 35 won’t include tolls but will use billions of dollars in state tax revenue at a time when COVID-19 and falling oil prices have brought unforeseen challenges to the Texas economy.
The plan approved by the Texas Transportation Commission allocates roughly $3.4 billion to construct two controlled lanes on Interstate 35 north and southbound between US 290 East and US 290 West/SH 71, about a 7.9-mile stretch.
Commissioner Alvin New cast the sole "no" vote in the 3-1 decision, saying the topic could be addressed later, in connection with the 2021 Unified Transportation Program (UTP).
A report posted on KVUE showed that of the nearly 4,000 public comments submitted on the project, just over half supported it.
“There is some controversy that it’s not a tolled lanes project, because with tolled lanes they could have public-private partnerships,” Chuck DeVore, vice president of National Initiatives for the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) told The Center Square. “It’s such an economically dynamic area that companies would have offered to bring their own funding, so you could get a road without any upfront tax dollars.”
The Downtown Austin Alliance supported the project.
"There is much to be done, but in the meantime, the Downtown Austin Alliance is forging ahead with the community engagement process for the master planning of the surface enhancements and connections along I-35 through Central Austin,” alliance president DeWitt Peart told KVUE.
The state chamber, the Texas Association of Business, “falls into the category of people TxDOT considers ‘for’ the project while objecting to the proposed funding mechanism,” according to a statement from CEO Jeff Moseley on the association’s website.
“TxDOT is right to prioritize I-35 through Austin, but in these times of twin economic crises of oil and Covid-19, Texas should again utilize private funding and managed toll lanes to fix I-35, rather than spending $3.4 billion from TxDOT’s discretionary fund at this time,” Moseley said.
Following the various design phases of the project, construction would probably get started by 2025, DeVore told The Center Square.
“At the end of the day, the TxDOT transportation commissioners decided they don’t want a toll road. It’s not surprising to me that they decided to go this route, Texans have been increasingly opposed to toll roads,” DeVore added.