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Plan adds tolls, upgrades to Loop 360, parts of 183 and 71

Transportation officials lay out details of $2.2 billion plan

Road plan model and map of turnpikes to be built

AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Monday, April 12, 2004

Central Texas would get 64 more miles of toll roads under a $2.2 billion plan unveiled Monday by transportation leaders, a program of road upgrades that would double the turnpike system already under construction.

Under the plan, both of the main approaches to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport — 12.6 miles of U.S. 183 (Ed Bluestein Boulevard) and the 3.6 miles of Texas 71 heading east from Interstate 35 — would become toll roads. So would Loop 360 through its entire 13.1-mile run through West Austin from MoPac Boulevard on the south to U.S. 183 on the north.

About 20 percent of the plan is actually old news. It includes both U.S. 183-A and Texas 45 Southeast, toll roads well along the design path that in the past have been presented as part of the first wave of toll roads in Texas.

Like the three turnpikes already under construction — Texas 130, Texas 45 North and an extension of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) — U.S. 183-A and Texas 45 Southeast would not have continuous, nontolled frontage roads. But according to the new plan's authors — Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority executive director Mike Heiligenstein and Bob Daigh, the Austin district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation — the other major roads in the plan would have at least four free, continuous access lanes flanking them.

Daigh and Heiligenstein envision that, using borrowed money and, in one case, a franchise agreement with private investors, most of the work could commence in the next two to three years. The entire plan as outlined would be in place and operating within a decade.

"It's time to take advantage of the tools available to us and get some projects on the ground in a hurry," Daigh said.

Other highways in the plan, unveiled at a Monday morning meeting of the mobility authority board:

• A 2.7-mile extension of the U.S. 290 West expressway from its current terminus near Williamson Creek to just west of FM 1826, Camp Ben McCulloch Road. Only the new section would be subject to tolls.

• The 5.7 miles of U.S. 290 East from U.S. 183 to where it will intersect Texas 130, the turnpike bypass east of Austin.

• A 3.6-mile, four-lane version of Texas 45 South, which would connect the south end of MoPac to FM 1626 to the east. Currently, the area's approved transportation plan lists this as only a two-lane, nontoll road. Environmental groups in general have opposed construction of this road, which would lie over the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer.

• A short segment of MoPac running from U.S. 290 West to just south of William Cannon Boulevard.

That last project, at a cost of $8.3 million, is already under construction using tax dollars, as is the $43.8 million upgrade of Texas 71 from I-35 to Riverside Boulevard and a $59.5 million section of Ed Bluestein from I-35 to Springdale Road. The prospect of building a road project with tax dollars and then imposing tolls on it caused an uproar last year when the state Transportation Department proposed doing that on U.S. 183 in Northwest Austin.

But that road was just a few months from opening when the toll plan surfaced, while the three projects under the new plan are earlier in the construction stage. And the Texas 71 segment, at least, is in a heavily industrialized area rather than the suburban zone flanking the controversial U.S. 183 segment.

"The reaction on that one from my meetings (with the public) has been very positive," Heiligenstein said last week. "It's not a residential-based roadway, but rather a commuter or airport route."

Daigh said that tolls on the roads likely would be 12 cents to 15 cents a mile for passenger cars, more for commercial trucks and buses.

The plan unveiled by Daigh and Heiligenstein does not include a much-discussed upgrade of MoPac through Central Austin. Daigh said that while that project (which likely would involve adding a lane on each side and charging tolls on those lanes only for cars with only one or two people in them) is still firmly in their plans, financial and political obstacles argued for segregating it into a separate planning slot.

"Right now obviously there are a lot of issues surrounding the development of Loop 1," Daigh said, including the need to move much of Union Pacific's freight operations off the railroad running down the center of the highway. "We have deliberately removed that much-needed project from this plan so we can move forward immediately."

The need for speed, Daigh and Heiligenstein said last week, is tied to what is expected to be vigorous competition around the state for money in the Texas Mobility Fund. That pot of cash, created by the Legislature in 2001 and then given a steady source of funds last year when lawmakers dedicated various traffic fine money to it, is expected to reach about $250 million a year. That in turn would allow the state to borrow up to $3 billion and pay it back from the fund's yearly cash flow.

About $1 billion of that, Daigh said, will be allocated to rural roads. The Austin district's share of the remaining $2 billion, he said, is about $161 million. But Austin can get that only for turnpike projects, he said, and only if it acts quickly. Otherwise, Daigh contends that the Texas Transportation Commission might decide to send some or all of that money to Dallas or Houston or other areas with active turnpike projects.

The plan, at least in concept, would break more than new limestone on Loop 360: Daigh and Heiligenstein said that much of that road might be turned over to private investors and built as a "franchise." Under that arrangement, relatively common for highway projects in Europe but rare here, the private interests would bear the $450 million cost of the improvements, and then would operate the road and collect all of the toll revenue for a specified period of several decades. Daigh said toll charges would probably be controlled in some way in the original contract and a ceiling might be set for profit.

Why use a franchise? Daigh said that the economics of imposing tolls on that road, which at this point has lighter traffic than some of the other roads in the plan, are such that investors with deep pockets might be able to better weather a longer "ramp-up" period of poor revenue from tolls.

The plan contemplates that one central section of the Loop 360 improvements, from Walsh Tarlton Road to Bee Caves Road, would not be part of that franchise. The state or the mobility authority would do that $100 million project instead.

Amy Johnson, the counsel for the MoPac Boulevard Alliance, had several reservations about the plan when told of its details Monday.

Above all, Johnson wondered if it is consistent with the larger community transportation and growth plan approved under last year's Envision Central Texas process.

"It's an emphasis on roads, on a car culture," Johnson said of the new plan. "And that's what we are now. But in our future, I thought our vision as a region was to try to find different ways to do transportation systems."

bwear@statesman.com; (512) 445-3698

 
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