Wear: Making a wish list for a likely TxDOT windfall

By April 21, 2014 July 29th, 2014 No Comments

Fix Loop 360. Make some real headway on Interstate 35. Then take a hard look at RM 620.

This shopping list comes to you courtesy of Proposition 1. And if you don’t know what Proposition 1 is, don’t feel bad. It’s the first time I’ve referred to it in the American-Statesman by that name. But it will be far from the last.

Proposition 1, which will go before voters statewide on Nov. 4, is a proposed constitutional amendment put on the ballot by the 2013 Legislature during what turned out to be its third and last special session that year. If voters approve the amendment — which seems highly likely for reasons I’ll go into below — then something like $1.4 billion will go to the Texas Department of Transportation weeks later for road construction and maintenance. And then TxDOT annually will get what is likely to be a steadily increasing amount for years to come.

Even for TxDOT, which has about a $10 billion yearly budget, this would be a lot of money. And note this: the amendment stipulates that none of the new cash can go to toll roads.

Why will Proposition 1 likely be approved? It is as close to free money as you can get, at least from the perspective of the average voter. The amendment would send to TxDOT half the revenue that now goes to the state economic stabilization fund, commonly known as the rainy day fund. The source of that money: oil and gas severance taxes.

In other words, an existing tax that 99.99 percent of us don’t pay would go to improve something — roads — used by 99.99 percent of us.

And the proposition can count on the political support of at least two organizations that have formed already to push for it — Move Texas Forward and Texas Infrastructure Now — as well as every chamber of commerce in the state and virtually all elected officials in Texas.

The only quibbles when it moved through the Legislature came from the most conservative members, who fretted that the rainy day fund might somehow be deprived if TxDOT takes part of what it would otherwise get. As of Tuesday, the fund had $6.7 billion in it and by Christmas should have more than $8 billion lying around, enough for Texas to persevere through a rainy fortnight or two. So, yeah, the odds are good for passage.
Back to that Central Texas shopping list.

Historically, our part of the state has gotten about 8 percent of what TxDOT doles out for roads. But don’t think of this as merely $1.4 billion in a year, sending a mere $120 million our way. Highway projects typically have at least a five-year horizon, counting design and construction.

So, over five years, given that the oil boom is still on the upswing, TxDOT will probably be enriched by at least $7.5 billion. Eight percent of that would be about $600 million. Then the next five years likely would bring in even more, but never mind on that for now.
So how to spend it? Remember, no toll roads allowed. That cuts out U.S. 183 on the city’s east side, which is too bad. If TxDOT could plow more cash into turning it into an expressway (the agency has promised $140 million from other funds to put toward the road’s $650 million cost), then there could be less borrowed money and, possibly, lower tolls in an area of town where incomes aren’t as high as the west side.

Also off limits: express toll lane projects in the works for South MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and U.S. 183 north of MoPac. So, what to do?

Loop 360 stands out as an obvious choice.

Rush-hour traffic is horrendous on the 14-mile, four-lane divided highway cutting through scenic hills on Austin’s west side, and has been for more than a decade. About 45,000 vehicles a day — it jumps to 70,000 in the short section between South MoPac and U.S. 290 — slog through 18 traffic lights. And TxDOT really has nothing in the works to make it any better.

Not that the agency hasn’t tried. In 2004, it suggested building a six-lane tollway, with four free frontage roads alongside. The road bed would have had to widen, obviously, including in sections flanked by gorgeous (if man-made) cliffs. The idea was quickly killed by the well-heeled and politically well-schooled neighbors along the road. In 2011, TxDOT came back with a much cheaper idea: Michigan left-turns and other tweaks at intersections along Loop 360.

Neighbors quashed those too. Just eliminate the stoplights with overpasses, they said.
So, 18 traffic lights zapped, at $10 million to $20 million an overpass, perhaps with flyovers at MoPac and U.S. 183 up north? Would $300 million be enough? If not, it would do a lot.

As for I-35, TxDOT and the city of Austin have been studying it for the past couple of years and have dozens of suggestions for overpasses, ramps and frontage road changes designed to ease congestion, or at least allow it to get worse at a slower pace. But officials also plan, if not in the near term then before very long, to add a toll lane on each side as is occurring now with MoPac north of the river.

So, no Prop 1 money allowed for those toll lanes. But it wouldn’t take a whole lot of bureaucratic creativity to use it on all that other I-35 work. How much would this cost, minus the toll lanes? TxDOT hasn’t said, but it won’t be cheap. Prop 1 to the rescue?
And then there’s RM 620, increasingly the bane of life from Lakeway to Lakeline Mall. The Oak Hill Y might be a candidate, unless plans to make it a toll road persist. And what about the widening of Texas 71 between the Y and the Pedernales River, and U. S. 290 between Austin and Dripping Springs? So many possibilities.

Yes, I’m counting chickens before they hatch. But the nest feels very warm. And, to torture the metaphor, we really need the eggs.

Read more from the Austin American-Statesman here.