Highway panel dumps planned I-35 toll lanes
A state transportation panel has dropped a plan to eventually add a pair of toll lanes to Interstate 35 from San Antonio to Austin, removing it and every other proposed tollway from its 10-year, $70 billion outline of 15 major road projects.
The stretch of I-35 in Central Texas is annually listed among the most congested in the nation. The 5-0 vote Thursday by the Texas Transportation Commission illustrated how the state’s political system continues to eliminate options to deal with it, observers said.
The decision, made at the behest of Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, received a blistering rebuke Friday from Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff, a fellow Republican.
“Our governor and lieutenant governor are not the sharpest tools in the shed when it comes to transportation,” said Wolff, who chairs the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), which allocates billions of dollars in state and federal funds for local highway projects.
“If they want to sit in Austin and decide that toll roads can’t be used, then they better damn well offer us another tool that will accomplish the same thing. I don’t like toll roads … but this just guarantees more gridlock. Doing nothing is not acceptable.”
Comal County Commissioner and MPO board member Kevin Webb said his constituents are uniformly against toll roads but that the area’s “unfunded transportation needs are astounding.” If the state continues to invest only in more lanes of concrete, he said, “we’re going to have to make some hard decisions that may include raising gas taxes or cutting some other programs. … In the current political climate, any one of those gets you fired.”
The vote did not kill the various highway projects throughout the state, but tolled express lanes are no longer part of them. The San Antonio MPO segment of the larger I-35 project would have allowed two toll lanes in both directions roughly from Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston to 5 miles short of the Hays County line.
Various attempts over the years to fund the planning and construction of a light rail link between the nation’s 7th and 11th largest cities have wilted under opposition by local politicians or Union Pacific Railroad’s decision not to lease or share its freight lines, which hew close to the interstate.
Austin-area civic and political leaders, including Mayor Steve Adler and state Sen. Kirk Watson, argued strenuously against the commission’s decision, the Austin American-Statesman reported. In a letter to the commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, Watson called it “a mistake that will take Texas into a future of worsening gridlock.”
San Antonio anti-toll advocate Terri Hall said, “Obviously, we are delighted that the commission did what the governor and lieutenant governor told them to do. But we are very much in favor of these road projects — just without tolls.”
She called the commission’s vote a final decree to end any new state-funded toll roads in Texas, which she says most Texans know are constitutionally prohibited by referendums passed in 2014 and 2015 that govern Texas transportation funding.
Hall, who leads Texans Uniting for Reform & Freedom, said her group had “pressed Abbott hard to keep his campaign promises” to fix Texas roads without raising taxes, fees, debt or tolls.
Wolff said no such fix was possible without money. The MPO’s plans for the next 25 years call for roughly $20 billion in road construction deemed essential to merely keep up with maintenance and population growth.
“If you don’t do them, everything gets much worse in terms of traffic,” he said. “Based on current revenue, without tolls we would only take in $7 billion. Where would the other $13 billion come from?”
He accused Abbott and Patrick of pandering to their political base.
“Politics is the business of making easy decisions,” Wolff said. “Statesmanship is the art of making tough decisions.”