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TEXAS TRIBUNE PHOTO ILLUSTRATION by TODD WISEMAN

TEXAS TRIBUNE PHOTO ILLUSTRATION by TODD WISEMAN

by AMAN BATHEJA

As congestion worsens on Interstate 35 through Austin, state leaders are seriously discussing a drastic response: tolling the highway’s lanes in the city and making part of the nearby State Highway 130 toll road free.

“You’d move the free lanes out to 130 and the toll lanes to I-35,” Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ted Houghton said last week at the commission’s monthly meeting. “I think that’s something that needs to be looked at — whether it’s legal; if it’s not, what you’d have to do to get it across that goal line.”

Though it’s just one of several ideas being considered for I-35 and has more detractors than supporters, that state leaders are even exploring such a concept demonstrates the level of concern over the clogged highway’s future if the region’s population grows as expected. A segment of Interstate 35 that runs through central Austin is the most congested stretch of road in the state, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.

State Highway 130 is a 91-mile toll road that was conceived as an alternative to I-35 and built several miles east of the federal highway. The Texas Department of Transportation operates the northern portion of the highway. The privately managed southern portion opened last year and has drawn less traffic than investors had anticipated, prompting fears that the company might default on a debt payment next year.

TxDOT and local officials are considering more than $1 billion in possible projects that could relieve some of the congestion on I-35 through Austin, including adding toll lanes and redesigning frontage roads. Last month, the Austin City Council approved allocating $2 million toward TxDOT’s expenses to “evaluate creative solutions to reduce congestion and improve safety and mobility along and across I-35.” Redesignating a portion of SH 130 as I-35 and tolling those lanes remains an option, officials said.

“That’s what we’ll be looking at in the next nine to 18 months,” said Robert Spillar, transportation director for the city of Austin. “I think we need to consider every tool available to better manage I-35.” He stressed that he was not advocating for swapping a tolled highway and a non-tolled one.

Two years ago, an Interstate 35 Corridor Advisory Committee created by the Texas Transportation Commission argued in a report that swapping a portion of I-35 with SH 130 made sense given that any expansion of I-35 would be “constrained by development and historic properties.” The report acknowledged that “complex legal and policy changes” would need to occur beforehand, including securing federal approval for interstate redesignation and achieving public consensus. TxDOT would also need to revisit the state’s private bond financing agreement for the southern portion of SH 130.

The SH 130 Concession Company, the private firm that built the southern portion of SH 130 and has a contract with TxDOT to operate it for 50 years, is neutral on the concept, spokesman Chris Lippincott said.

“It’s the state’s property and we’re a tenant,” Lippincott said. “If they feel like that’s appropriate, we’ll work with them and we’ll work through whatever issues would come up from that.”

Spillar said growing demand and a limited ability to add capacity means that I-35 will never be “free flowing” through Austin. Successful efforts to alleviate congestion will need to involve multiple projects, including increased public transit options throughout the region, he said.

“The key is giving people more options other than a car to reach downtown,” Spillar said.

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AMAN BATHEJA reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is made available here through a news partnership between the Texas Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.

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9 thoughts on “Worsening Austin traffic prompts talk of toll road swap

  1. What alternatives do the people living in other small towns such as San Marcos and other surrounding areas have to get to our destinations in Austin where the toll roads don’t have exists for? At some point, we will have to exit into the city where the traffic will still be congested. Before making I-35 a toll road, ask yourselves, how did Houston solve this problem without making its free highways into toll roads?

  2. “TxDOT and local officials are considering more than $1 billion in possible projects that could relieve some of the congestion on I-35 through Austin…”

    There are plenty of smaller projects that would at least help improve traffic on I-35. Getting rid of some entrance and exit ramps for example; there are just too many of them. Better signage and improved frontage road mobility to keep local traffic off I-35. All these should be implemented before tolling I-35. I believe tolling I-35 would work but I already paid for I-35 with my tax dollars and I use it enough that I don’t want to have to start paying a toll just to go to my Friday night knife fight at Highland Mall.

  3. Sounds to me like they are trying to dig themselves out of the non-profitting hole that is SH130.

  4. I’ve watched IH35 go from 2 lanes to 3 over the past twentyfive years when they should have put in a fourth lane or even a fifth lane. Now we will play catch-up or even worse, talk of tolling lanes on IH35. Trafic moves freely north of Round Rock where there are more than 3 lanes of traffic.
    It seems the planners in our state have never looked more than 5 years down the road. It’s time we start looking 20 or more years down the road before it’s to late.

  5. It seems to me they are looking at trying to put a toll on a pre-existing road that was paid for with tax dollars. I always thought that was illegal.

  6. Almost never believe anything you read in the Trib. Houghton, whose only real qualification to be on the Trans. Commission is that he raised butloads of money for Republicans in El Paso, can’t make such a change, only the Legislature can (Dean you’re right). And the legislature stated it’s feelings on conversions when they closed the last loophole that would have allowed any conversion of a free road into a toll road last session.

  7. Austin is the only major city in the United States that doesn’t have a real loop around the city, even LUBBOCK has a loop. For years there have been complaints that the City doesn’t care about East Austin and what not. Build a real loop around this city and it will help with traffic and it will help expand the city and help East Austin. Look at St. Louis, they had 270 that looped around it. The surrounding area GREW OUT TO THE LOOP, and they are working on building a 3rd loop around the city. San Antonio has 410 and 1604 and look what those loops have done for the city. Like they said in the movies Build it and they will come. If you look at the present setup TXDOT has done. You have to take 35 to get anywhere in Austin. There are no HOV lanes, and as they are finding out now what so many people tried to tell them that building 130 WAS A MISTAKE AND NEVER SHOULD HAVE BEEN BUILT.

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