About $120 million in Proposition 1 funding will be pumped into Central Texas road projects in 2015 with the majority of funding going toward I-35 projects in Hays, Travis and Williamson counties.
Eighty percent of Texas voters approved Prop. 1 on Nov. 4. This approval diverts a portion of oil and gas tax revenue from the Economic Stabilization Fund, also known as the Rainy Day Fund, to the State Highway Fund. The money will help bridge a $5 billion annual shortfall. In the first year $1.74 billion will go to TxDOT for four purposes: congestion relief, connectivity, maintenance and energy sector roads damaged by vehicles used in development and production of energy.
In October, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Central Texas regional transportation planning agency, threw its support behind TxDOT using the majority of the 2015 Prop. 1 funding for I-35. CAMPO is also providing $33.1 million to use toward these projects, bringing the Austin district’s total allotment to $150 million.
Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who sits on CAMPO’s policy board, said it is clear TxDOT understands the importance of addressing I-35 congestion between Georgetown and San Marcos, but the agency’s needs are far greater than its resources.
“Funding is a problem,” he said. “Thank goodness people in the state passed Prop 1. The unfortunate thing is I-35 is just one piece of what really needs to be improved in our area.”
‘String of pearls’
Individually the projects on I-35 set to receive Prop. 1 funding will have a local effect on aiding congestion. Overall Terry McCoy, TxDOT deputy district engineer for Austin, said the projects contribute to the agency’s focus on the highway.
“As you start to build that string of pearls, start putting projects together cumulatively, you’re able to do a lot of good,” he said.
In September the agency completed a collector-distributor lane in North Austin at Parmer Lane that allows vehicles to bypass the traffic signal on the frontage road by being diverted under the overpass.
In Round Rock, TxDOT is completing ramp reversals—switching the location of on- and off-ramps to reduce bottlenecks—between Hwy. 79 and FM 3406 that directly tie to work proposed for Prop. 1 funding in Williamson County between Hwy. 79 and SH 45 N on I-35.
“Those two projects in tandem really address the bulk of the bottlenecks we experience in Round Rock for commuters from Austin going home to either Round Rock or Georgetown,” McCoy said.
In Travis County, I-35 intersection improvements at William Cannon Drive and Stassney Lane will involve reversing ramps so drivers have more time to safely merge on and off the main lanes. The project also involves widening the frontage roads and reconstructing both bridges.
“Where all the direct connectors from Ben White tie into southbound I-35, that turns into a parking lot there,” McCoy said. “This project addresses that and also some of the operational issues we have at both the intersections of William Cannon and Stassney. Those are very high-volume intersections that break down in a.m. and p.m. peaks.”
TxDOT did not have as many I-35 projects queued in its pipeline in Hays County, but it will complete ramp reversals at five locations in Hays between FM 150 and the Blanco River as well as adding an additional ramp.
“This is a project we can move fairly quickly on, which is important,” McCoy said. “It allows us to put money in Hays County so we get money into each of the three counties we have I-35 in.”
In identifying projects for the first round of Prop. 1 funding, McCoy said it was important that projects could be bid for construction in 2015. This means construction likely will begin by spring and summer 2016.
Williamson County has often picked up the tab to fund state or federal projects, an act County Commissioner Cynthia Long said residents have appreciated. But there comes a point, she said, when TxDOT needs to take the reins.
“We have spent hundreds of millions in Williamson County on the state system,” said Long, who is also a member of CAMPO’s policy board. “I feel like it’s time for the state to step up on its own responsibility.”
Will Conley, Hays County Commissioner and CAMPO policy board chairman, said the Hays County I-35 project will not only boost mobility and safety but also open economic development opportunities. Prop. 1 funding is a big step in the right direction for the region but will not solve all of its transportation needs, he said.
“We’re hoping to work with the [Austin] district and administration to show our state legislators we’re handling these new funds in a responsible way for the benefit of the citizens of Texas and that [Prop. 1’s] success leads to future dollars to improve infrastructure,” he said.
To get projects shovel-ready, McCoy said the Austin district has been blessed with enough funding for planning and completing the environmental coordination phase. TxDOT is already preparing in advance of next year’s district disbursement, which is likely to be at $85 million.
“The worst possible case scenario is that money comes to us and we’re not ready to go to construction, and that money goes to another part of the state,” McCoy said. “We continue to try to get ahead of the game, have projects ready to go … [and]keeping that pipe flowing full of projects.”
The Texas Legislature is not stopping its commitment to adequately fund transportation at the passage of Prop. 1. Scott Haywood of Move Texas Forward, an advocacy group that aims to educate Texans about the shortage of state funding for infrastructure, said Prop. 1 was only a step in the right direction to address the $5 billion annual shortfall.
The organization supports Senate Bill 5, which would send the first $2.5 billion of motor vehicle sales tax revenue from that fiscal year to the state’s general revenue fund and the second $2.5 billion to TxDOT. The bill received support from the full Senate on March 4 and is now making its way through the House of Representatives.
“We think [SB 5] makes a lot of sense,” Haywood said. “The tax we pay on cars we buy should go to roads.”
He points out many cities and chambers of commerce support the bill because of the improved quality of life it could bring. Opposition to the bill is mainly because it would necessitate a constitutional amendment to divert money to transportation that otherwise went into the general revenue fund.
In the House legislators unveiled a proposed 2016–17 budget in January that calls for the end of diverting gas tax and vehicle registration dollars from the SHF. Haywood said that action could potentially bring in $660 million per year for Texas roads. Adding all those actions together, he said the state could be close to bridging the funding gap and address the message from voters to see transportation funding increased.
“Based on what we’re seeing out of the governor and Legislature, it’s clear they heard that message,” he said. “Transportation was declared an emergency item. [Legislators are] all working to try to find a long-term, sustainable solution for transportation funding.”
Regarding SB 5, Long said she would support TxDOT receiving more funding to maintain infrastructure.
“My concern is if [SB 5 passes], we can’t afford any more unfunded mandates from the state,” she said. “I’d be delighted if they find that money but not at the expense of local government.”