Proposed 183 North toll project moves forward If built, express lanes would connect from Leander to downtown Austin

Drivers in western Travis and Williamson counties will have another tolled option on US 183 under a proposal by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to add express, or toll, lanes to 8 miles of the highway.

The 183 North project would add two express lanes in each direction on US 183 between SH 45 N and MoPac. A fourth nontolled general-purpose lane would also be built to correct an existing lane imbalance where lanes shift between three and four main lanes, causing traffic congestion and accidents.

“The project is going to have a huge impact on the people of western Williamson County,” Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long said. “… With this project, upon completion, you would be able to go on 183A in Leander all the way downtown and not have to go through a signalized intersection.”

The project cost is about $650 million, which includes direct connectors, or flyovers, from US 183 to RM 620 and to MoPac as well as 8.5 miles of new sidewalk and 1 mile of new shared-use path. Construction could begin as early as 2018 and will take about three years to complete. The project could be phased, Mobility Authority Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein said.

“We know we can’t build enough pavement for all time because that corridor is still growing. The [Toll] 183A corridor continues to grow up with Leander,” he said. “… One reason we don’t apologize for the big number is this is the last time we’re going to get into that corridor.”

Price change

The original cost estimate for the 183 North project was $225.7 million as approved last May in the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s 2040 long-range plan.

During a March 2015 open house, the Mobility Authority told Community Impact Newspaper the 183 North project would likely cost between $500 million and $600 million. By the November public hearing that figure had risen to $650 million.

“The scope has dramatically changed,” Heiligenstein said.

He said the price change was a result of including suggestions made by the public at several open house events and feedback from the Texas Department of Transportation. The Mobility Authority updated the project scope with the fourth nontolled lane, flyovers, and bicycle and pedestrian improvements.

“Not only are we providing mobility through a tolled option, but we’re improving mobility in a [nontolled] option as well and improving safety at the same time,” CAMPO Executive Director Ashby Johnson said.

The cost increase and the lack of a continuous shared-use path concerned some elected officials from the city of Austin and Travis County who sit on CAMPO’s policy board.

During the board’s Feb. 8 meeting to discuss amending the 2040 plan, some board members wanted to include language to add a shared-use path where feasible in the corridor and strengthen connections to transit because Capital Metro buses will be able to use the express lanes at no cost.

“We are looking at 200 percent increase … in the cost of this project to add additional vehicular infrastructure,” Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said. “I don’t think it is at all surprising that we would also look at this project for the most robust multimodal design we could get.”

Long and other members disagreed on the shared-use path. CAMPO and Mobility Authority staffers said it would be too dangerous for a continuous shared-use path along the frontage roads because of the numerous driveways to businesses and cross streets.

The Mobility Authority proposed updating existing bicycle facilities along the adjacent Pond Springs and Jollyville roads and connecting the two with a shared-use path. After this feedback the policy board approved the changes.

“You have to recognize there is a limit to the amount of resources,” Long said. “You can’t ignore the fact you have the need met less than 200 feet from [the US 183 corridor].”

Project development

Project development for 183 North began as an idea to solve congestion from CAMPO, which allocated $7.5 million in federal dollars for the 183 North project development in 2013.

The Mobility Authority is conducting the environmental phase to determine the best option for addressing congestion, such as adding general-purpose, express or high-occupancy vehicle lanes. A no-build option is also being studied, but express lanes are the preferred alternative, Heiligenstein said.

If the agency wants to pursue federal funding, it must follow guidelines from the National Environmental Protection Act to determine any effects the project options may have on the environment, he said. If project options will not have a negative impact, it receives a Finding of No Significant Impact, or FONSI.

The Mobility Authority anticipates receiving the FONSI for the 183 North project by August, he said.

After receiving the FONSI, the agency can move forward with financing. The agency is not permitted to levy taxes. About 75 percent of its projects are financed through bonds, usually revenue bonds, Heiligenstein said. These bonds are repaid through toll revenue. The remaining 25 percent comes from toll equity grants, he said.

Long-range planning

Any changes to a project must also be amended in CAMPO’s latest long-range plan, which outlines transportation-planning efforts in six counties in Central Texas. CAMPO will host open house events to notify the public of the proposed changes and a public hearing prior to the policy board voting.

CAMPO amends long-range plans twice a year, but the 183 North amendment request came out of cycle, Johnson said. However, no red flags came up about the cost increase, he said.

“The things they were talking about adding to the project were very beneficial to the region,” he said. “We felt like it was something we could explain and defend if needed.”

He said CAMPO staffers also accepted the alternative of improving bicycle facilities on Pond Springs and Jollyville instead of adding a continuous shared-use path along the corridor.

“[The Mobility Authority] had gone above and beyond in that respect in both looking at safety issues, but also providing mobility for people who choose not to drive a car or can’t,” he said.

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