The commission, which is the governing body for the Texas Department of Transportation, approved Thursday an amendment to its 10-year planning document called the Unified Transportation Program that did not include managed toll lanes on I-35 in the Austin area or on I-635 in Dallas. The 2018 UTP now has no projects with any tolled elements.
"I'm disappointed that politics trumped congestion relief today," state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said in a statement. "From Williamson to Hays [counties], the gridlock we face is unsustainable, and the decision to leave the status quo in place does not help."
Faced with pressure from Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick over not using propositions 1 and 7 funding on projects with tolled elements, the commission opted to side with the state’s top leadership instead of local officials.
“The leaders have spoken and they’re the ones we take guidance from,” Commissioner Jeff Austin III said.
The vote followed more than an hour of testimony, mostly from elected officials and leaders in the Austin area who want to use every tool in the toolbox to mitigate traffic congestion.
“Our priority in that choice would be to fix I-35,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said. “If [tolls are] the available funding stream to do the work, then that is the choice that our community would make.”
Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said it concerns him that many residents still believe voter-approved propositions 1 and 7 money are enough to fully fund all transportation needs in the state.
“Managed lanes I think are a wonderful tool to have to help us deal with [congestion],” he said.
Will Conley, who chairs the policy board consisting of local elected officials for the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, said he understands the decision to not include the I-35 managed toll lanes was a directive from the state’s leadership.
“If those tools are going to be taken off the table, those leaders have the responsibility to work with us on the alternatives," Conley said.
On Oct. 30, TxDOT announced a plan to add two managed toll lanes in each direction on I-35 from RM 1431 in Round Rock to SH 45 SE near Buda. Just a few weeks later on Nov. 16, Abbott and Patrick notified the transportation commission that they do not support TxDOT using propositions 1 and 7 money on projects that have tolled elements.
The department has six projects underway and two completed projects on I-35 that have mostly used funding from the propositions.
After the Nov. 16 announcement, a spokesperson for TxDOT said the department is still moving forward with studying the new lanes on I-35 and that the lanes could take a variety of forms.
After the Dec. 14 vote, a TxDOT representative said it is too early to tell how the vote could affect continued planning of new lanes on I-35. However, the department released a statement from Austin District Engineer Terry McCoy.
“I-35 remains one of the most congested corridors in the state of Texas, and we are committed to continue working with the Texas Transportation Commission and our community to find solutions that can be funded and implemented," he said.
At the start of the meeting, commission Chairman J. Bruce Bugg Jr. addressed confusion over the UTP amendment that some thought included up to 15 toll projects statewide.
That list of 15 projects stemmed from a briefing the commission held Oct. 25 to get an update on 17 projects proposed by area metropolitan planning organizations. Fifteen of those projects included toll elements, including the US 183 North toll project in Northwest Austin and several other projects on I-35.
“The sole purpose was to hear what are the most important big projects for MPOs around the state,” Bugg said.