Sen. Watson proposes funding options for TxDOT’s $4.3B plan for I-35

Included in the Texas Department of Transportation's $4.3 billion plan for I-35 is lowering the main lanes from 15th to Cesar Chavez streets.

Included in the Texas Department of Transportation's $4.3 billion plan for I-35 is lowering the main lanes from 15th to Cesar Chavez streets.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, proposed several options May 26 to help fund the Texas Department of Transportation’s $4.3 billion plan to improve I-35 in Hays, Travis and Williamson counties.

By creating a partnership with TxDOT and local governments, Watson said the area could take advantage of using local dollars to finance projects such as lowering the main lanes of I-35 between Cesar Chavez and 15th streets and building express, or toll, lanes on the section in Travis County.

“I believe we can do this without the need for a [transportation] bond election this year,” he said during a luncheon hosted by the Downtown Austin Alliance.

Watson and other local elected officials, including Hays County Commissioner Will Conley—who also chairs the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization policy board—Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and Austin Mayor Steve Adler have been meeting during the past few months to discuss financing options.

Those options include using the regional infrastructure fund CAMPO created when it provided funds to the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority for construction of the MoPac express lanes. Through that agreement the Mobility Authority would pay CAMPO $230 million out of toll revenues over 22 years.

Watson said that money could go toward lowering I-35 through downtown Austin and other projects in Williamson and Hays counties. Lowering the I-35 lanes and other projects in the downtown area likely would not be completed until construction on the US 183 South project finishes by 2020, he said. The 183 project broke ground in April and will add six tolled and six nontolled lanes on US 183 between Hwy. 290 and SH 71 and also include other bicycle and pedestrian improvements.

In 2000, Watson said the city and Travis and Williamson counties partnered to contribute $227 million for right of way to create the Central Texas Turnpike System, which includes SH 130, Loop 1 and SH 45 N and SE. To further leverage that investment, he said excess revenue from CTTS could help fund construction of the proposed express lanes on I-35, one in each direction. Those express lanes would then become part of CTTS.

“[That] would be a very large, local regional commitment to a partnership with TxDOT, perhaps as much as a billion dollars,” Watson said. “That commitment could help make this happen.”

Other funding options include a tax swap in which the city of Austin would use its credit. TxDOT would pay back funding at the city’s lower interest rate instead of a rate TxDOT would get through a federal loan, Watson said.

Although no deal for any financing option has been settled, Watson said the region cannot afford to wait any longer.

“I’m very passionate about getting a deal done on I-35, and on all sides I’ve found willing partners,” he said. “There will be critics and this is not perfect, but on behalf of my constituents who want something done I will say it again, doing nothing is not an option."
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