Central Texas mobility agency awaits green light from TxDOT to proceed on new toll projects

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For the past five months, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority has been waiting on direction from state leadership on whether it can proceed with any new toll projects.

This includes the $500 million US 183 North project in Northwest Austin that was ready to proceed with construction before a mandate from Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on not using any funding from propositions 1 and 7 on toll-related projects halted progress on all toll projects throughout the state.

“183 North is ready for procurement basically,” Mobility Authority Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein said. “There are some agreements with the [Texas Department of Transportation] that need to be accomplished. We’re awaiting movement on that.”

Policy’s impact

Since November, the Mobility Authority has been in limbo on developing $2 billion worth of new projects, including extending toll lanes down MoPac South; extending Toll 183A to Liberty Hill; building new flyovers between Toll 290 and SH 130; and building a 12-lane highway at the Y at Oak Hill called the Oak Hill Parkway.

“Most of these are totally fundable by the agency,” Heiligenstein told his agency’s board of directors on  March 28.

The agency’s projects on SH 45 SW and US 183 South are not at risk because both are under construction. TxDOT’s project to add a third lane to SH 130 is on hold.

With the exception of the Y at Oak Hill, he said the agency can fund development and construction of the other projects. What’s holding the Mobility Authority back is that TxDOT needs to approve several documents and steps on these projects, such as financial agreements, environmental work and adding the projects to the state’s highway system.

Because use of funding from propositions 1 and 7 is restricted to nontolled projects, many elected officials and transportation leaders throughout the state have debated whether that means no new toll projects can proceed.

“Even though we were paying 100 percent of our lanes, the policy issues that [Sen. Kirk Watson] addressed [March 28 at the Opportunity Austin breakfast] were policy issues like is the use of right of way by a toll facility a violation of any understanding given propositions 1 and 7,” Heiligenstein said. “I don’t see how they could be. They’re very separate and distinct.”

Local effect

Heiligenstein said by his estimate, the governor’s new policy took about $27 billion worth of projects statewide off the table, almost negating the amount of $35.4 billion that is expected to come from propositions 1 and 7 over the next 10 years.

What this means for Central Texas drivers is the governor’s policy takes off any toll projects that had been in development, including new lanes on I-35 that TxDOT proposed in October.

“I believe on I-35 any meaningful work on it is now is suspended, is jeopardized,” Heiligenstein said. “There will have to be new assessment of what projects we can do moving forward.”

As for the Mobility Authority’s projects in development, Heiligenstein said the cost of waiting could add $78 million per year in construction estimates. For 183 North, he said he anticipates add 5 percent to the construction cost for each year of delay.

The agency already has $380 million lined up to pay for the addition of two toll lanes on US 183 between MoPac and Toll 183A in Cedar Park. TxDOT pulled back on providing $120 million to fund the continuous fourth nontolled lane.

TxDOT did extend the Mobility Authority’s primacy—the right to develop, build and oversee a project—through April 2020, meaning the agency has until then to start construction.

“That is a bit of an indicator there may be some movement there,” Heiligenstein said of TxDOT possibly making a decision on approving documents.

He added, however, he has not received any word on when or if such approval will come.

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Amy Denney
Amy has been reporting in community journalism since 2007. She worked in the Chicago suburbs for three years before migrating south and joined Community Impact Newspaper in September 2010. Amy has been editor of the Northwest Austin publication since August 2012 and she is also the transportation beat reporter for the Austin area.
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