Those south of Austin’s border may find it more difficult to cut through the city after an $8.1 billion plan to improve traffic on I-35 was brought to the table.

On Oct. 30 the Texas Department of Transportation unveiled its updated Mobility35 plan for Central Texas to add two tolled lanes in each direction between Round Rock and Buda, depress the main lanes through downtown Austin, make other improvements throughout the three counties and keep the existing number of nontolled lanes.

“It will be messy, particularly downtown when we reconstruct I-35,” said Terry McCoy, Austin district engineer for TxDOT and a Georgetown resident. “We’ll do the best we can in phasing that, but there will still be some impact on the traveling public.”

Feasibly funding the plan

Planning for I-35 improvements in Central Texas began in 2011 after the Texas Legislature earmarked $300 million to improve mobility in the state’s most congested corridors. Central Texas received about $31 million of these Rider 42 funds. TxDOT released its implementation plans in 2014-15.

Instead of funding the entire plan—initially calculated at $4.3 billion—TxDOT opted to fund projects piecemeal as money became available. To date, $329.8 million has been put toward nine area projects, mostly funded from voter-approved propositions 1 and 7.

The state agency faces some challenge in funding the managed lanes because funding from propositions 1 and 7 cannot be used to build
tolled facilities.

“We have other sources of funding that we’re looking at, and we’ll really look under every cushion on the sofa to try to pull this together,” McCoy said. “Once we know how much money we have to work with, we’ll start talking about how we start putting the building blocks together.”

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which is the regional transportation planning group for Central Texas, has prioritized I-35 for when funding comes through. The organization, whose board comprises local elected officials, voted in late 2014 to award Proposition 1 funding from that year to I-35 projects.

TxDOT could also apply for federal funding specifically for tolled facilities through CAMPO, said Doise Miers, CAMPO’s community outreach

Austin Mayor Steve Adler laid out three options he sees for funding improvements. The first is for the Texas Legislature to fund more infrastructure in the next session or to allow for public-private partnerships to leverage dollars. The third option would be for state lawmakers to step out of the way and let local jurisdictions figure out funding.

“It’s a state and national project,” he said. “Everybody in all levels needs
to participate.”

On Nov. 16, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick sent a letter to the chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission—the governing board for TxDOT—stating he opposes TxDOT’s plans to add toll lanes on 15 projects in the Unified Transportation Plan, the agency’s 10-year plan for construction, development and planning activities.

Effect on Buda

Buda City Manager Kenneth Williams said even though the transition will be hard, if something is not done to aid adjusting roads for future growth, congested traffic can have a mal effect economically for Buda.

“It is difficult at first for people to get used to construction and changing their habits as far as traveling, but although it will be a bit of an inconvenience, it’s the long-term result that we have to look forward to and how it’s going to help us,” Williams said. “We are not going to have companies look in our area if they are sitting in traffic all the time, if their employees are sitting in traffic all the time. If people can’t travel and get where they need to go, it’s going to hurt us anyways and limit our growth.”

Next spring the public will have another opportunity to weigh in on the plan’s environmental assessment that looks at the impact to the community and environment, Mobility35 Program Manager Karen Lorenzini said.

“This stage is where we need the most public input,” she said. “In this state we do preliminary design, and we do enough design so we know the project is feasible.”

Phasing the build-out

Construction of the four tolled lanes is not expected to begin until at least early 2021 when several other
key regional projects are completed, McCoy said.

Construction of the toll lanes likely would begin in downtown Austin first, McCoy said. TxDOT is still working out how to fit in four toll lanes, but he said in areas with the least amount of right of way, TxDOT likely would have to build two levels below ground—one level for the tolled lanes and one for the main lanes—to have the frontage roads and cross streets remain at surface level.

TxDOT ultimately plans to extend the toll lanes through Hays and Williamson counties, but McCoy said the plan is to prioritize the area with the most congestion: downtown Austin.

“Given the magnitude of the cost you kind of have to focus where you’re going to make those improvements first, where you’re going to get the biggest bang for your buck,” he said. “If you look at where the greatest congestion is, it is in [downtown] Austin. … That’s what we’re trying to address in the shortest time frame. But we’re not giving up on Williamson or
Hays counties.”

Impact on the public

David Barrientos, owner of Buda Bike Co. and a commuter from South Austin to Buda, said he is not excited about the potential toll roads.

“It already takes 35-45 minutes to get to work with traffic,” he said. “I think now [construction] just going to increase that drive time, and we are going
to run into that same thing with MoPac, [which] was under construction forever and we had all that bottleneck traffic.
I don’t see [traffic] getting better in the
next five to 10 years, especially if the construction starts.”

In terms of public safety, Buda Fire Chief Clay Huckaby said that Buda’s fire and emergency medical services predetermine alternative routes for quicker response to emergencies.

“With the large amount of growth in Hays and surrounding counties, it is inevitable that roads need to be expanded to accommodate additional traffic.  Our only recourse is to find alternative routes during these construction phases [to] navigate the roads under construction if it is our only route,” he said.

He added with a road being under construction, it may be easier and faster for another station or unit to respond, which is why there are three strategically located stations that allow for flexibility on where the closest or fastest unit could respond from.

Commute time is not the only thing Barrientos said he was concerned about with the potential increase in construction in Austin.

“A lot of people live by convenience, and if a lot of exits are blocked or you are being detoured a lot, you just start finding a business or venue that is more convenient to visit just for the fact you don’t want the hassle,” he said.

Williams said at the end of the day the project poses tremendous growth opportunities for Buda.

“It’s going to improve the quality of life when it’s done by allowing our citizens, visitors to see Buda. We want to be a destination to where people can get to us. Being accessible will be improved with this project,” he said. “Also they will be able to move faster, quicker. They won’t sit in traffic as much, and if you choose to pay a toll, then you pay the toll and you get to where you want much faster.”