But about 20 miles of I-35 through Central Texas will see an infusion of $400 million in state and federal funding to add one to two additional lanes in an effort to improve mobility. These new lanes will be the first time I-35 has seen a major expansion since 1974, when Austin’s population was just under 300,000, said Tucker Ferguson, Austin district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation.
“We’ve at least tripled, possibly quadrupled, the population in the city of Austin and haven’t added any lanes substantially to I-35,” he said. “This will be a welcome relief.”
TxDOT plans to use the funding, coupled with other state and federal dollars, to add one lane in each direction on I-35 between SH 45 N and Hwy. 290 and add two lanes in each direction between Hwy. 71/Ben White Boulevard and SH 45 SE. Construction is expected to begin in 2022 and have a total cost of $700 million, said Susan Fraser, program manager for TxDOT’s My35 project.
Dubbed the Capital Express, TxDOT could restrict the new lanes for high-occupancy and emergency vehicles and transit.
“Our hope is with the HOV lanes, we will encourage carpooling [and using] transit, and that will help add the capacity we need [by freeing up the main lanes],” Fraser said.
Funding for I-35 is coming partly through the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which is the regional transportation planning group for six counties in Central Texas. The agency doles out state and federal funding, and its board comprises elected officials and transportation agency officials.
Every two years, CAMPO typically has a call for projects to allocate this funding. Projects that receive funding also go into the agency’s Transportation Improvement Program, a four-year construction plan.
In its last call for projects, CAMPO awarded $445 million to 60 projects in its six counties. This time, the agency allocated $500 million. With $400 million going to I-35, the remaining funds will be spent on adding the missing frontage roads to Toll 183A between Avery Ranch Boulevard and RM 1431 in Cedar Park for $75 million and adding an overpass to RM 620 at Anderson Mill Road in Northwest Austin for $25 million.
“[RM] 620 is one of the worst facilities we have in terms of congestion, and it’s not got a great safety record, either, especially about where that work is about to happen,” CAMPO Executive Director Ashby Johnson said. “On [Toll] 183A, that portion of Williamson County continues to be one of the fastest-growing parts of our region.”
CAMPO’s pot of funding has grown significantly since voters approved propositions 1 and 7 to direct more state money to transportation. Its previous funding allocations were about $31 million per year, Johnson said.
“We’ve got a lot to keep us busy for a little while,” he said.
Filling up the queue
For officials within Hays, Travis and Williamson counties, many mobility projects beyond those involving RM 620, I-35 and Toll 183A still need funding.
In Williamson County, Cynthia Long—Precinct 2 commissioner and CAMPO Transportation Policy Board vice chair—said adjusting timing on other projects was an acceptable trade-off to funding I-35 projects. Long said the county has ongoing mobility projects in its adopted transportation master plan that are in various stages of the project life cycle and involve work centered on Leander Road, RM 2243 and Hero Way.
The city of Cedar Park has also had a successful run at acquiring funding for several of its mobility projects in the last two years, said Fran Irwin, the city’s director of community affairs. In 2018, the city locked in CAMPO funding for projects on New Hope Drive East and the Toll 183A frontage roads.
Mark Jones, Hays County commissioner for Precinct 2 and a CAMPO policy board member, said his county has several projects needing funding, such as connecting Main Street in Buda to SH 45 SW as well as connecting FM 150 to FM 1626 behind Hays High School, which would end up requiring about
$70 million in funding. The bottom line, he said, is to have projects ready for future CAMPO funding.
“You just never know when [CAMPO staffers] decide they want to put an infrastructure package together,” he said.
Charlie Watts, project manager for Travis County Transportation and Natural Resources, said one of the county’s projects that has been delayed because of CAMPO’s postponed 2019 call for projects involves Cuernavaca Drive in West Austin.
Travis County initially submitted the Cuernavaca improvements project for CAMPO funding in January 2018, at which time it was rejected. Watts said he planned to resubmit for the 2019 call for projects before it was postponed.
Cathy Stephens, senior planner for Travis County Transportation and Natural Resources, said the nature of transportation project funding in the region means it is important to be ready when opportunities arise.
“People try to keep projects in a queue, so to speak, so that they have things ready to go with the understanding that there’s never going to be enough money available at the time that we want it,” Stephens said.
Gerald Daugherty, Travis County commissioner for Precinct 3, said he would have sought CAMPO funding for two projects had the next call for projects not been postponed.
The first is widening Hamilton Pool Road to five lanes between Hwy. 71 and RR 12, and TxDOT committed to funding a portion of the project. The other is widening RM 1826 from Hwy. 290 to the Hays County line.
Because of delays in federal funding brought about by CAMPO’s allocation to only three projects this year, Daugherty said it could be two more years before he could find money for his two highest-priority road upgrades.
“When you [grant] a large amount of money to a large project like I-35, everybody that’s on the CAMPO board is going to have a little bit of concern about what that does for some of the projects they know would be something that would be very beneficial [for their areas],” he said.
For various reasons, many officials in the region supported allocating most of CAMPO’s funding to I-35. Johnson said counties in CAMPO’s area that do not touch I-35 still rely on it for moving goods and people in and out of their jurisdictions.
Building the north and south portion of the Capital Express will also give drivers options to avoid construction when TxDOT eventually starts work in the downtown core, Fraser said. She said TxDOT is still weighing options—estimated to cost $5 billion—to add four lanes through Central Austin.
“It is still a possibility that [the upper decks] could come down,” Fraser said. “We are looking in that section at possibly a tunnel, so that’s where the capacity would go.”
With an estimated 160 new residents moving to the region daily, congestion is a byproduct of the city’s growth, Austin Transportation Department Director Rob Spillar said. He said the city’s long-term transportation plan adopted in April focuses on offering residents more options to get around.
"Our job is not to fix congestion; it’s to manage congestion,” Spillar said. “We have a new slogan around our department: You aren’t stuck in traffic. You are traffic.”