SH 71 toll project designed to improve regional access to Austin airport

Traffic signal improvements are among the ongoing transportation projects in Southwest Austin.

Traffic signal improvements are among the ongoing transportation projects in Southwest Austin.

Collaboration was the buzzword at the Jan. 27 construction kickoff celebration of the SH 71 project that will add toll lanes from SH 130 to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

“I believe truly that [collaboration] is the future of transportation in Texas,” state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, said at the event. “That’s the best way to be able to afford it, to be smart about it. I think that’s what we have here in this project, and we’ll continue to have projects like this.”

Transportation planners behind the $149 million, 3.9-mile toll project said they hope the project will not only improve access to the airport but also provide a safer commute for residents who rely on the roadway to access Austin, Del Valle and Bastrop. TxDOT, the city of Austin and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority—which manages the region's toll facilities—all collaborated to expedite the project when funding became available.

The project is expected to open in late 2016. Components of the project include adding two toll lanes in each direction from Presidential Boulevard to Onion Creek, and building overpasses at FM 973 and SH 130. Pedestrian and bike access will also be improved to provide access on both sides of the roadway.

Drivers who use the toll lanes will be able to travel on SH 71 from MoPac to SH 130 without having to stop at a traffic light.

Rodriguez said transportation is an economic development issue as much as it is a mobility issue.

“The future of our economy here in Texas depends on the ability for people to get around and get around easily,” he said. “These kinds of projects really do help, not only just for people getting around but also for the economy.”

This is evident at ABIA, which has become more attractive to airline companies, ABIA Director of Aviation Jim Smith said. ABIA has 4,500 employees and is maintaining a $500 million capital improvement program to keep up with growth.

“Access to the airport is absolutely critical as we continue to grow,” he said. “Last year we finished at a 7 percent growth rate for the third year in a row. We’re up to 10.7 million [passengers annually].”

Piece of the puzzle

TxDOT decided to combine components of its FM 973 improvement project with the SH 71 project. FM 973 will be realigned to reduce the intersection from two traffic lights to one light. The roadway will also be widened to four lanes with a median.

In 2013, TxDOT opened a new street design at FM 973 and SH 71 as an interim solution, according to TxDOT. The design eliminated left turns on both roads and instead requires drivers to use U-turns in the medians to achieve the desired direction.

TxDOT and the Mobility Authority both have major plans to improve mobility on the region’s highways. On Nov. 4 voters approved the statewide Proposition 1 that will direct about $120 million of a total $1.74 billion in funding from the Economic Stabilization Fund, or Rainy Day Fund, toward transportation projects in the Austin area. TxDOT is planning to use a significant chunk of that funding for improvements on I-35.

The Mobility Authority is also gearing up to kick off construction on its Bergstrom Expressway project that will add toll lanes on US 183 from Hwy. 290 to SH 71 and provide further improved access to the airport.

The SH 71 project fits with TxDOT’s mission of connecting communities and addressing congestion and safety concerns, said Russell Zapalac, TxDOT chief planning and project officer. He added that TxDOT Executive Director Lt. Gen. Joe Weber is focused on those tenets and ensuring the department improves quality of life for Texans.

“[The SH 71 project is] one piece of the large Austin region puzzle,” Weber said. “If we get this one in place the rest will follow.”
By Amy Denney

Managing Editor, Austin metro

Amy has worked for Community Impact Newspaper since September 2010, serving as reporter and senior editor for the Northwest Austin edition as well as covering transportation in the Austin metro. She is now managing editor for the 10 publications in the Central Texas area from Georgetown to New Braunfels. She enjoys spending time with her husband, son and two cats.