Another option for TxDOT besides expanding I-35

OK folks. Tomorrow I'm flying back from the New York area, where I've been visiting family. I'll try to be back 100% on Thursday, despite AISD's interminable winter break, which doesn't conclude until next Tuesday.

Below is a column that somebody involved in transportation policy submitted. I agreed not to publish their name.

$4.5 billion is a lot of money. Even for government budgets, it’s a lot. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) plans to dig a trench through Austin, replacing the existing I-35 route with a wider highway that will serve more vehicles at higher speeds. The price is likely significantly higher due to recent inflation, but highway builders are notorious for going over budget rather than updating predicted costs. 

In addition to the enormous price, 10+ years of construction will be a burden on most Texans, especially those that use this highway often. This includes daily commutes and shipping services that support cities & towns all along I-35, far beyond the Texas borders. Most drivers only consider I-35 when traveling through Austin, because the shortest & fastest option is also the cheapest. While Austin doesn’t have a circle loop system like Houston, it does have a couple half loops to the east that allow traffic to bypass the central city, but for a fee. Austin’s bypass options were originally hailed as a way to help move through traffic off I-35, but there’s been limited success, and one of the partners went bankrupt because of the lack of travel along the toll route (Texas Tribune).

Human behavior 101 will tell you that two factors will primarily influence travel choice: money & time. I-35 usually wins in both categories. TxDOT even invested in trip predictor signs to advertise toll highway 130 as an option, but the signs often encourage people to take I-35 (epic fail).

Southbound 35 entering the Austin area. Sign meant to encourage the toll road pushes more drivers into the heart of Austin. 

Travel times for different routes will vary, but even when the direct route (35) takes longer, most will opt for the free road rather than paying a toll AND adding more travel miles.

In planning for the new I-35 to serve more drivers, TxDOT dusted off the old playbook they have continued to use, which will add lanes at whatever cost, despite research that shows traffic will not improve (induced demand). For all the bad that will come with the I-35 Central project (cost, construction, traffic, loss of homes, businesses forced to move, etc), TxDOT has an alternative that would relieve traffic on I-35 and avoid/delay the mess of the proposed project - buy out the toll roads. Even if it’s only for a few years, making the toll road loops free would put money in Texans’ pockets today, which would likely be churned back into the economy for groceries, home improvements, rent, and other essential needs (and more sales taxes). 

Many of these toll roads were created by public private partnerships (P3s), which allowed construction without taxpayer money, in exchange for third party toll collection to pay for the project. This looked good on paper, but the math isn’t mathing, and the state has had to step in and help as these companies cannot stay solvent with the current toll revenue. While buying out the tolls would not be cheap, the disappointing toll collection offers an opportunity for the state to negotiate a deal. 

In addition, TxTag, the statewide toll sticker for drivers, has been plagued with billing inaccuracies and overcharging (link). While the proposal would only cover certain toll roads, this would give many drivers a chance to sort out their inaccurate bills without being charged more. Too many Austinites have been pushed farther out of town and burdened with this additional cost, and this change would offer some much needed relief. 

Toll roads 130 and 183 connect to 45, allowing drivers passing through to avoid the urban section, and reduce the traffic for those living and working in the central city.

If shifting the I-35 money to remove the tolls helps so many Texas, then who loses? Mostly the construction firms. Much planning has gone into the 35 project, and despite the grim images of a concrete Grand Canyon going through the Capital, this work is a sunk cost that many would like to see materialize. This group lobbies the state government through the Associated General Contractors of Texas (AGC), which represents 85 percent of the state’s highway contractors according to Megan Kimble, who previously wrote for The Texas Observer. Kimble goes on to note that:

Between January 2013 and December 2020, AGC contributed more than $2.5 million to Texas officeholders, most of that to powerful Republicans, and another $2.2 million to Texas Infrastructure Now, a pro-road-building political action committee, according to Texans for Public Justice. In that time span, the group donated $375,200 to Texans for Greg Abbott, $334,950 to Texans for Dan Patrick, and $303,100 to Senator Robert Nichols, the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. Terry Canales, the Democratic chair of the House Transportation Committee, received just $4,000.

In addition to the AGC’s political pressure, infrastructure projects are politically popular because leaders can (literally) point to a grand achievement and fill websites and fliers with images of “progress” monuments. Solving a traffic issue through innovative policy is far less sexy, but reducing or eliminating tolls might actually match the public popularity of road building. 

If the goal of the project is to help Texans, toll relief is the fastest way to make a difference for household budgets. Something must be done to I-35, but Texas should have more than one way to address the transportation needs in our growing state. As was mentioned in writing by Chris Riley, other Texas towns got it right when they routed interstate traffic around and created a “Business 35” for those looking to stay rather than travel through. If Austin hopes to unite the central city, granting cars and trucks free passage around the city will make I-35 more available for the people that have no other choice for their essential trips. 

I-35 will not last forever, and will need to be updated. Texans deserve more time to consider shifts in transportation policy & technology, and more time to fund highways caps that could add to our urban greenspace. In the meantime, toll relief will deliver immediate savings to many, especially those that have been pushed out of the city.