Fixing I-35: Is a bipartisan Washington plan a reality or a pipe dream?

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — During President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address Tuesday, he reinforced his call for a bipartisan deal for more than $1.5 trillion to rebuild America’s infrastructure.

“Every federal dollar should be leveraged by partnering with state and local governments and, where appropriate, tapping into private sector investment to permanently fix the infrastructure deficit,” Trump said during the address.

Tackling congestion in Austin many times begins and ends with an expanded Interstate 35. That task so far has been out of reach for local and state governments who can’t come to an agreement on how to pay for it.

Last year, local leaders, including State Senator Kirk Watson, D-Austin, presented a plan to add toll lanes to increase the capacity and to pay for it. State leaders, notably Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, criticized any effort by the Texas Department of Transportation to add toll lanes in Texas.

Can a bipartisan idea out of D.C. take the money problem off the table?

“The federal government doesn’t have the available revenue to do the projects that we need to do,” said David White from Texans for Traffic Relief.

He tells KXAN the only realistic way to revamp I-35 in a short time without raising taxes is to partner with the private sector; through managed toll lanes or tax credits.

“The people that I talk to that drive on this road every day… they want options. They want as much capacity as possible,” said White.

“They like the service but they don’t want to pay for it and that’s the problem we’ve encountered,” said Congressman Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, who jokes to voters that he lives on I-35 because his district runs in a narrow slip from Austin south to San Antonio.

Doggett favors the federal government paying for it directly, but he says while Republicans dislike toll roads, they dislike federal taxes and spending more. Doggett says a bipartisan agreement on infrastructure is possible but not likely.

“The failure of agreement in order to get revenue into these projects is what have held things up I think in Washington and in Austin,” said Doggett.

Even if the project relies on tolls or private tax breaks, the public will still pay for it in lost revenue says accounting professor and government funding specialist at UT Austin, Michael Granof. He says there’s a “slim” chance of a bipartisan agreement in Congress because so many lawmakers don’t want to add billions to the already ballooned deficit.

Plus, there are many items private companies won’t pick up because they can’t make a profit on them.

“Local roads, local streets, you can’t toll those. What about these bridges that are falling apart? You can’t put tolls on those,” said Granof.

In 2015, lawmakers decided to dedicate $2.5 billion a year to Texas highways. Voters overwhelmingly approved of the measure by a constitutional vote. However, in 2017, Texas lawmakers used a budget trick to delay the payment until the next budget year so they could balance the budget.

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