Sen. Kirk Watson on I-35 toll project: ‘Talk is cheap. Roads are not.’

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Just weeks after supporting a project that would add four managed lanes to Interstate 35, State Sen. Kirk Watson is calling out Texas leaders who spoke out against allocating certain transportation funds toward toll roads.

“Unless our leaders are willing to find the new money needed to invest in transportation infrastructure, all they are offering Texans is lip service,” Watson, D-Austin, said in a statement issued Monday. “Talk is cheap. Roads are not.”

The statement comes days after Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick spoke out against the Texas Department of Transportation’s Unified Transportation Plan, which included more than a dozen toll lanes. In response to Abbott and Patrick, TxDOT said Friday that it will no longer include toll roads in those plans.

Watson has been a proponent of the “Capital Express” project, a new plan he and TxDOT announced Oct. 30 to address congestion and mobility issues along a 33-mile stretch of I-35 from Ranch to Market 1431 in Round Rock to State Highway 45 SE near Buda. The plans include four toll lanes, two in each direction.

The public still has a chance to give their input during open houses, which will be scheduled for spring 2018, and funding for the project is still in the works.

“I’ve been assured by Gov. Abbott’s office and state transportation leaders that the overhaul of I-35 through Austin remains a top priority,” Watson’s statement reads. “TxDOT is reviewing its options for the project. But we’ve been doing that for some time, and we know the options for real relief are very limited.”

But, one thing Abbott and Patrick made clear last week was their commitment to making sure no State Highway Fund money received as a result of Proposition 1 or Proposition 7 will be used for toll roads, such as the I-35 “Capital Express” project Watson is backing.

In 2015, Texans voted to approve Proposition 7, which dedicates a portion of the state’s sales tax as well as motor vehicles sales and rental tax to non-tolled projects as part of the State Highway Fund. Proposition 1 was approved the previous year and designated a portion of oil and gas tax revenue to go toward the State Highway fund.

Last Friday, Abbott said he believes the state has the resources it needs to take care of transportation infrastructure without creating extra tolls for drivers.

“TxDOT is doing a great job to build more roads and unclog our congestion,” Abbott said. “We want them to do that in a way as I promised and that is without adding more toll roads.”

Still, Watson said funds approved by voters in recent years aren’t enough to provide relief from congested highways.

“All told, the additional money provided to TxDOT amounts to less than $4 billion this year, which is well below the $5 billion TxDOT said in 2010 was needed to maintain – not reduce – traffic congestion,” Watson said. “And actually reducing congestion would cost even more.”

Watson called the project to unclog I-35 a “once-in-a-generation opportunity,” that Texans shouldn’t “squander.”

“Talk doesn’t unclog roads. It takes money and more money than the state currently has available if we’re going to meet our real, honest needs,” Watson said. “… We can’t let this road, which is ridiculous, continue as it is. Texans deserve better.”

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