AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Transportation Commission voted to approve $3.4 billion in funding for Interstate 35 reconstruction in Austin during a telephone meeting Thursday. Although traffic has improved since Austin implemented its Stay Home, Stay Safe order, this project has been in the works long before the coronavirus pandemic hit to address the congestion that once crowded I-35.
At the end of February, the Texas Transportation Commission announced it had a plan to fund the I-35 Capital Express Project, an effort to add four new lanes to I-35 through Austin to reduce traffic congestion. The total investment in the project will be $7.5 billion.
In that February meeting, the commission outlined how it would add $4.3 billion to existing, previously-approved funding. Thursday 3-1 vote updated the 2020 Unified Transportation Plan and allocated $3.4 billion in discretionary funding to the project.
The commission proposed the rest of the money would come from reallocating more than $600 million that the Texas Department of Transportation had previously allocated to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization — which happened at the beginning of April. It will also consider adding about $300 million when it votes on the 2021 Unified Transportation Program in August.
The Texas Association of Business CEO Jeff Moseley said while he believes TxDOT is “right to prioritize I-35 through Austin,” because of the economic toll of COVID-19 pandemic and oil price drops, Texas should use private funding and managed toll lanes to improve the highway, instead of $3.4 billion from TxDOT’s discretionary fund. Those public-private partnerships, he said, help governments build necessary infrastructure without adding any kind of burden to taxpayers.
“We need every funding tool in the transportation toolbox to keep Texas moving, especially during these tines of economic crisis and threats to state and local tax revenues,” Moseley said.
DeWitt Peart, the president and CEO of the Downtown Austin Alliance, said the group is “thrilled” about funding for the project through central Austin. He thanked the Commission, Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. Kirk Watson “for recognizing that even during these unprecedented circumstances we are facing with the COVID-19 pandemic, funding is critical for such a significant improvement project for our city and region.”
“This project will create jobs and capital investment in our region’s economy, as well as help reduce congestion and keep commerce moving,” Peart said. “There is much to be done, but in the meantime, the Downtown Austin Alliance is forging ahead with the community engagement process for the master planning of the surface enhancements and connections along I-35 through central Austin.”
TxDOT has not committed to a final design for the project, but has said it plans to add two continuous non-tolled lanes heading in both directions on I-35 between U.S. Highway 290 to State Highway 71, plus more auxiliary and frontage road lanes. Design options also include multiple levels of underground travel lanes.