AUSTIN, Texas - A new fight over toll roads has slowed plans to fix the notorious bottleneck known as the "Y" at Oak Hill.
The fight may also impact two other hi-profile Austin projects. About two years ago state lawmakers, and then voters, gave TxDOT the ability to tap into money from the Rainy Day Fund to build new highways.
There was a catch, none of that money could be used for toll roads. Highway officials recently pitched a plan to keep tolls in the mix, and as a result the backlash from that idea could keep Austin drivers in gridlock a little longer.
Traffic still backups at the Y- in Oak Hill despite a band-aid reconfiguration of the interchange for Highway 290 and Hwy71. TxDOT has two options for a more permanent fix to the y. One elevates 290 through the area the other involves building flyovers for Hwy 71. Both options involve tolling the new expressway but commuters like Peter Goulet just want something built.
"Somebody has got to be on top, somebody has to be on the bottom, it doesn't matter who, as long as everyone gets to travel,” said Goulet.
TXDOT was going to announce the preferred option Dec.1, but that has been delayed. As a result - every day lost is another vehicle added to the gridlock and another day drivers like Lindsey Gordon are stuck.
"I think just the influx of people that have moved here, I think its just, thats one of the main issues, is there's just so many people that live here,” said Gordon.
A letter from Lt. Governor Dan Patrick prompted TxDOT officials to hit the breaks; and not just on the Oak Hill project. In his letter, Patrick stated his objection to TxDOT incorporating tolls and managed lanes into future projects. In response to the concern voiced by Patrick and Governor Greg Abbott, TxDOT administrators said they knew the money was not to be used for toll projects.
“The Texas Transportation Commission fully understands and is committed to continue to use the funding from Proposition 1 and Proposition 7 for non-tolled projects”, said J. Bruce Bugg, Jr., Chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission.
A spokesperson for the agency confirmed Monday, TxDOT is now reconsidering proposals to build new toll lanes on 183 between the Arboretum and Lakeline Mall. The agency is also reviewing the idea sinking managed lanes deep into the I-35 rebuild through downtown.
This push back against toll roads started gaining traction after State lawmaker Tony Dale got involved. he is upset about billing errors.
"I don't see why we'd expand one mile of road until we get it right,” said Rep. Dale.
The Cedar Park Republican is more inclined to use tollways to cover long distances to link up cities. He is also worried that mobility authorities now view tolls as a first option.
"And when you are a hammer everything looks like a nail, and we've really got to reevaluate this, we are getting surrounded and its not pleasing to the drivers in Central Texas,” said Dale.
State Senator Kirk Watson,( D ) Austin, who a few weeks ago announced managed lanes for the I-35 project were being considered, says it’s no surprise the extra funds provided by the state a few years ago isn't enough to reduce congestion. In a statement sent to FOX7, Watson said,
"Unless our leaders are willing to find the new money needed to invest in transportation infrastructure, all they are offering Texans is lip service. Talk is cheap. Roads are not."
Officials with TxDOT have not said how long the Oak Hill delay will last, or when a decision will be made on the other road projects that are being reviewed. The State Transportation Commission meets on Dec. 14th.
In a side note; the Associated Press is reporting a coalition of business groups, local elected officials and highway industry interests have formed a new road construction advocacy group. Texans for Traffic Relief reportedly plans to educate commuters on toll roads and projects that use private companies or government toll agencies, that put up capital, or take on debt for up-front construction costs. The group is expected to target commuters in North Texas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin.