As congestion worsens on Interstate 35 through Austin, state leaders are seriously discussing a drastic response: tolling the highway's lanes in the city and making part of the nearby State Highway 130 toll road free.
“You’d move the free lanes out to 130 and the toll lanes to I-35,” Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ted Houghton said last week at the commission’s monthly meeting. “I think that’s something that needs to be looked at — whether it’s legal; if it’s not, what you’d have to do to get it across that goal line.”
Though it's just one of several ideas being considered for I-35 and has more detractors than supporters, that state leaders are even exploring such a concept demonstrates the level of concern over the clogged highway’s future if the region’s population grows as expected. A segment of Interstate 35 that runs through central Austin is the most congested stretch of road in the state, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.
State Highway 130 is a 91-mile toll road that was conceived as an alternative to I-35 and built several miles east of the federal highway. The Texas Department of Transportation operates the northern portion of the highway. The privately managed southern portion opened last year and has drawn less traffic than investors had anticipated, prompting fears that the company might default on a debt payment next year.
TxDOT and local officials are considering more than $1 billion in possible projects that could relieve some of the congestion on I-35 through Austin, including adding toll lanes and redesigning frontage roads. Last month, the Austin City Council approved allocating $2 million toward TxDOT’s expenses to “evaluate creative solutions to reduce congestion and improve safety and mobility along and across I-35.” Redesignating a portion of SH 130 as I-35 and tolling those lanes remains an option, officials said.
“That's what we'll be looking at in the next nine to 18 months,” said Robert Spillar, transportation director for the city of Austin. “I think we need to consider every tool available to better manage I-35.” He stressed that he was not advocating for swapping a tolled highway and a non-tolled one.
Two years ago, an Interstate 35 Corridor Advisory Committee created by the Texas Transportation Commission argued in a report that swapping a portion of I-35 with SH 130 made sense given that any expansion of I-35 would be “constrained by development and historic properties.” The report acknowledged that “complex legal and policy changes” would need to occur beforehand, including securing federal approval for interstate redesignation and achieving public consensus. TxDOT would also need to revisit the state’s private bond financing agreement for the southern portion of SH 130.
The SH 130 Concession Company, the private firm that built the southern portion of SH 130 and has a contract with TxDOT to operate it for 50 years, is neutral on the concept, spokesman Chris Lippincott said.
“It’s the state’s property and we’re a tenant,” Lippincott said. “If they feel like that’s appropriate, we’ll work with them and we’ll work through whatever issues would come up from that.”
Spillar said growing demand and a limited ability to add capacity means that I-35 will never be “free flowing” through Austin. Successful efforts to alleviate congestion will need to involve multiple projects, including increased public transit options throughout the region, he said.
“The key is giving people more options other than a car to reach downtown,” Spillar said.