Texas 45 toll road to pay for Texas 130 portion of the Trans-Texas Corridor
State expects work on Texas 45 SE to start in summer
November 29, 2006
By Ben Wear
A new road that would be Central Texas' fifth tollway and a crucial link to Interstate 35, long delayed by an environmental lawsuit, has cleared that hurdle and should break ground by summer, officials say.
Texas 45 Southeast, a 7.4 mile, four-lane expressway from I-35 to the future intersection of Texas 130 and U.S. 183 at Mustang Ridge, would open in late 2008, if all goes as envisioned. That means that for about a year after the Texas 130 tollway's 49 miles are complete late next year, drivers wishing to use it as an Austin bypass will have a less than optimal stretch to the interstate. They would have to take the two-lane FM 1327 between Mustang Ridge and I-35 or perhaps use Texas 71 as an early cutoff.
Earlier this year, with Texas 45 Southeast stalled by a legal challenge from the Save Our Springs Alliance, it appeared that the time gap could be much longer. Then, this summer, the Federal Highway Administration approved a revised environmental study occasioned by the SOS lawsuit, and a federal judge dismissed the case.
State transportation officials point out that investors who lent $2.2 billion to the state for Texas 130 and two other tollways and will be paid back in part by money from Texas 45 Southeast tolls, were promised only that the road would open by 2010.
"If we can get this thing built by the end of '08, I think that's great," said Phillip Russell, director of the state Transportation Department's turnpike division.
In 2004, all signs pointed to Texas 45 Southeast being completed by fall 2006. The state signed a contract in August 2004 with Zachry Construction Co. in which the contractor agreed to design and build the road within two years for $154.3 million.
Less than a week later, the SOS Alliance filed suit in federal court, alleging that the state in its original environmental study had failed to consider alternate paths for Texas 45 Southeast that would hit I-35 much farther south. The main concern for SOS, all acknowledge, was that Texas 45 Southeast leads directly toward the existing Texas 45 Southwest several miles to the west. With both in place, environmentalists believe, there will be more pressure to connect the two segments with a road that would funnel more traffic over the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer and fuel development there.
After the revised environmental study was approved June 26, SOS agreed to dismissal of the suit.
"TxDOT analyzed alternative routes as we'd asked them, and while we believe the revised (environmental) study still has problems, we had to consider other priorities and limited resources," SOS spokesman Colin Clark said in an e-mail Tuesday.
Bob Daigh, the Austin district engineer for the state Transportation Department, said the delay "is going to cost the state tens of millions of dollars." Given double-digit inflation in construction costs over the past two years, the agency and Zachry have decided to cancel that August 2004 contract. The two sides are negotiating a settlement cost — the state will keep Zachry's detailed construction design — but Daigh expects the final figure to be about $25 million.
Still to come, however, is the purchase of right of way for the road and, next spring, a second bidding process for construction. Daigh said that aside from the increase in construction costs, which are estimated at $170 million, the right-of-way cost of about $40 million likewise will be much higher than it would have been two years ago.
The road will be fairly straightforward, with interchanges only at I-35 and the U.S. 183/Texas 130 area on each end and at North Turnersville Road and FM 1625 in between. There will be one main-lane toll plaza near the west end and a handful of toll stations on exit and entrance ramps.
The state has not yet set the toll rates but expects to charge 12 cents a mile, comparable with the average tab on the three toll roads that opened last month.
Two years ago, the agency intended to build the road with gasoline tax money alone, rather than with a combination of taxes and borrowed money. All the toll revenue (save a small percentage for maintenance) could have gone to help pay operational costs on Texas 130 and its companion toll roads Texas 45 North and the Loop 1 extension. Given the higher costs now, that scenario could change, Daigh said.
But if the state needs to borrow money, it would have to conduct traffic and revenue studies and hold a bond sale. Could all that occur in time for a summer groundbreaking?
"It would be difficult," Daigh said, "but I'm not going to say impossible."
How to get a TxTag
Drivers with a TxTag, a windshield sticker with a tiny transponder, will be able to drive toll roads statewide without stopping at booths and will pay 10 percent less than cash customers. The tag is free (for now), but you'll have to establish an account with a credit or debit card and prepay $20 in tolls. You can get a tag by calling (888) 468-9824, going to www.txtag.org or visiting the state's tollway customer service center at 12719 Burnet Road.
© 2006 Austin American-Statesman: