Friday, April 06, 2007

TxDOT considers adding toll lanes to Interstate 10 in Austin County

Expansion of I-10 in TxDOT's plans


Mary Hogan
The Sealy News
Copyright 2007

The state is growing but the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) may not be able to keep up with its infrastructure needs, Mark Wooldridge, a representative of the department said Wednesday.

Texas owes $288 million to the government, who is asking for the money back so it can be used to fund the war in Iraq. This sum is in addition to the $305 million the state has already paid back to the government in recent months. Repayment of these funds will have a large impact on the capacity of the transportation department, Wooldridge said. The average cost of completing one project already exceeds the department's annual budget, he said.

One way the lack of funds may affect highways and interstates is through an increased building of toll roads. In Austin County, the department is considering expanding I-10 to include additional lanes in some areas. If the plans materialize, the additional lanes may be privy to tolls paid electronically. Existing lanes of I-10 would remain free. Some of the entrances to I-10 may change, though.

"We're evaluating it," Wooldridge said. "Some of the points of entry would change, but only certain entrances would be specifically for the toll way."

Another route TxDOT might take to pay for projects is by shadow-tolling, which is a financial mechanism rather than an actual toll system. Under a shadow-tolling plan, a private entity would issue bonds to come up with the capital to build a road or make improvements. TxDOT then pays the entity back based on the amount of motorists who use the road.

In determining which projects the department focuses its time and resources on, safety is a large factor. Highway 36 could be expanded to a four-lane road with a dividing median in the middle, and this project would likely take precedence over others, Wooldridge said.

"Safety is a big part of project prioritization," Wooldridge said. "We were having a large number of fatalities along Hwy. 36."

The bridge above Hwy. 36, which continually gets hit, Wooldridge said, might be raised in addition to Hwy. 36 being widened. The department also plans to improve drainage in that area.

In regard to I-10, the department plans to widen the shoulders on the westbound side in addition to building additional lanes.

"Putting in shoulders and widening it are safety measures which would be useful if there was another hurricane evacuation like Katrina," Wooldridge said.

Another area in the county that the department looked at due to safety problems was the area around Gebhardt road, mainly the series of traffic lights. The area is poses a threat to motor vehicle safety because there are a lot of intersections closely spaced. The department is in the process of designing new plans for the area and has had a consulting firm make recommendations after looking at the road. The department lacks funding to begin putting any plans for the area in order. If funding became available, the department would be able to construct the project within two years, Wooldridge said.

Austin County's capacity to keep up with infrastructure demands was compared to that of Fort Bend County, which completed projects on its own because of a growing tax base.

"They have big pockets but big needs as well," Wooldridge said. "There's a lot of congestion still in that area."

The growth rate of the county is not as great as it is in other surrounding areas of Houston, Wooldridge told citizens who were concerned about the lack of funds for a growing area.

"In Fulshire, they are building one new housing development which will have 3,400 homes," Wooldridge said. "Some of these other counties are growing faster than ours is."

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