Thursday, December 06, 2007

"The toll proposal has not been warmly received by the policy board’s leadership."

Up ahead: Widened I-35 may include controversial toll lanes


By David Doerr
Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2007

It’s been 118 years since tolls were charged to cross the Waco Suspension Bridge over the Brazos River.

Now a similar pay-per-use fee could be in McLennan County’s future if a plan to expand ever-congested Interstate 35 to eight lanes is approved.

A Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization staff recommendation would add two toll lanes to Interstate 35 between South Loop 340 and Elm Mott. MPO director Chris Evilia says the proposal is part of the planning group’s effort to address area transportation needs while dealing with significant cuts in state and federal funding.

The MPO has been forced to axe 13 of 23 highway expansion projects in McLennan County since Texas Department of Transportation officials announced in late September that there would be no money to add capacity to the state’s road system after next year.

State transportation officials blame the funding crisis on rising construction costs, federal cutbacks, state diversions of gas tax revenues and new restrictions on private investment in toll road projects.

With state transportation funding in turmoil, one of the only ways to pay for road construction is through publicly managed toll projects, Evilia says. And even with a deep cut in the number of road construction proposals, Evilia says planning officials are still coming up about $11 million short to fund the remaining 10 projects on their list.

Those remaining projects aim to meet residents’ needs through 2030.

“If we don’t add revenue from some source, we will have to drop another project,” he said. “We phased out these projects as much as we can. There is nothing left to cut.”

In the current transportation funding environment, adding toll lanes on Interstate 35 is one of the only untapped sources of revenue available, Evilia says. However, the proposal is far from a done deal.

Four meetings are scheduled over the next two weeks to explain the proposal and take public input that will be considered when the MPO’s policy board votes on whether to include it in their planning documents. The 16-member policy board, made up of various city and county officials, is set to vote Jan. 29.

So far the toll proposal has not been warmly received by the policy board’s leadership.

County Commissioner Joe Mashek, who chairs the board and plans to vote against the proposal, says he hopes the public attends the meetings to voice their opinions.

“It makes no difference to me what their opinion is, they need to be heard,” he said. “People need to talk about what they expect their tax dollars to pay for.”

Russell Devorsky, the policy board’s vice chair and a Bellmead City Council member, says he opposes all toll projects on existing highways.

“This is something where the state and Gov. (Rick) Perry and (Texas Transportation Commission) chairman Ric Williamson have told people it is either toll roads, slow roads or no roads,” he said. “I think the public has already made their investment under eminent domain when that property was seized to make I-35.”

Tolls would fund 40 percent

The MPO staff estimates the tolls would provide up to 40 percent of the funding to expand the highway to eight lanes. State transportation officials indicate state coffers could pay the remaining 60 percent, Evilia says.

Tolls could also generate an additional $5.7 million to $10.9 million that could be used for other projects in McLennan County, according to MPO planning documents.

Evilia says he expects out-of-towners driving through Waco to be the ones utilizing the additional lanes and paying the tolls. He says the MPO is obligated to look at all options when considering how it will pay for future transportation projects, including tolls.

“One of the things that we are charged with doing is making sure we are making the wisest investment with taxpayer dollars,” he said. “There are certain situations where toll projects make sense. I think we are tasked with trying to find those situations where they make sense in order to leverage our tax dollars to the fullest extent possible.”


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