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State Senator: Tolls Necessary For I-35 Expansion Plans

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, is urging state leaders to reconsider their aversion to tolls, given the high cost of projects like the expansion of Interstate 35 through Austin.

The Texas Department of Transportation agreed to scrub toll roads and managed lanes from its proposed 10-year Unified Transportation Plan last week after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott raised objections.

Texas voters in the last decade have approved a combination of bond funds, sales taxes and vehicle sales tax (which has yet to kick in) to pay for road construction. That cash infusion, however, does not come close to covering the cost of expanding Interstate 35 through the Central Texas corridor. The estimated cost of the expansion, which includes managed lanes and would remove the upper and lower decks of the freeway, is estimated to cost $8.1B.

"Unless our leaders are willing to find the new money needed to invest in transportation infrastructure, all they are offering Texans is lip service," Watson said in a statement released on Monday. "Talk is cheap. Roads are not."

Interstate 35 through Central Austin

Local leaders rank the expansion of Interstate 35 at the top of needed road projects for the region. A regional transportation governing board of local leaders, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, has recommended the project for the 2018 Unified Transportation Plan.

Abbott's office and state transportation leaders have assured Watson the overhaul of Interstate 35 through Austin remains a top priority. Watson, who has chaired CAMPO, expressed skepticism at getting the job done without some outside funding.

"We cannot and should not squander a once-in-a-generation opportunity to unclog I-35, which is one of the most congested roadways in Texas," Watson said. "It takes money and more money than the state currently has available if we're going to meet our real, honest needs."

Watson pledged his continued support to resolve the issue. Interstate 35, as it stands, is not acceptable, he said.