Alamo city: New road funds squandered so 1604 and I-35 can be tolled

New road funds to be squandered on non-priority projects to force tolls on major congested corridors
Loop 1604 on the north side and I-35 commuters targeted for toll taxes, while other corridors are not
By Terri Hall
October 16, 2016

On September 27, TxDOT's San Antonio District Engineer Mario Jorge presented a list of projects to use up the Prop 1 and Prop 7 funds. We see many red flags and we’re very concerned. First, as usual, we’re being told Loop 1604 and I-35 ‘have’ to be tolled. So let’s look at the projects that are consuming the new funding, precisely so Texans wouldn’t be tolled.

First, the San Antonio district will be receiving $2.3 billion in unallocated NEW funds over the next 10 years. It’s critical these funds go to the top priorities, which are I-35 and Loop 1604. The Governor made clear these funds are to go to the most congested roads first.

The projects chosen by TxDOT, with the exception of two, US 281 and Bandera Rd., do not compare to the congestion levels on Loop 1604 and I-35. Some would expand other segments of Loop 1604 on the south and east sides without tolls leaving commuters on the north side stuck with a new toll tax to get their stretch fixed. Why do residents on the north central side have to pay tolls to get their road fixed while those along 1604 northeast and south do not? The cost for Loop 1604 is $492 million for 4 new free lanes from Bandera Rd. to I-35 in TxDOT documents (see alternative 1). Yet to do it as a toll project, the cost balloons to $831 million. Why would officials pay almost twice as much to do it as a toll project, when the Governor promised no more tolls? Something smells rotten in the Alamo city.

Meanwhile, an interchange at 410 and I-10 made TxDOT's list for Prop 1 & 7 funds with an eye-popping price tag of $445 million. Why would they spend $445 million for an interchange that is listed to cost only $231 million elsewhere in TxDOT documents? An expansion project on I-10 also made the list headed east from 410 and Loop 1604 all the way out to SH 130 in Seguin, totaling $320 million. That section suddenly jumped to the front of the line in order to prop-up the failing SH 130 tollway.

Another is the 410 and Hwy 90 interchange project. Current documents (See page 5 of the current TIP) show ‘priority direct connectors' already funded with TxDOT’s District Discretionary funds ($40 million in 2017). Prop 1 and Prop 7 are supposed to be advancing major projects as non-toll that have languished without funding, not recycling projects that are already funded! Because of the waste on these other projects, Loop 1604 and I-35 will remain toll projects.

The current toll plan for I-35 calls for building 4 elevated toll lanes for 15 miles, which is pie in the sky expensive. One of the biggest problems driving up the cost of the toll project is the need for special interchange ramps in order for the elevated lanes to interact with the existing interchanges at 410S, 410W and Loop 1604. The plan calls for building exclusive interchange ramps at three major interchanges for the managed lanes. That is completely unnecessary. If this were done as a regular general purpose lane expansion on the ground, there would not need to be new interchanges built to accommodate toll lanes that the vast majority of drivers cannot even afford to access.

That cost disappears if it’s a non-toll project on the ground. I-35 toll plan also has only 3 exits at those interchanges (410S, 410W and Loop 1604) while I-35 on the ground has 15. It will do NOTHING to help relieve local traffic. It’s designed to be a bypass. We already know the trucks won’t pay tolls to bypass traffic on I-35 (SH 130's failure confirms this). So this $1.5 billion bloated toll plan will waste precious resources and not even solve our problem. Doing the expansion as a plain vanilla non-toll project would shave hundreds of millions off the cost and could be done with the new Prop 1 and Prop 7 funds as the voters intended for that money.

Getting I-35 and Loop 1604 fixed with these funds needs to be priority #1 for every elected official in the region. It looks like, as usual, they’re spreading the projects around the region to give something to ‘everyone’ like they do on bond proposals, but this money is supposed to go to solve the BIGGEST congestion problems plaguing our urban areas, not people’s pet projects for political reasons. Decision makers are obviously trying to consume this money on wasteful projects, while leaving the region’s biggest priorities unfunded to force tolls (and the toll projects will arguably make the congestion worse).

All told, we’ve found at least $2 billion in outright waste or non-priority projects out of $2.3 billion. No question Loop 1604 and I-35 need to be the priority.

Count on the public being very angry about this.