State commissioners to reconsider LBJ East upgrades, but not as a tolled project
LBJ East, North Texas’ most-needed freeway project, has a chance to get back on the to-do list when state transportation officials meet Thursday in Austin.
“Subject to removing any tolling elements,” the agenda says, the Texas Transportation Commission will consider reinserting improvements to the 10.8-mile stretch of Interstate 635 between Central Expressway and Interstate 30 into the state’s 10-year plan.
It’s a bit of a different conversation than members of the Regional Transportation Council sought to have in Austin. They just last week had called on members to attend the state meeting as advocates of paying for LBJ East by using tolled, managed lanes.
But a week ago, they weren’t even sure LBJ East would be formally reconsidered at the state-level meeting.
The state commission took LBJ East off the 10-year plan in December because tolls were part of the project financing. “We worked hard to try and get the item put on the agenda and it is on the agenda,” said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. “We’re happy.”
With TTC approval, the Texas Department of Transportation will have the go-ahead to secure bids from contractors and proceed to a “shovel-ready” stage.
Other than the tolls, there’s no difference between the regional vision for LBJ Freeway and that which is described in the TTC agenda item. Both call for five freeway lanes in each direction and continuous frontage roads. Two other lanes on the interstate are called “managed” in the RTC plan and “express” in the TTC agenda.
LBJ Freeway in its current state has four lanes and a tolled lane in each direction. Its frontage roads are not continuous; only one side has them near major intersections with State Highway 78 and Interstate 30.
The state go-ahead would keep LBJ East in motion until about the same time the 2019 legislature convenes. The task in the meantime will be to solve the question that has plagued the project the last three sessions — if not with tolls, how does Texas come up with the $1.8 billion needed to build the freeway?
“We’ve taken tolls off the table. We still have a problem to solve,” said State Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood. “We know there are options. Which is the best one or what is the best combination of options to move this forward?”
Hall, whose district includes much of the LBJ East corridor, has opposed building any roads with tolls in testimony to the TTC and in legislative committees. That opposition was fortified in late 2017 when Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick directed the TTC to not use toll revenue to fund public roadway projects statewide.
Morris said the LBJ East agenda item also includes an opportunity for Dallas’ Skillman Street and Audelia Road project to move forward. TxDOT asked that $65 million project be bid simultaneously with LBJ East to keep multiple contractors from working the same areas.
The state-prescribed framework also retains a reworked interchange at Interstate 30 — an upgrade that represents more than a quarter of the overall cost for LBJ East. But Morris, Hall and Garland Mayor Douglas Athas all said Thursday that a funding solution was secondary to getting the project back on the board.
“We will be able to pick a design-build contractor for the entire corridor, including the interchange,” Morris said. “We’re very appreciative that at least we’re going to be able to proceed.”