With $2.5 Billion in Backed-Up Highway Projects, North Texans Turn Up the Heat on Austin

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The anger and frustration of motorists stuck on LBJ Freeway may soon spread to users of a trio of other crowded North Texas roadways.

Funds to improve three highway logjams are being used as collateral to persuade the Texas Transportation Commission to build LBJ East, the 10.8 miles of Interstate 635 between Interstate 30 and Central Expressway that has been deemed the region’s top transportation project.

The three potentially endangered projects — the Interstate 30 bridge over Lake Ray Hubbard. Interstate 35E between LBJ and the Denton County line and U.S. Highway 80 east toward Kaufman County — together represent $2.5 billion in planned projects that may be pulled to get LBJ East completed.

And doing that would turn a North Dallas highway problem into major roadway obstacles or Denton, Kaufman and Rockwall counties.

Denton County Judge Mary Horn told Gov. Greg Abbott “it’s time to govern” in a Feb. 8 letter complaining about delayed projects in the area, and that tolled, managed lanes previously in the plan were the best way to pay for LBJ East.

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“If we don’t get creative with such things as managed lanes, we’re going to be delaying projects all over the region.” Horn said in a subsequent interview. “If all the money is spent on LBJ, which I certainly want expanded, then everybody else is going to suffer.”

‘A strategy that cannibalizes’

Last week, Rockwall County commissioners passed a unanimous resolution calling for state leaders to reconsider managed lanes for LBJ East. County leaders say that Interstate 30 bridge improvements over Lake Ray Hubbard — and their booming economy — are now at stake.

“The overall success of the Interstate 30 project is the most important transportation product in the history of Rockwall County,” said David Sweet, the county judge.

In the middle of the I-30 bridge is the peninsula where ground has broken on Bayside, the first billion-dollar development in Rowlett’s history.

“A strategy that cannibalizes other major transportation projects as collateral to fund the I-635 East project jeopardizes the growth and development of our entire region,” Rowlett Mayor Tammy Dana-Bashian said. “We must fix I-30.”

Not back on the table

In passing on LBJ East expansion at its January meeting, state commissioners pushed regional planners for a list of projects to potentially delay in lieu of toll funding to pay the debt on the $1.8 billion freeway.

But even as three projects at a combined $653 million were named by the Regional Transportation Commission on Feb. 8, the state commission did not include LBJ East on the agenda for its monthly meeting Feb. 22 in Austin.

At a community meeting last week, residents of the stretch of Interstate 635 that includes Lake Highlands, Garland and Mesquite vowed they’ll show a continued presence to the Texas Transportation Commission even though it will not formally reconsider their project.

“We need LBJ East to become LBJ Now,” Lake Highlands resident Mark Holmes said at the community meeting. “I would hate to think we’re stealing, borrowing, taking funds from other projects folks may need. But LBJ East has to be done and it has to be done now.”

The fix to the Interstate 30 bridge over Lake Ray Hubbard would cost $128 million, while the cost for work on Interstate 35E between LBJ and the Denton County line would be an estimated $262 million and another $263 million is earmarked for U.S. Highway 80 east toward Kaufman County. Those plans would have to be scrapped or pushed back, however, to ensure funds for LBJ East.

Most North Texas county officials don’t dispute the need for LBJ East or the project’s status as the region’s top priority. But they resent state leaders for taking North Texas’ funding solution — two tolled (managed) lanes in each direction — off the table.

Furthermore, the county leaders say, they’ve done their part to provide transportation infrastructure.

‘You’ve got to be brave’

After working to persuade about two-thirds of Kaufman residents to accept the county’s $56 million road bond in 2013, County Bruce Wood said he doesn’t like the idea of money already committed to improve his county being used as collateral.

“U.S. 80 is a critical pathway into Dallas County for our daily commuters as well as folks that live in Van Zandt County and areas east,” said Wood, who sent a letter to Abbott on Feb. 7. “I am simply asking the state to find those monies elsewhere.”

Denton County’s road bond programs in 2004 and 2008 totaled more than $400 million, Horn said.

Putting those votes on a ballot, urging a conservative taxpaying base to buy-in to expensive infrastructure, takes political capital.

“You’ve got to be brave to do it. We took some flak,” Horn said.

Rockwall passed a $17.25 million road bond in 2004 and followed with $100 million for projects in 2008. Four of Rockwall’s projects were specific to improving intersections on Interstate 30.

“We started our projects thinking that I-30 was the backbone of the transportation program in Rockwall County with the hope that someday, TxDOT would fund improvements throughout,” Commissioner David Magness said. “Which is where we are today.”

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