Developer, not residents, behind push for toll lanes on I-35 in Waco

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Proposal to build new I-35 bridge becomes entangled in toll road debate
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
By David Doerr
Tribune-Herald staff writer

Real-estate developer Rick Sheldon wowed Waco residents in November when he unveiled drawings of an iconic version of the Interstate 35 Brazos River bridge designed to look like the city’s landmark Suspension Bridge.

The new I-35 bridge would serve as a gateway for visitors passing through town and a point of pride for area residents. But after consulting Texas Department of Transportation officials on financing such a project in these lean times for highway expansion, it turns out there is only one way to do it: tolls.

The tolls, which proved to be a point of contention at Tuesday’s Waco City Council meeting, would be used to expand the highway from six to eight lanes between South Loop 340 and Elm Mott. The tolls would be charged only on the added two lanes.

Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization staff proposed the toll lanes in December to address area transportation needs while dealing with significant cuts in state and federal funding. Now it appears the toll lanes will be the linchpin in Sheldon’s effort to update the look of the I-35 bridge over the Brazos.

“There is still a chance that we could do it without the tolls, but it is going to take forever, and I don’t know if I will be real interested in working on it then,” he said. “I’m not going to do it in 10 years.”

Sheldon, a San Antonio native now living in Waco, has proposed developments totaling nearly $1 billion along Lake Brazos, including restaurants, housing, a new near-campus football stadium for Baylor University and a 250- to 300-room hotel. He doesn’t control all of the projects, but he is working to form a partnership to make them happen.

His bridge proposal garnered praise such as “breathtaking” from various civic leaders when it was unveiled. The toll lane proposal initially was met mostly with criticism and derision when it was announced.

But now the two projects are linked together and that could change people’s ideas about both. There won’t be a lot of time to debate their merits if the MPO’s policy board votes Tuesday to remove the toll provision from planning documents it must submit to the federal government in February.

So Sheldon is calling to extend the debate by keeping the toll proposal in the MPO’s plans. The decision whether to go ahead with the projects would be made at a later time.

“I think (the bridge proposal) starts the debate, and that is all I am asking for,” Sheldon said. “Let’s not have the debate for a week, let’s have it for a year. You can always vote to change it (later). All we’re saying is, let’s please don’t preclude this as an option because it really hurts our chances of getting this thing built.”

The rebuilt bridge would not actually be a suspension bridge, but would have beams and cables to suggest the same look, Sheldon said. The aesthetic enhancements would probably cost between $5 million and $10 million, he said.

Richard Skopik, the transportation department’s Waco region engineer, said the only way to finance reconstructing the bridge in the current transportation funding climate would be to add toll lanes. He said the transportation department isn’t planning to replace the nearly 50-year-old bridge unless the toll lane expansion project is approved.

“To add an aesthetic structure, as has been suggested, you could modify the existing bridge, but I think the intent and the vision was to have a brand new bridge that could encompass these concepts,” Skopik said.

However, he emphasized that bridge enhancements would not automatically come with the construction of toll lanes. Funding from other public or private sources would be needed to pay for the features that would make it look like a suspension bridge, he said.

Sheldon suggested that a private company could be found to operate the toll lanes and pay to make the enhancements. However, the Texas Legislature passed a moratorium on such public-private toll projects last year.

Skopik said the proposal is designed for the transportation department to manage tolling operations.

MPO director Chris Evilia has had to cut 13 out of 23 highway projects in McLennan County since transportation officials announced in late September there would be no money to add capacity to the state’s road system after this year.

State transportation officials have blamed the funding crisis on rising construction costs, federal cutbacks and state diversions of declining gas tax revenues.

Even with the deep cuts in the number of local transportation projects, Evilia still is about $11 million short to fund the remaining 10 projects on his list. The projects are designed to expand highway capacity to meet the state’s growing population.

MPO staff estimates tolls would provide up to 40 percent of the funding to expand the highway to eight lanes. Transportation officials indicate state coffers could pay the remaining 60 percent.

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

Sheldon said the paradigm for funding roads in Texas is shifting whether people like it or not.

“For a lot of folks it is wishful thinking,” he said, referring to their aversion to toll projects. “They want things back to how it was in ‘Leave it to Beaver’ time. It ain’t that way anymore. Go look at the Legislature. They haven’t raised gasoline taxes since 1991. Every time it comes up, it’s a nonstarter.”

Frustration with the current transportation funding picture was evident during Tuesday’s Waco City Council meeting in which members were briefed on the issue and the toll road proposal.

Councilman Randy Riggs said it was “almost extortion” to have to choose between adding toll lanes to I-35 and losing funds for other projects in the Waco area. He blamed federal and state lawmakers for not taking action.

“(Expanding I-35) is something that our citizens need and deserve and it should be a state or a federal issue as opposed to a local issue,” Riggs said. “This is just wrong in my mind to say we will help you with your transportation issues if you do what your citizens don’t want done.”

Although most council members expressed frustration about being forced to consider the toll lanes, a majority appeared willing to recommend to the MPO’s policy board to keep the proposal in their planning documents.

City Manager Larry Groth suggested that keeping the toll proposal in the MPO’s plans would allow the transportation department to move ahead with surveying and preparation to expand the highway even if local officials decide against the toll lanes at a later time.

“If we approve this with the tolls in it, we can keep I-35 in the plan,” he said. “That means that the state can continue working on the design, layout and all that other stuff so there is not a delay, and in my mind that means we stay on this track we need to be on.”

Before Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Joe Mashek, MPO policy board chairman and a McLennan County commissioner, said he opposes the toll lanes even though Sheldon’s bridge enhancement project is linked to it.

“They are kind of holding a gun to our head saying ‘If you don’t do this, you aren’t going to get this,’ ” he said. “It’s a no-win situation because most people are against this toll road on I-35.”