What has to be the most stunning and audacious toll road suggestion ever made in Texas is being floated by none other than the Chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, the state's top transportation official.
Ted Houghton suggested at a recent meeting of the Commission that one way to ease congestion on increasingly busy I-35 between San Antonio and Austin would be to 'flip' I 35 with the State Highway 130 toll road, making 35 the toll road and 130 the free road.
"I think that TexDOT has lost their minds," was the succinct reaction of veteran anti toll activist Terri Hall.
"You move the free lanes out to 130 and the toll lanes to 35," Houghton said, according to a transcript of the meeting. "I think it's something that needs to be looked it."
Probably understandably, TxDOT spokesmen declined to respond to requests for comment.
"They're trying to make I-35, which is the main artery of commerce in our state, the road that is the life blood of our economy, they want to turn that into a toll road, and force you to go 35 miles out of your way to get to the free road," Hall said.
Even though Houghton openly questioned whether the scheme would be legal, Hall says for years there was a bill pushed by former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison to outlaw the imposition of tolls on existing federal interstate highways on the books.
"But that bill expired at the end of September," Hall said. "So technically speaking, it can happen."
The fact that Houghton made the suggestion at all indicates several things are happening. First, TxDOT is desperate to convince private toll road builders to continue to buy into their aggressive long range plans to slap tolls on expansions to some of the state's major arteries, including Loop 1604, Highway 281, and Interstate 35. The bonds on the $1.1 billion southern half of State Highway 130, which was built by a partnership of San Antonio based Zachry American Infrastructure and Madrid based CINTRA, have been downgraded to 'junk' status as traffic volumes continue to lag. Officials need to show private companies that the state will do what it can to protect their investments so they will participate in future toll plans.
Secondly, the fact that I-35 congestion through Austin continues to reach gridlock status indicates the failure of social engineering schemes in highway construction, as 'managed lanes,' 'car pool lanes' and efforts to convince people in Austin to take public transportation have fizzled.
Such a massive toll decision would undoubtedly need the approval of the Legislature, and that would start with the Senate Transportation Committee, where State Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) is Chairman.
"He said no way, over my dead body are they going to toll existing lanes of I-35."