December 8, 2009
Getting to the airport, which involves negotiating a gantlet of traffic lights from every direction, might get easier in the not-so-distant future.
The Texas Transportation Commission next week is likely to consider approval of $43 million to extend the Texas 71 freeway under a Riverside Drive overpass, eliminating a bottleneck that has confounded drivers since the Texas Department of Transportation ended a freeway project just short of Riverside three years ago. In addition, officials are considering removing an existing Texas 71 traffic light at Thornberry Road on the north side of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
The net effect of the moves would be an unfettered trip on Texas 71 from Interstate 35 (and points west) to the airport. Given the rapid decision to build the Riverside overpass, design of the project is in the early stages and thus construction would not begin until after August 2011, said Carlos Lopez, TxDOT’s Austin district engineer.
Construction would then take 18 months to two years, Lopez said.
“This is going to make a real difference to people all over the community that want to get to the airport,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who pushed TxDOT officials to find the money for the project. “And it will certainly help those who live east of I-35.”
TxDOT between 2002 and 2006 had eliminated a series of traffic lights on Texas 71 between I-35 and Riverside, building a six-lane freeway with frontage lanes.
The Riverside intersection, meanwhile, was to be a part of a project to reconfigure the Texas 71/U.S. 183 interchange and make sections of Texas 71 and U.S. 183 into tollways. Those projects, first approved in 2004 and then again in 2007 by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board, have languished because traffic on the roads is not heavy enough to pay back the several hundred million dollars in toll road bonds it would take to build them.
Watson said that rather than waiting for the stars to align for that and other megaprojects, it was time to figure out “what are we really able to do financially? Put down the magic wand. It doesn’t work.”
The $43 million would come from savings on other projects around the state being built using Proposition 14 bonds, borrowed money that will be paid back by future gas tax receipts. Those projects, like all Texas road work in recent months, have been 30 percent or more below cost estimates, freeing up bond money for other projects.
Thornberry Road is the principal outlet for a subdivision north of Texas 71. Lopez said that people on Thornberry wanting to go east on Texas 71 would be able to go west for a few hundred yards to an existing “button hook” turnaround road in the median. Similarly, people going east on Texas 71 could go past Thornberry and turn back at Spirit of Texas Drive to reach the subdivision.