A tale of two interstates

Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Update: After this article was published in our May issue, the Texas Transportation Commission in Austin unanimously approved a compromise plan. Read more about it here.

Frustration filled the room in Arlington where the North Texas Regional Transportation Council meets. 

Adam McGough was discouraged. The Dallas City Councilman, who represents Lake Highlands, leaned heavily on his forearms, resting on the U-shaped conference table. On this April afternoon, he was searching for the right words to say about the stalled LBJ East project. 

“Every single one of us around this body, and every transportation expert that I’ve talked to, locally, regionally and nationally, knows the right thing to do,” he said. “Our local leaders and our Congressman Pete Sessions know the right thing to do. Even Sen. (Don) Huffines’ own (Dallas County) Republican Convention knows the right thing to do. It’s beyond my rational ability to argue these points.” 

One speaker after another followed McGough, all of them sounding dejected and bewildered. They shared a vision of a congestion-free highway, enabled by optional or managed toll lanes. But due to an Austin roadblock, that vision was crumbling. 

Every North Texas official around the table, in a rare show of regional unity, was in favor of the plan. 

They would turn Interstate 635 between U.S. Highway 75 and Interstate 30 into a tolerable driving experience, instead of what it is today — something more like the worst 11 miles of craggy, orc-infested road through Mordor. Two managed toll lanes in each direction would relieve congestion and provide a speedy path for those willing to pay. An improved LBJ-Skillman interchange and bridge could infuse economic vibrancy into what is now a wasteland of poorly planned roads. Plus the new reach of LBJ East would boast something its commuters no longer even dreamed about: continuous access roads the entire way.

But there would be much gnashing of teeth before Dallas found a way to mollify Gov. Greg Abbot and finally move the $1.8 billion project ahead.

How we got here

LBJ East had been in the works for years, and officials thought they had done everything right. The Texas Legislature and regulators in Austin had been blessing managed toll-lane projects for more than a decade. When the Texas Department of Transportation sought input on the topic in November, 92 percent of responses were in favor of  managed toll lanes. 

In April, the reality became clear to the Regional Transportation Commission. Managed toll lanes were toast, and so was this project. 

Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaign platform included a minor plank to put an end to new toll roads in Texas. Not everyone realized how serious he was about that promise. When Abbott reviewed new road projects last year, he didn’t just put them on hold. He kicked a couple of them out of the state’s 10-year plan for highway priorities. 

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state Sens. Bob Hall and Don Huffines, all Republicans representing North Texas, carried Abbot’s toll-lane gospel back to their base. 

 City Councilmen McGough and Lee Kleinman and other leaders responded with a social media campaign and hosted town-hall meetings. At a Lake Highlands meeting in February, McGough asked the crowd if they supported the LBJ East project with its managed toll lanes. All but about six of the 200 people in the room raised their hands. McGough spoke of the torments his wife and his 10-year old son endured just to get to soccer practice. Around 200,000 people share that torment every day.

At the same time, they were negotiating almost nonstop with the governor’s proxy, Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Bruce Bugg. Neither side retreated from their position on the only real issue: toll lanes. When U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions wrote Abbott and asked him to let the optional toll lanes back into the LBJ East plan, the Dallas team was cheered. 

It seemed like the project might wheeze across the finish line. But then Abbott showed how little interest he had in bargaining. He essentially told Sessions to mind his own business. The Governor wasn’t budging.

Managed one way, tortured the other

I’m gliding at a comfortable 75 miles per hour on LBJ’s eastbound Texpress lane. Four o’clock on a Thursday afternoon and at least 300 yards stretch between the nearest car and me. The gently used superhighway under my tires feels the way a new car smells. This is the way to drive. 

When the LBJ West project wrapped in 2015, it transformed one of Texas’ worst traffic nightmares – I-635 between I-35 and U.S. Highway 75 – into a driving experience that is almost pleasant. Some are willing to pay a toll for the experience. Even if you drive with the masses in the free lanes, the added toll lane makes it much better than a few years ago. The improved LBJ’s evil twin, those 11 miles of LBJ East, now seems worse than ever by comparison. 

Why should a few optional toll lanes kick up such a fuss and shut down the whole project? When the Texas Lyceum surveys Texans every year, toll roads don’t even show up on the list. But anti-toll-roaders dug in deep. The transportation council believes the congestion-busting potential of the managed toll lanes is at least as important as the few hundred million dollars the tolls will bring in over the next 20 years. 

Sen. Hall calls toll roads of any kind “a punitive approach that seeks to control people, punish and discriminate against the poor,” and “a revenue stream to fund unelected bureaucrats’ legal slush funds.” Sen. Huffines told the Advocate by email, “Toll roads and toll lanes are just another way for government to shake-down drivers, picking their pockets for every mile. It’s time for local transportation planners to respect voters and the state policies they put in place.”

With the notable exception of the two state senators, local support was strong for the LBJ East plan with its managed toll lanes. Councilman Lee Kleinman chairs the Dallas Transportation Committee. He and McGough have led the charge for the LBJ East project, and they’ve repeatedly observed that any opposition seemed to originate somewhere else — in Austin and rural West Texas.

Political technicalities

Is Abbott so passionate about the evils of toll roads? Or is he unwilling to back away from a campaign pledge during an election year? McGough says he is baffled by the blistering assault on the idea of even optional toll lanes. 

A few members of the Dallas contingent have suggested that maybe nobody has explained to the governor the difference between a toll road and an optional toll lane. “My 10-year old knows the difference between toll roads and optional toll lanes. We discuss it quite often,” McGough said during that grim April meeting. 

In the end, the compromise between the transportation council and Austin came about when Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Bruce Bugg persuaded Abbott that that he could “grandfather” the two managed toll lanes that opened on LBJ East in 2016. That way Abbott could technically hold true to his promise of no new tolls. Transportation council negotiators agreed that they would not come back in the future asking for more toll lanes on LBJ East. 

Kleinman says the compromise plan is not perfect, but “It’s 80 percent of perfect. So we should be good to go.” And the local planners will work with their RTC staff engineers to test other, innovative methods of clearing congestion. One possibility that’s been talked about might decrease the number of big rigs on the road in busy periods by actually paying truckers to drive on LBJ only between 3-6 a.m. 

Meanwhile, the 200,000 drivers who surrender a small piece of their happiness every day when they venture onto LBJ East can now at least imagine a date in the future when things will be much better. They are eager to see the work start, and so is McGough. He says every month of delay runs up the cost by $5 million, for a total of roughly $30-million so far. Even if things go smoothly from this point, McGough’s 10-year old son will be driving himself to soccer practice by the time it’s done.