By 2018, motorists likely will be driving on a rebuilt Interstate 35W - one with a combination of toll and free lanes - after the long-delayed project qualified Tuesday for a huge federal loan.
Although some motorists won't like the prospect of paying tolls, area officials were elated to hear the U.S. Transportation Department's announcement that the project was eligible for a $415 million loan. They say using a combination of free and toll lanes, which generate revenue to offset the cost of construction, was the only way to ensure the project could be under construction within 10 years.
The loan money, along with another $150 million-plus in state funding the Texas Transportation Commission is expected to pitch in later this week, is the final funding piece for the estimated $1.63 billion project. The loan would be repaid with proceeds from the managed toll lanes in the corridor.
Managed toll lanes allow motorists to buy their way out of congestion. Motorists would have the choice of continuing to use the free lanes, which likely would handle traffic much better than today because of improved design, or hope on the toll lanes for a guaranteed fast trip. But there's a trade-off - the rates on the managed toll lanes would vary with traffic, and during peak times of day theoretically could be as much as 75 cents per mile.
The plan calls for rebuilding existing lanes and adding two toll lanes in each direction from I-30 near downtown Fort Worth to North Tarrant Parkway, north of the U.S. 287 split.
The loan will be part of the federal government's Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program - also known as TIFIA - which allows loans for transportation improvements to be paid back with favorable interest rates and over longer periods of time than other forms of debt. Projects are selected partly based on the overall economic benefits to a region, and their ability to connect residents to jobs.
In the case of I-35W, that means connecting downtown Fort Worth with the Alliance Airport area in the city's far north side, while providing better highway access for residents of Northeast Tarrant County.
“A little TIFIA goes a long way for communities that use these loans to leverage additional funding so they can tackle the big picture transportation projects this country needs,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.
The I-35W project was one of just five selected nationwide for such a loan, and the dollar amount represents nearly a third of the $1.5 billion set aside for the entire program, he said.
“TIFIA can help move projects forward, which will create jobs and strengthen the economy,” Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez said. “Given current fiscal constraints, the program provides an invaluable opportunity for states and localities to leverage limited resources.”