Traffic lines up on Interstate 35 during rush hour.
Cars line Interstate 35 during rush hour. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Autonomous vehicles may cruise along two of four planned toll lanes on Interstate 35 through northeast San Antonio in a decade after a regional planning organization passed a non-binding resolution to that effect Monday.

The Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) approved a measure to designate one lane in each direction for so-called driverless cars as part of the I-35 Northeast San Antonio Expansion Project.

Four managed, or toll, lanes are planned for construction under the project. Listed in AAMPO’s Mobility 2040 plan, the project would cost approximately $618 million. It is slated for funding in fiscal year 2020.

But funding isn’t the only pending green light for driverless lanes.

Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) spokesman David Glessner said Thursday that although the agency would be willing to work with AAMPO to allow for autonomous vehicle lanes, it would ultimately require TxDOT’s authorization.

Glessner said the state transportation department will consider the input, but made no promises. “The … resolution advises TxDOT of their policy board’s desire, particularly in their region,” Glessner said in an email. “TxDOT uses this input to help with their decision on what to actually do. TxDOT owns the facility and will ultimately decide the lane usage.”

Those lanes will be elevated to avoid cutting into the existing right-of-way, said Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff, who chairs the metropolitan planning organization. The project would affect I-35 from Loop 410 north to FM 1103.

Wolff said the measure updates AAMPO’s long-term plan for the interstate. The federal government grants a greater funding percentage to so-called innovative projects. That means federal money covers 80 percent of the project, and local entities pay 20 percent. For typical highway projects combining federal and local funds, that ratio is reversed, Wolff said.

“The nice part about this is doesn’t cost us any money,” he said. “It gives us potential greater flexibility in how we utilize infrastructure we are planning on building.”

Although the resolution is non-binding, approval of the measure could put the city on the federal government’s radar for innovative projects, Wolff said.

Building the tolled lanes is still about 10 years out, he added, so transportation officials could modify plans as the technology evolves.

Current regional toll policy exempts mass transit and carpool vehicles from paying tolls, and a similar exemption could be extended to autonomous freight and transit vehicles.

The state Legislature last year passed a bill, which became law in September, to establish a legal framework for driverless cars to operate in Texas.

In San Antonio, companies have asked the City about using local roadways to test the technology. Last month, the City Council’s Innovation and Technology Committee voted to send an item to the full council that would make San Antonio a state-recognized proving ground for autonomous vehicle technology if approved.

Alarm bells rang, however, when news broke this month of an Arizona pedestrian killed in a collision with an Uber autonomous vehicle. The state then barred the company from testing its driverless technology on Arizona roadways.

But the nascent industry is generally seen as holding the key to decreasing the number of roadway fatalities, said Christopher Poe, who directs studies of automated transportation for Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute.

“[Motorists] are still killing way too many people,” Poe said. “These technologies offer a lot of promise that we can significantly bring that number down. I think that’s the motivation in the industry.”

He described AAMPO’s resolution as “on the leading edge around the country” and said he has yet to see similar measures elsewhere in the state — noting only an example in southern Florida where a tolled lane could be upgraded to handle autonomous vehicles in the future.

Exploring the use of managed road facilities for driverless vehicles seems like an obvious next step as the technology matures, Poe said.

“It’s a natural progression that one day we might manage lanes based on technology,” he said. “It is forward thinking of the Alamo-area board to be looking at this.”

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.