Waco leaders are working with Congressman Bill Flores to lasso $30 million in federal money to prevent a landslide that could take out a section of Lake Shore Drive.
And while they’re at it, they are making a pitch for more than $100 million to complete a widening of Interstate 35 through Waco and millions more to solve regional water issues.
Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver and City Manager Dale Fisseler met earlier this month in Washington, D.C., with Flores, R-Bryan, as well Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, and the staffs of U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.
They also met with national-level officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that owns and runs Lake Waco, and made the case that the Corps should pay for the Lake Shore Drive work.
Deaver noted that the unstable slope that Lake Shore Drive crosses between Mt. Carmel Drive and Koehne Park is Corps right-of-way, though the road itself belongs to the city. Engineering consultants have recommended a project to drive hundreds of 30-foot-long “soil nails” through the shale-and-limestone soil to anchor it to bedrock.
The road and surrounding slope have suffered from minor crumbling over the years, but consultants have said that without reinforcement, the entire slope could suffer a “deep-seated failure” and slide down to the lake, destroying the road with it.
“The city continues to repair the road, but it’s the slope that’s unstable,” Deaver said. “That’s why we’re trying to get the Corps to help with that. It’s a problem not only for the roadway but also for the lake if the whole thing slides down.”
In an interview this week, Flores said he hopes to insert the Lake Shore work with Interstate 35 and regional water funding into an infrastructure bill he expects Congress to take up early next year. Flores said he has been working on those priorities for about 18 months.
Flores said he believes all three priorities stand a good chance of getting funded, though the Lake Shore Drive proposal faces some resistance from the Corps. He said Corps officials consider Lake Shore Drive to be a city issue, not federal.
Flores said in previous reauthorization bills for the Corps of Engineers he has tried to give the Corps permission to work on the problem, but he has run into objections that singling out one project for funding would be considered an “earmark,” which is no longer allowed.
But he said he has conveyed the urgency of the issue to Corps officials.
“My conversation with the Corps is trying to make sure they’re looking at all the risks that happen if they drag their feet on this project,” Flores said. “I’m trying to say, ‘You may not think the car accidents are a big deal, though I consider them a big deal, but even if there’s a low probability of a major slide, that’s going to cause the Corps to be embarrassed, and likely there will be liability for it.’ ”
Flores said President Donald Trump’s promise to sign a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill gives him hope that Lake Shore Drive and the other projects can be funded, especially Interstate 35 between north and south Loop 340.
“The president put together a team of people to identify infrastructure needs, and I-35 in this area is one of the highest ranked. It was in the top 10 percent,” Flores said. “We need to go ahead and bite the bullet and do the whole thing. Otherwise, we could be living with I-35 modifications for 7 or 8 years.”
Flores said he believes the massive federal infrastructure plan can be funded even after deep tax cuts that the GOP leaders are trying to pass.
“There’s a false narrative that the tax plan increases the deficit,” he said.
Flores said economic growth from the overhaul is projected to increase federal revenue.
However, a survey of 42 economists compiled this month by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business found that only one believes the plan would expand gross domestic product over the next decade.
The Texas Department of Transportation this summer agreed to move forward with one $300 million phase of the Waco I-35 project, from 12th Street to North Loop 340. The second phase, as yet unfunded, would extend it south to the Central Texas Marketplace area at an estimated cost of more than $200 million.
The first phase is expected to go out to bid a year from now, said Chris Evilia, director of the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization. He said there is likely time to put the whole project out in a single bid if funding can be identified by summer.
Evilia said tackling the project in one phase could lower the total cost from more than $500 million to about $400 million.
“That would be great,” Evilia said. “By doing it all at once you’d probably save minimally 25 percent, because you don’t have to bring a separate contractor out. Every time you do different phases there are transitions you have to build into the project.”
The MPO has control over a stream of state transportation funding, but the next few years of its funding are already committed to the northern I-35 project, the new interchange at Speegleville Road and Highway 84, and various projects on Loop 340.
That makes federal funding a lifesaver for the I-35 and Lake Shore Drive projects, Evilia said.
He said Lake Shore Drive is not congested and has not been a top MPO priority for improving mobility around the county.
“But if you’re adding in some of these issues it becomes pretty important,” he said. “It affects the water supply, and it’s next to the water plant. Obviously, it’s a big safety issue if the road slides into the lake.”
The stretch of Lake Shore Drive has been notorious for years for crashes, some of them fatal. In many cases, cars coming down the hill and around a curve in rainy weather would crash into the guardrail and careen into oncoming traffic.
The city paid $510,000 for a comprehensive study of traffic and geology issues a few years ago that resulted in the recommendation for the soil stabilization project.
Also based on the study, the city of Waco and TxDOT used a federal grant earlier this year to improve safety by banking the roadway inward and installing a specialized porous pavement that prevents standing water. The city also spent about $260,000 to reconfigure the intersection of Lake Shore Drive and Mt. Carmel Drive to improve visibility.
But city officials said the edge of the roadway could continue to crumble because of the unstable soil.
City leaders also are asking Flores to help find money for a complex project to bring treated Lake Waco water to rural water suppliers east of town that are struggling with declining groundwater supply and high natural arsenic levels.
Deaver said he is hoping for federal help to build a line carrying treated wastewater to Waco’s main industrial district. That would free up treated lake water that the city could then provide to its neighbors, Deaver said.