A long-delayed $5 million project to rebuild and widen Ritchie Road is about to start — not a moment too soon for developers on the Waco-Hewitt border.

Nearly 2,000 homes are planned along the 3.7-mile road that marks the western urban boundary of Waco, Hewitt and Woodway south of U.S. Highway 84.

So far, it’s merely a country lane less than 20 feet wide, with numerous potholes and no curbs or shoulders. For years, it was notorious among motorists for a one-lane wooden railroad bridge, which was finally replaced in 2009 at a cost of $1 million.

But the rebuilt Ritchie Road will play a key role as a north-south alternative to the overcrowded Hewitt Drive, said Chris Evilia, director for the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization.

“If you look at West Waco, if you’re trying to get from Hewitt to U.S. 84, you have two options: Hewitt Drive or Ritchie Road,” Evilia said. “Hewitt Drive is getting quite busy, especially when school is letting out.”

The new project, set to be finished in early 2016, will rebuild and straighten a 1.4-mile section of the road. A $2.4 million federal earmark funds about half the project, with the city of Waco picking up the rest.

The city of Waco’s portion from Panther Way north to the old Cotton Belt railroad tracks will be widened to four lanes. From there north to Highway 84 will remain two lanes because the city of Woodway chose not to provide expansion funding on its share of the road.

Waco City Council on Oct. 21 awarded $4.5 million to Big Creek Construction of Hewitt for the construction project, which has been in the works since at least 2005.

Since then, the scope of the project has changed several times, and federal funding has been trimmed and restored. But developer Brad Harrell said he’s just glad to see it moving forward.

“It needs to happen for the continued growth of Southwest Waco,” he said.

162 acres

Harrell assembled three tracts along Ritchie Road totaling 162 acres after then-Congressman Chet Edwards, D-Waco, won a federal earmark for the project in 2005. The tracts are in the city of Waco and Midway Independent School District, a half-mile from Hewitt Elementary School. But it only made sense to develop it when the city committed to rebuild the road and extend utilities, Harrell said.

“That was the whole reason I assembled those three tracts of land,” he said. “I knew what was coming. . . . There’s almost 1,000 acres in that area of developable land that has or will have access to water and sewer. We definitely need an expanded road all the way through there.”

The first phase of Harrell’s development at Panther Way and Ritchie Road, called Chapel Ridge, has already sold out its 106 lots, and houses in the range of $200,000 to $350,000 are in various stages of construction. He’s planning another 350 lots, along with some possible light commercial if he can secure the zoning for it.

Meanwhile, groundwork is underway south of Panther Way on what is planned to be a 1,500-lot subdivision by DR Horton, the nation’s largest homebuilder. The property is now in an unincorporated area but will have to be annexed by the city of Waco to receive utilities.

Harrell said the Ritchie project has taken longer than expected, but the slackened demand for homes during the recession took the urgency away for a while. Now, he said, the housing market has come roaring back and the road is needed as soon as possible.

Some of the delay resulted from a congressional “rescission” in 2009 that trimmed the $2.4 million earmark to $1.9 million. That money was restored in 2012, though documents provided this month to the Waco City Council did not reflect that restoration and will need to be amended, Evilia said.

Plan changes have also accounted for some of the delay.

The original federal earmark, which required a 20 percent local match, was supposed to rebuild the entire 3.7 miles between Highway 84 and Hewitt Drive. Evilia said the length of the project had to be reduced for financial reasons.

The city of Waco decided several years ago to spend extra money to widen its section to four lanes.

The Woodway City Council was on record supporting the Ritchie Road project but chose not to spend the extra money to widen its section, Woodway City Manager Yost Zakhary said.

‘Dollars and cents’

“It was a matter of dollars and cents,” he said. “It just did not rate high on our priority list. We had no residential development there, and unless the cement plant offers to sell its land, we don’t see that developing in the future.”

Zakhary was referring to a large tract of land that Lehigh Cement owns behind the Curves International headquarters on the west side of Ritchie Road.

Evilia said Woodway’s road section will be greatly improved to urban traffic standards, which should make Ritchie Road in general a viable alternative to Hewitt Drive.

Ultimately, he said, the remainder of the 3.7-mile road may need to be expanded, but it’s not in the official Metropolitan Transportation Plan.

“Eventually, that’s going to have to be looked at,” he said. “In the short term, reconstructing the two-lane section should give us enough that it’s still acceptable.”

Harrell, the developer, said Ritchie Road has an abundance of land that’s relatively close to Waco’s stores and institutions as well as Midway schools.

“I believe we’re seeing a significant development boom,” he said.

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