A burgeoning section of Loop 340 between two major shopping centers is in line for a $23 million makeover, and state highway officials are seeking the public’s input on the project.

Under a preliminary design, the stretch of Loop 340/Highway 6 from Bagby Avenue to U.S. Highway 84 would get continuous frontage roads, complete with two new frontage road bridges over rail lines. The section is anchored on the north end by Richland Mall and on the south end by Central Texas Marketplace.

An open house on the project is scheduled from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at the area Texas Department of Transportation office at 7479 Bagby Ave.

The project would relocate ramps to eliminate rush-hour “stacking” that sometimes backs traffic onto Loop 340’s main lanes, especially the short exit ramp just before Highway 84.

The congestion is a “critical” safety issue that could qualify as a priority for state and federal dollars, said Michael Bolin, a Waco district TxDOT deputy director.

“We do see where it backs up not only on the ramp but to the main lanes of the highway and the shoulder as well,” Bolin said. “The level of service there can drop to really poor. … There’s always different revenue streams tied to safety, so this has something going for it.”

The project has been on the priority list of the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization for years, but it has risen to the top of the list since the approvals for improvements to China Spring Road, Interstate 35, and at Speegleville Road and Highway 6.

“It’s been on the high priority list for a while, but now we actually have some expectation of being able to fund construction,” said MPO director Chris Evilia, who will be at Tuesday’s meeting.

The regional MPO controls one stream of state funding but has committed most of that money to Interstate 35 over the next few years.

The Loop 340 improvements “are probably six or seven years out, because I-35 is going to soak up most of what’s set aside for us,” Evilia said. Still, unexpected sources of funding occasionally become available for projects that are designed and ready to go, so it’s wise to get started, he said.

“This is the first look at the potential design,” Evilia said. “At this point there’s still considerable opportunity to make changes.”

Evilia said traffic pressure on Loop 340 has been growing over the last decade. Between 2005 and 2010, traffic counts grew from 50,127 to 55,500 on the stretch between Bagby Avenue and Imperial Drive.

“Central Texas Marketplace really was the impetus for a lot of recent growth, and we’ve had a lot of employment in the Texas Central Industrial Park,” he said. “Our forecast indicates that’s going to continue for the foreseeable future. You get some pretty scary numbers when you look about 25 years out. It becomes almost like Interstate 35.”

From 2013 to 2017, TxDOT has recorded 243 crashes in the stretch of Loop 340 under study, including 3 fatalities and 7 crashes with incapacitating injuries. The most recent fatality was this year.

Evilia said that’s a higher injury rate than is normal for a freeway stretch of that size and traffic volume.

“We know why some of them are occurring,” he said. “It’s because of the interaction between slow or stopped traffic that’s trying to exit, and behind them, fast-moving traffic going 65 miles an hour.

“We’re especially concerned as you approach the U.S. 84 interchange. We don’t have a lot of storage from exiting traffic, and it tends to back up onto the main lanes during peak periods. What we want to do is flip the ramps so people are exiting further back, so that backup is stored on the frontage road.”

Other features of the plan include:

  • New frontage road bridges over the two Union Pacific rail lines, one near Beverly Drive and the other near DuPuy Oxygen. The frontage roads currently make U-turns under Loop 340 at those rail lines, and those U-turns will be preserved but reconfigured
  • Constructing new U-turns at the Bagby Avenue overpass so Loop 340 motorists can double back without having to go through a traffic light
  • Constructing one U-turn at the Highway 84 interchange so that westbound Highway 84 traffic can avoid traffic lights when turning eastbound. That will assist motorists who are headed from Richland Mall toward downtown.

“As much traffic as we can take out of any signalized intersection, the better the level of service is going to be,” said Bolin, the TxDOT official.

Bolin and Evilia agreed that overall, the project should be a benefit to motorists and business owners alike.

Ronnie Bell, Jeff Hunter Toyota’s general manager, said the discontinuous frontage road presents a challenge to drivers leaving the dealership and trying to get back to the highway’s main lanes. He said he wasn’t aware of the details of the TxDOT proposal, but he’s glad the agency is looking at the project.

“I think it would be more user-friendly,” Bell said. “Anytime you have easier access to any business it’s a plus.”

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