On the 14-mile stretch of West Highway 84 between McGregor and Highway 6 in Waco, there’s just one stoplight, and commuters know it well as a chokepoint.
It’s at the intersection of Speegleville Road, where motorists going 65 mph often have to come to a complete stop and wait for several minutes.
“In the morning you can sit at that light for two or three cycles,” said Nathan Embry, president of the West Highway 84 neighborhood association.
Now transportation officials say they may be close to beginning work on an overpass at Speegleville Road that would remove that bottleneck and accommodate the area’s continuing growth spurt.
The Texas Department of Transportation already has acquired the necessary right-of-way at a cost of $12 million. It has also completed the design of the overpass and associated Highway 84 frontage roads west of the intersection.
The city of Waco has let a $1.3 million contract to relocate utilities in the right-of-way, which should start in January and wrap up by mid-summer.
The only remaining obstacle is getting construction funded, to the tune of $34.5 million.
But state funding is likely to become available in time to start construction in late 2018 or early 2019, said Chris Evilia, director of the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization, which works with TxDOT to plan transportation projects countywide.
Evilia said most of the funding will likely come from Proposition 7, which Texas voters approved in 2015 to fund transportation needs through a portion of the state sales tax. He said that under the proposition’s enabling legislation, the Texas Legislature in early 2017 will need to vote to include the Proposition 7 money in the transportation budget.
“There’s no reason to think that won’t happen,” Evilia said.
He said now that both phases of the China Spring Road expansion project have been funded, the Speegleville Road overpass is the MPO’s top priority, other than Interstate 35.
Evilia said if the Proposition 7 funds don’t cover the full construction cost, the MPO could ask the Waco district TxDOT office to help cover the gap with its discretionary funds.
He added that other state funding sources might arise between now and late 2018.
“If the Legislature feels inclined to provide additional dollars, we will not complain,” he said.
Bobby Littlefield, TxDOT Waco district engineer, said he also hopes that the Texas Transportation Commission can fund the overpass project in the 2018-19 fiscal year.
But he said uncertainties remain about the timing of that project and the Interstate 35 widening project, which could be built simultaneously. He said the transportation commission could provide clarity at its February meeting.
“The best-case scenario is that we could get U.S. 84 and Speegleville funded in 2018 and the first phase (of I-35) in 2019,” Littlefield said.
Littlefield said district TxDOT officials are now proposing to break the I-35 project into three phases of about $150 million each, starting with the segment between 12th Street and Forrest Drive.
He said the local TxDOT office may need to spend a significant amount of its discretionary dollars on the I-35 project, but it also might have some money to help with the Speegleville Road overpass.
Littlefield, who sits on the MPO board, said he agrees the overpass and frontage road project is a top priority for the area.
“That project is on a major route, and that location is on the western edge of the controlled-access freeway system in an area where there has been some growth,” he said. “We need to extend the freeway system beyond that intersection.”
The West Highway 84 corridor has been a top growth area in the county for more than two decades, including subdivisions such as Hidden Valley, Stone Creek Ranch, Harris Creek, SunWest and Twin Rivers. More recently, Speegleville Road has seen more residential development, along with the new River Valley Intermediate School.
Highway 84 carries about 23,000 cars per day at Speegleville Road, and another 4,500 enter from Old Lorena Road from the south. Current data for Speegleville Road traffic at that intersection was unavailable.
Evilia said the intersection hasn’t stood out as one of the area’s most dangerous intersections, but the high speed limits there put it at risk of deadly crashes.
He said traffic counts from all directions are only going to grow.
“If you go out in the morning and evening peak times, there’s quite a bit of backup at the traffic signal,” he said. “There’s a lot just from the development that’s occurred in the area, but now we have increased activity coming in from McGregor. We’re anticipating more going toward McGregor as SpaceX ramps up, and McGregor keeps telling us there are additional folks coming to their industrial parks.”
Ken Cooper, who lives in the area and is a partner in the Hidden Valley development, said the overpass is well-planned and is coming at the right time.
“I think it will facilitate growth that is already happening,” he said. “There’s definitely going to be more commercial growth at that intersection, and more residential growth as well.”
Embry, the neighborhood association president, said his group has advocated for the overpass with local and state officials.
“We’re concerned about safety, we’re concerned about commute times, and we’re concerned about congestion,” he said. “We look forward to playing an active role.”
Embry, who lives at SunWest, travels down Highway 84 in the mornings to drop his kids off at Hewitt Elementary School. He said that as traffic backs up at Speegleville Road, some motorists will begin driving on the shoulders to get over to the frontage road, or look for a back road.
Evilia said that the overpass project will require some existing residents to change their habits. For example, traffic coming from Bosque Lane will no longer be able to cross over Highway 84. That will require some residents to either find a back road to Speegleville Road or catch a turnaround on Highway 84 farther west.