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Baylor guard Juicy Landrum, right, reaches in on Connecticut forward Napheesa Collier, center with teammate forward Lauren Cox, right, in the first half.

Local committee calls for $8 million boost to cover I-35 overrun; No decision on 2nd phase
 Cassie L Smith  / 

Local transportation leaders decided Thursday to recommend throwing $8 million more behind the first phase of Interstate 35 construction through Waco.

But with a deadline looming next month, the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization’s technical committee did not come back with a recommendation on how much local discretionary money to put into the second phase of interstate work, which the state has not yet funded.

The $8 million boost, on top of $80 million the MPO has already committed to the first phase, essentially would ensure the work takes four years instead of seven years, said Michael Bolin, deputy district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation’s Waco district. The second-place bid for the work came in $8.3 million cheaper than the winning bid, but was not the successful because the company did not meet timeline requirements TxDOT put in place to minimize the project’s impact on the city, Bolin said.

Both bids came in higher than the $300 million estimate for the project, which is set to start in the spring and stretch from 12th Street north to Loop 340. With some changes to reduce utility relocation costs after the high bids came in, the state was left to find $29 million, and asked the MPO for $8 million of it.

The MPO policy board will meet Jan. 17 and have the option to take the technical committee’s recommendation to offer the $8 million. MPOs statewide get state highway money every year that they are allowed to use as they see fit on local highway projects. The Waco MPO has about $231 million through 2029, which is where the money it puts into the interstate would come from, Waco MPO Director Chris Evilia said.

Though the state will pay for the majority of interstate work through Waco, use of the MPO’s discretionary fund helps the projects rise higher on TxDOT’s priority list. On the other hand, pouring money into the interstate leaves other work in the area unfunded.

The Waco MPO policy board will need to decide by its February meeting how to rank its projects, Bolin said.

“That’s where they earn their money being on the policy board,” Bolin said. “Right now, we’re kind of in a climate where it’s first to the trough.”

“If the only thing this project is waiting on is money, they get creative sometimes,” Bolin said.

City officials have said they want to get the second phase of interstate work, from 12th Street south to Loop 340, started as soon as possible. With the prospect of the second phase not starting until after the first phase wraps up, possibly bringing a decadelong interstate overhaul in Waco, city council members even headed to Austin late last year to discuss options with state lawmakers.

2nd phase in 2021

The soonest work could start on the second phase, estimated to cost $240 million, is 2021.

Without a recommendation Thursday from the MPO technical committee, a $60 million placeholder remains for the MPO policy board to consider for the second phase of I-35 work.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson, file 

Drivers head north on Interstate 35 through Waco. The MPO’s technical committee recommended that the MPO put in $8 million more to keep the first phase of I-35 widening in Waco on track.

Even if the MPO commits that money, it would not guarantee the state funds the project immediately, Bolin said. Evilia previously said the $240 million estimate for the total cost may be optimistic since the cost of the first phase came in higher than expected.

Regardless of the MPO’s decision on how to rank projects, it will be able to revisit its rankings, said technical committee member Amy Burlarley-Hyland, assistant director of public works for the city of Waco.

“A decision about which priorities and how to organize this list today doesn’t stop us from changing priorities at another date,” she said. “We’re not setting something in stone with a recommendation to the policy board.”

Bolin said, for instance, the “mall to mall” project on Loop 340 the Waco MPO policy board currently has high on its importance list has raised some concerns with TxDOT. The stretch between Richland Mall and Central Texas Marketplace is considered an alternate route for I-35 and will become more important when the interstate is under construction, he said.

The proposed $40 million project would add continuous frontage roads to the stretch of Loop 340/Highway 6 from Bagby Avenue to Highway 84, including four new frontage road bridges over railroad tracks.

“Granted the work doesn’t directly impact the existing lanes as they are, but we really want to start looking at that project and how it overlaps with the I-35 project,” Bolin said. “We continue at TxDOT to have concerns about East Loop project simply because having that under construction at the same time as I-35 raises concerns since the loop is the alternate route.”

Johnson sworn in as new McLennan County DA
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

Standing in front of a banner proclaiming “Justice and Fairness for All,” Barry Johnson on Thursday promised a new era of “honesty, integrity and transparency” as McLennan County’s new district attorney.

Johnson, 62, was sworn into office by 54th State District Judge Matt Johnson before a crowd of about 300 at the Baylor University Law School. Barry Johnson and Matt Johnson were law school classmates at Oklahoma City University, and their fathers were longtime courthouse fixtures while serving as state district judges in McLennan County.

After Johnson was sworn in, Judge Matt Johnson swore in 19 of the 31 assistant district attorneys in attendance, including Barry Johnson’s first two hires as incoming DA — First Assistant District Attorney Nelson Barnes, a former prosecutor in Bell County, and Executive Assistant District Attorney Tom Needham, the former law partner of Barry Johnson and Johnson’s older brother, Joe Johnson Jr., in Dallas.

Johnson introduced his family, friends and supporters who helped him sweep into office by defeating two-term incumbent Abel Reyna by 20 percentage points in the March Republican primary.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Barry Johnson talks to a packed courtroom at the Baylor Law School with his staff, who were also sworn in.

Baylor Law Professor Jim Wren, Johnson’s brother-in-law who practiced law with him in Waco before Johnson moved to Dallas, introduced Johnson at the 90-minute ceremony, which also was attended by law enforcement officers from a number of agencies.

Wren said Johnson is the “real deal” in terms of integrity, his ability as a trial lawyer and being a “real person.”

“With Barry, there are no airs, no false pretenses,” Wren said. “He knows where he comes from and he knows who he serves. So I absolutely believe we are getting the real deal as a person of integrity, a trial lawyer and a real person who takes his job seriously. Barry is committed to doing this job right.”

Johnson and Reyna met last month, and Johnson said he appreciates Reyna’s cooperation for helping make the transition in administrations a smooth one. Johnson outlined his goals for his office, saying the mission is to seek justice.

“A prosecutor’s duty is not to convict, but to see that justice is done. It sounds easy. It can be easy. But it can also be incredibly difficult,” Johnson said. “That is where we are going with it. We are gong to see that justice is done by protecting the constitutional and statutory rights afforded to every person in our county without respect to race, ethnicity, gender, religion or socio-economic status.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Incoming McLennan County District Attorney Barry Johnson (left) shakes hands with Sheriff Parnell McNamara before a swearing in ceremony.

Johnson said his office is not going to be soft on crime and that it will vigorously prosecute violent and habitual offenders and strive to protect innocent victims.

“That is our job. But we are also committed to crime prevention,” Johnson said. “That is kind of new-wave in criminal justice. It is not criminal justice reform. It is criminal justice evolution. Things are evolving. Times are new and we are going to be hard on crime and prosecute those violent and habitual offenders, and do so aggressively. But we will also be committed to crime prevention by implementing innovative programs to break the cycle of crime for youthful, first-time, mentally ill and drug-addicted offenders.”

Johnson said he will continue a pretrial intervention program initiated by Reyna, support the successful drug court run by County Court-at-Law Judge Vik Deivanayagam, assist in the creation of a new veterans’ court and help divert those with mental health issues from jail when warranted.

Pelosi sees 'new dawn' as diverse 116th Congress begins

WASHINGTON — The 116th Congress gaveled into session Thursday, swathed in history as lawmakers returned Nancy Pelosi to the House speaker’s office and ushered in a diverse class of Democratic freshmen ready to confront President Donald Trump in a new era of divided government.

Pelosi, elected speaker 220-192, took the gavel saying voters opted for a “new dawn” in the November election and are looking to “the beauty of our Constitution” to provide checks and balances on power. She invited scores of lawmakers’ kids to join her on the dais as she was sworn in, calling the House to order “on behalf of all of America’s children.” She faced 15 dissenting votes from fellow Democrats.

The new Congress is like none other. There are more women than ever before, and a new generation of Muslims, Latinos, Native Americans and African-Americans in the House is creating what academics call a reflective democracy, more aligned with the population of the United States. The Republican side in the House is still made up mostly of white men, and in the Senate Republicans bolstered their ranks in the majority.

In a nod to the moment, Pelosi, the first female speaker, was broadly pledging to make Congress work for all Americans — addressing kitchen table issues at a time of deep economic churn — even as her party is ready to challenge Trump with investigations and subpoena powers that threaten the White House agenda. It’s the first new Congress to convene amid a partial government shutdown, now in its 13th day over Trump’s demands for money for a wall along the U.S-Mexico border.

“This House will be for the people,” Pelosi said. She promised to “restore integrity to government” and outlined an agenda “to lower health costs and prescription drugs prices, and protect people with pre-existing conditions; to increase paychecks by rebuilding America with green and modern infrastructure — from sea to shining sea.”

The day was unfolding as one of both celebration and impatience. Newly elected lawmakers arrived, often with friends and families in tow, to take the oath of office and pose for ceremonial photos. The Democrats planned to quickly pass legislation to re-open the government, but without the funding Trump is demanding for his promised border wall.

Vice President Mike Pence swore in newly-elected senators, but Senate Republicans under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had no plans to consider the House bills to fund the government unless Trump agrees to sign them into law. That ensures the shutdown will continue, clouding the first days of the new session.

McConnell said that Republicans have shown the Senate is “fertile soil for big bipartisan accomplishments,” but that the question is whether House Democrats will engage in “good governance or political performance art.”

It’s a time of stark national political division that some analysts say is on par with the Civil War era. Battle lines are drawn not just between Democrats and Republicans but within the parties themselves, splintered by their left and right flanks.

Pelosi defied history in returning to the speaker’s office after eight years in the minority, overcoming internal opposition from Democrats demanding a new generation of leaders. She will be the first to regain the gavel since legendary Sam Rayburn of Texas in 1955.

Putting Pelosi’s name forward for nomination, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the incoming Democratic caucus chair, recounted her previous accomplishments — passing the Affordable Care Act, helping the country out of the Great Recession — as preludes to her next ones. He called her leadership “unparalleled in modern American history.”

One Democrat, Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Michigan, cast her vote for Pelosi “on the shoulders of women who marched 100 years ago” for women’s suffrage. Newly elected Rep. Lucy McBath of Georgia, an anti-gun violence advocate, dedicated hers to her slain teenage son, Jordan Davis.

As speaker, she’ll face an early challenge from the party’s robust wing of liberal newcomers, including 29-year-old New Yorker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has risen to such prominence she is already known around the Capitol — and on her prolific social media accounts — by the nickname “AOC.” She said she’d cast a no vote on a new package of rules to govern the House.

Ocasio-Cortez and other liberals oppose the pay-as-you-go budget provisions in the rules package that would allow restrictive objections to any legislation that would add to federal deficits. They say such restraints would hamstring Democratic efforts to invest in health care, education and develop a Green New Deal of renewable energy infrastructure projects to fight climate change.

Republicans face their own internal battles beyond just the conservative House Freedom Caucus, but as they decide how closely to tie their political fortunes to Trump. GOP leader Kevin McCarthy’s name was put into nomination by his party’s caucus chair, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the daughter of the former vice president. He faced six “no” votes from his now-shrunken GOP minority.

McCarthy told the lawmakers that voters often wonder if Congress is “still capable” of solving problems, and as he passed the gavel to Pelosi he said this period of divided government is “no excuse for gridlock.”

One office remains disputed as the House refused to seat Republican Mark Harris of North Carolina amid an investigation by state election officials of irregularities in absentee ballots from the November election.

Many GOP senators are up for re-election in 2020 in states, including Colorado and Maine, where voters have mixed views of Trump’s performance in the White House.

Trump, whose own bid for 2020 already is underway, faces potential challenges from the ranks of Senate Democrats under Chuck Schumer. Trump had little to say early Thursday as the new Congress was convening, but he did tweet an attack on one of his likely presidential challengers, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, mocking her claim to Native American ancestry.

The halls of the Capitol were bustling with arrivals, children in the arms of many new lawmakers. Visitor galleries included crooner Tony Bennett and rock legend Mickey Hart, both guests of Pelosi. Incoming White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, a former congressman, sat with Republican leaders.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., opened the House prayer asking at “a time fraught with tribalism at home and turbulence abroad” that lawmakers “become the architects of a kindlier nation.”

Man indicted same day as disqualification from grand jury
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

At the very least, Gregory Joseph Esposito should be given credit for showing up Wednesday when summoned as a potential member of a McLennan County grand jury.

Judge Ralph Strother was impaneling a new grand jury, and only 35 people out of 150 summoned to appear bothered to come to court Wednesday morning. Because of the absentees, Esposito, who was number 23 on the original list, moved up to fourth in line as the judge sought to qualify 12 members and four alternates to serve on the grand jury.

The problem for Esposito, 33, who was arrested in August, was that he also was on the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office list as a target for indictment Wednesday on a third-degree felony possession of methamphetamine charge.

Assistant District Attorney Mark Parker, whose office ran criminal background checks on the potential grand jury members, brought Esposito’s arrest and the fact that he was on the list to be indicted Wednesday to Strother’s attention after the judge asked if anyone challenged the qualifications of those present or the makeup of the grand jury.

Strother excused Esposito, who quickly left the courtroom. The Robinson man remains free on bail.

Those summoned for grand jury service can be disqualified if they are under indictment or other legal accusation or have felony or theft convictions, Parker said. Fifteen others summoned Wednesday but who did not appear had felony or theft convictions, Parker said.

“It was a very unusual set of circumstances,” Strother said. “I seem to have encountered a lot of those lately. But I suppose he does deserve some credit for showing up for jury duty. We run criminal history checks on people, but in all the times I have done this, this is the only time I recall where someone on the list actually had a pending charge.”

Later Wednesday, Strother had to replace a grand jury member with an alternate once the grand jury session was under way after a member expressed distrust of the legal system over how his brother was treated. He said he could not be fair and did not want to take part in the process, Strother said.

“He was very forthcoming about it, and we appreciate it,” the judge said.