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Waco braces for delays as I-35 project starts with lane closure
 JB Smith  / 

Interstate 35 will lose a lane this week as construction work starts to widen and rebuild the freeway through much of Waco.

And the traffic inconveniences are only going to increase as the $341 million project ramps up in coming months. Transportation officials say drivers will need to pay attention to entrances and exits and prepare for delays over the next 5½ years.

A northbound main lane closure starts Monday for the entire 6-mile section of the Waco project between 12th Street and North Loop 340, leaving only two lanes in that direction. Crews will use the closures to reinforce the pavement and shoulder.

Also starting this week, motorists will see various short- and long-term closures along the southbound frontage roads, Texas Department of Transportation officials said.

On Wednesday, TxDOT will permanently close Exit 335A on southbound I-35, which now leads to Fourth and Fifth streets. Motorists should use the University Parks exits instead, TxDOT officials said.

Farther south, access to the southbound frontage road will be permanently eliminated at 13th, 15th and 16th streets.

On the northbound side, the entrance ramp from the frontage road just north of the Brazos River will be closed for the duration of the project, with drivers rerouted through the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard intersection.

More big changes start this spring, including the removal of the Business 77 direct access ramps in East Waco and the pedestrian bridge near Baylor.

TxDOT’s electronic message signs will keep drivers informed of changes from moment to moment, and more information is available at and on Twitter, @TxDOTWacoPIO.

Waco TxDOT spokesman Kenneth Roberts said officials have been keeping the community informed through public meetings and a committee to deal with the concerns of local businesses and the trucking industry.

“We’re going out far and wide to ensure that we can reach not just Waco proper but beyond that,” Roberts said. “We’re utilizing every possible means to ensure the public will remain well-versed on what’s going on.”

By mid-next year, the northbound side of Interstate 35 will be divided with a barrier so southbound traffic can be diverted onto it, resulting in only two lanes each direction.

Frontage road work is expected to wrap up in early 2022, and main lane work the following year.

The project, to be complete in late 2024, will reconfigure entrance and exits and replace bridges and interchanges that have been in service more than 50 years.

In the meantime, some locals will be rerouting their usual commutes, including interim Bellmead City Manager Yost Zakhary, a longtime resident of Woodway.

Zakhary said he will try out a variety of alternative routes, including Waco Drive and East Loop 340.

“I do expect to see increased traffic coming around on Loop 340,” he said.

Zakhary expects to see challenges for commuters trying to get to employers including L3 Technologies and Sherwin-Williams, and for businesses along the route.

“We don’t yet know the exact economic impact that’s going to have,” he said. “We’re going to have to monitor that very closely and make adjustments accordingly.”

He said motorists should be patient and study their routes before heading out.

“We ask that people drive with great care and consideration,” he said. “One crash will really jam everything up.”

Waco saw 2,284 crashes along I-35 between 2012 and 2017, according to TxDOT.

Contractor gearing up for Waco I-35 overhaul

The Woodlands-based general contractor charged with a $341 million reconstruction of Interstate 35 through Waco is gearing up to start construction toward the end of next month.

Rod Aydelotte 

Thousand of runners take off during the start of the second Silo District Marathon winding through downtown Waco and other parts of the city. The Magnolia-sponsored event, which will include Chip Gaines’ participation in the half-marathon, attracted more than 6,000 runners assisted by 400 volunteers and 200 law enforcement officers and other first responders.

Rod Aydelotte 

Runners from second annual Silo District Marathon work their way past the amazing artwork in the 800 block Austin Ave. The chalk art was created between 3 and 7 a.m. Sunday by twenty Waco artists, supplied by 20 sponsors. Each participating artist will draw and stencil in a rectangular area about 12-by-20 feet, located between the street’s center line and curbside parking spaces.

Twitter terror: Arrests prompt concern over online extremism

GREECE, N.Y. — A few months after turning 17 — and two years before he was arrested — Vincent Vetromile recast himself as an online revolutionary.

Offline, in this Rochester, New York suburb, Vetromile was studying heating and air conditioning at a community college. He spent hours with his father, working on cars.

On social media, though, the teenager spoke about reclaiming “our nation at any cost.” Eventually he subbed out the grinning selfie in his Twitter profile with the image of a colonial militiaman shouldering an AR-15 rifle. And he traded his name for a handle: “Standing on the Edge.”

In 2016, he sent the first of more than 70 replies to tweets from a fiery account with 140,000 followers, run by a man calling himself Donald Trump’s biggest Canadian supporter. The final exchange came last December.

“Muslim No-Go Zones Are Springing Up Across America. Lock and load America!” the Canadian tweeted, with a map showing states with Muslim enclaves — including New York.

“If there were specific locations like ‘north of X street in the town of Y, in the state of Z’ we could go there and do something about it,” Vetromile replied.

Weeks later, when police charged Vetromile and three friends with plotting to attack the Muslim settlement of Islamberg in Delaware County, New York, it raised questions about ideology and young people — and technology’s role in bringing them together.

“I don’t know where the exposure came from, if they were exposed to it from other kids at school, through social media,” said Matthew Schwartz, the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case. “I have no idea if their parents subscribe to any of these ideologies.”

Accused with 19-year-old Vetromile are Brian Colaneri, 20; Andrew Crysel, 18; and a 16-year-old the Associated Press isn’t naming because of his age. They’ve all pleaded not guilty. Parents or other relatives declined comment. Their attorneys did not return calls; in court some of them have chalked all this up to talk among buddies.

There is no indication the four had set a date for an attack, prosecutors say, and reports they had 23 guns are misleading; the weapons belonged to family members. Prosecutors allege the suspects discussed using those guns and explosive devices against Islamberg, where residents have faced harassment by right-wing activists who call the community a terrorist training camp. A Tennessee man was convicted in 2017 of plotting to burn Islamberg’s mosque.

Well beyond New York, the spread of extremism — and technology’s role — has sparked concern. A House committee questioned Google and Facebook executives recently about their platforms’ role in feeding hate crime. Experts point to algorithms used by search engines and social networks to prioritize content.

“Once you indicate an inclination, the machine learns,” said Jessie Daniels, a professor at New York’s Hunter College. “That’s exactly what’s happening on all these platforms ... and it just sends some people down a terrible rabbit hole.”

There are few clues so far to explain how four with little experience beyond their high school years might have come up with the idea to attack Islamberg. What is clear, though, is the long thread of frustration in Vetromile’s online posts.

Where once those posts centered around video games and English class, by 2017, Vetromile was directing strong statements at Muslims. The Canadian account, belonging to one Mike Allen, seemed to push that button.

When Allen tweeted, “Czech politicians vote to let citizens carry guns, shoot Muslim terrorists on sight,” Vetromile responded: “We need this here!”

The December tweet about Muslim “no-go zones” included a video interview with Martin Mawyer, whose Christian Action Network made a 2009 documentary alleging Islamberg and other settlements were terrorist training camps. Police have said Islamberg does not threaten violence.

Online, Vetromile expressed concern that the video referred to “’upstate NY and California’ and that’s too big of an area to search for terrorists.” When others chimed in, suggesting locations, Vetromile replied: “Worth a look. Thanks.”

Months earlier, prosecutors say, the four suspects had started using an online messaging platform to discuss weapons and how they would use them in an attack. It’s alleged that Vetromile set up the channel. In November, the conversation expanded to a second channel: “#militia-soldiers-wanted.”

In January, the 16-year-old showed a photo to a classmate of one of his fellow suspects, wearing some kind of tactical vest, and said something like: “’He looks like the next school shooter, doesn’t he?” according to local police. The other student reported the incident, leading to the charges of conspiracy to commit terrorism.

Immigrant-heavy GOP states OK with census citizen question

PHOENIX — It’s not just Democratic-leaning states at risk of losing federal money and clout in Congress if the Supreme Court says the upcoming census can include a citizenship question.

Fast-growing Arizona, Florida and Texas all have large groups of immigrants, especially Hispanics, who might choose to sit out the census, but are led by Republicans who seem unconcerned about the potential for an undercount and the resulting loss of representation in Congress.

The divide between blue and red states with large immigrant populations is stark as both prepare for a census that could ask about citizenship for the first time in 70 years.

Republican lawmakers in several states with large immigrant populations praised the Trump administration for fighting to include the question and wondered whether immigrants should even be included in the count.

Florida state Sen. Joe Gruters, who also is chairman of the state Republican Party, said he wasn’t worried about the potential consequences of an undercount.

“I don’t care,” he said. “It’s the right decision, and I fully support the president and what he’s trying to do.”

He expects Florida will still pick up at least one seat because of rapid growth.

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide soon whether to uphold the Trump administration’s plan to ask about citizenship on census forms. There appeared to be a clear divide between the court’s liberal and conservative justices in arguments in the case this past week, with conservatives holding a 5-4 majority.

Federal law requires people to complete the census accurately and fully. But Ceridwen Cherry, a lawyer on the American Civil Liberties Union’s voting rights project, said including a citizenship question could contaminate the form for many people and result in an undercount.

“If a citizenship question is added, immigrants and those who live in households that contain noncitizens are going to be more likely to not respond to the census at all,” she said, “or respond and leave off noncitizens from the form.”

The concern among certain immigrant groups — particularly Hispanics and Muslims — is driven by the Trump administration’s oftentimes harsh rhetoric about immigration and fears that it will share the census data with immigration authorities. When an advisory committee asked the U.S. Census Bureau about that worry last year, officials responded by saying that breaking census confidentiality is a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison.

Opponents of the citizenship question point to a study by George Washington University political scientist Chris Warshaw, who found that two or three states are likely to end up with fewer congressional seats than they otherwise would have because of a citizenship question. The most likely in that category are Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas.

On the other side, he said a citizenship question would make it more likely for Idaho or Montana to gain a seat and Minnesota or Ohio to avoid losing one. Nine states would have lost population since the last census if not for international immigration, according to an Associated Press analysis of a Census Bureau population estimate.

In Michigan, a political swing state, the concern is that it could discourage participation among the large Arab American community.

Hassan Jaber, a former census advisory board member, is critical of the administration’s citizenship question and of a decision against adding a Middle East-North Africa classification to the 2020 census.

He said including the citizenship question could affect federal funding for programs and services related to food, health and education. But he’s more troubled by the message it sends to Arab Americans and others.

“The Trump administration’s effort to suppress this recognition of this community sends signals of being unwelcome and to politicize the census ... and turn it against minority groups,” said Jaber, CEO of ACCESS, a Detroit-area social services organization. “It’s really something that becomes much bigger than just the data on Arab Americans.”

Matt Barreto, a UCLA professor who submitted testimony in court cases about the citizenship question, did polling that showed 7.1% to 9.7% of the population might skip the census if it’s added. He also found that nearly half of Californians don’t trust the Trump administration to keep the citizenship information out of the hands of other government agencies.

“The administration wanted a citizenship question to hurt California. In the end, they’re going to end up hurting conservative states and counties,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.

Conservatives generally support adding the citizenship question, even if it might suppress the total population count in their state.

“If we would be entitled to another congressional seat, the question is, should we be entitled to it because we have more non-citizens living here that are not voters, or shouldn’t be voters?” said Arizona Senate President Karen Fann.

Arizona Republican lawmaker John Fillmore said he’s not concerned about the fallout. He believes the state’s explosive growth will ensure it doesn’t lose clout.

“I do not believe Arizona’s going to lose a House seat in any way shape or form,” he said.

In Texas, Republican state Rep. Phil King said there is bipartisan agreement that everyone should be counted. He said the state is likely to pick up seats in Congress because of its rapid population growth, but it will be a close call to determine how many.

“What we’ve got to do as a state is just make sure that we have programs in place that strongly encourage everybody to respond to the census and to know that it’s safe and OK to do that,” said King, who is chairman of the House redistricting committee.

Texas Civil Rights Project spokesman Zenen Jaimes Perez said the organization has not had any coordination with the state on making sure Hispanic communities are counted. Perez said the group has worked with city officials in Austin, Houston and San Antonio to host community forums about the census and the importance of filling it out.

Census data is used to divide the 435 U.S. House seats between 50 states and determine their clout in the Electoral College. It’s also used to draw state legislative district maps and divvy up federal funding to states, cities and counties.

About half the states have created “complete count” commissions to coordinate grassroots efforts designed to convince people to complete their census forms, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, who supports the citizenship question on the census, this month created a complete count committee to work on outreach.

He said the state stands to lose an estimated $887 in federal funding each year for every person who skips the count.

Ducey said the group will include people with expertise in reaching out to rural areas, tribes, universities, apartment dwellers, faith organizations, veterans and community organizations. Lawmakers are considering spending $5 million on the effort, a proposal that cleared the Senate nearly unanimously.

Ducey told Capitol Media Services earlier this month that asking about citizenship is “a fair question” to “get a handle of who’s here, who’s a citizen and who’s not.”

His spokesman, Patrick Ptak, declined to comment on the prospect of not gaining a House seat but said the census is a priority for the governor’s office.

Persuading people to respond to the Census requires explaining how it’s linked to funding for schools, hospitals and other services — and making them know it would be illegal for the census to share individual information, said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

“An army of lawyers will be ready in the worst-case scenario that there is some kind of nefarious action taken around census confidentiality,” Gupta said.

Barr's testimony to House on Mueller in doubt amid dispute

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has informed the House Judiciary Committee that Attorney General William Barr may skip a Thursday hearing on special counsel Robert Mueller’s report if committee lawyers seek to question him.

The Democratic-run committee plans to allow counsels from both sides to ask Barr about the Russia probe after the traditional round of questioning by lawmakers. Department officials also told the committee that they opposed a plan to go into a closed session if members wanted to discuss redacted portions of Mueller’s report, according to a senior Democratic aide on the committee, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the confidential communications with the department.

Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said given that Barr had agreed to testify, lawmakers “should be the ones doing the questioning. He remains happy to engage with members on their questions regarding the Mueller report.”

Barr is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday and the House panel on Thursday. The GOP-led Senate committee is expected to have normal rounds of member questioning.

It is unusual for committee counsels to question a witness. But committees can generally make their own rules, and other panels have made similar exceptions. In a confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh last year, for example, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee hired an outside prosecutor to question a witness who had accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault.

The dispute comes as tensions have escalated sharply between House Democrats and the Trump administration over full access Mueller’s report and government witnesses who have defied congressional subpoenas to testify. Democrats have been eagerly anticipating the hearing with Barr as they try to build on Mueller’s findings with their own investigations into the president.

House Democrats have subpoenaed the Justice Department for the unredacted version of the Mueller report and underlying material gathered from the investigation. In response, the Justice Department has said they will make the full report, minus grand jury material, available to a limited group of members — an offer that Democrats have so far refused. The dispute could eventually end up in court.

A spokeswoman for the top Republican on the committee, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, noted that Barr’s testimony is voluntary and criticized the Democrats for not reading the full report. “Democrats have yet to prove their demands are anything but abusive and illogical in light of the transparency and good faith the attorney general has shown our committee,” Jessica Andrews said.

Democrats have criticized Barr for drawing his own conclusion that Trump did not obstruct justice after Mueller found he couldn’t exonerate the president on that point. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said Barr is involved in a “staggering public effort” by the Trump administration to put a positive face on Mueller’s findings.

Rod Aydelotte 

Chip and Joanna Gaines along with their new baby Crew wave to participants of the second Silo District Marathon. Chip would later run in the race.