I-35 funding

The $300 million first phase of the project to rebuild Interstate 35 would focus from 12th Street to North Loop 340.

The Texas Transportation Commission on Thursday proposed to commit $115 million of its discretionary funds toward the rebuilding of Interstate 35 in Waco, clearing the way for the project to start in two years.

The discretionary funding, to be adopted March 30, would help bankroll the $300 million first phase of the I-35 project from 12th Street to North Loop 340.

The rest would come from state funding allocations from the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization and Texas Department of Transportation Waco District over the next few years.

TxDOT Waco District engineer Bobby Littlefield said there should still be enough to fund Greater Waco’s second-highest priority project: a $35 million interchange at Highway 84 and Speegleville Road. That project is set to start late next year.

The Waco MPO board preferred to bid the entire eight-mile I-35 project from North Loop 340 to South Loop 340 to save money and shorten construction time. It endorsed a two-phase project this week as Plan B.

Littlefield said the proposed funding commitment is nonetheless a victory for Waco, and he expects the Texas Transportation Commission board will finalize it next month. He said he is pleased to see the proposal in the week of his retirement from TxDOT.

“For the last four years, I’ve been working with the MPO trying to pursue funding opportunities for I-35, and we finally got there,” Littlefield said. “Like I told the MPO, I’ve been in this business for 33 years and I’ve never been able to get everything I wanted. … In this case we got a substantial amount to get a very needed and worthwhile project off the ground.”

Waco MPO director Chris Evilia agreed.

“When you think about it, this is a pretty good deal for Waco,” Evilia said. “We’d love to get all of I-35 done. But we’re getting the most important part of the project funded.”

More money possible

Evilia said there’s a chance the transportation board could approve more funding for the I-35 project at its August meeting, after the revenue picture from recent voter-approved propositions becomes clearer. He said it’s possible the commission will have an additional $3 billion to $4 billion to spend on statewide needs.

“That’s still in play, but for right now they can’t make that commitment right now,” he said. “There are some really big projects out there in places with unbelievable congestion levels in the big cities that could soak up every dime the commission has.”

The projected cost of the loop-to-loop project is $433 million if bid as a single project, or $492 million for a two-phase project.

Under the two-phase scenario, the first phase would take up to four years, while a second phase would take another three years. Littlefield said the two phases could run concurrently, but in any case, expect delays.

“A lot of that is going to be painful,” he said. “Currently we have six lanes, and that’s going to be reduced to four. We’ll still have the frontage roads open, and Loop 340 will be an alternate route.”

Included work

The project will completely overhaul the Waco section, which is almost a half-century old. The work includes:

  • rebuilding and widening the main lanes from six to eight lanes
  • rebuilding many frontage roads
  • relocating on-off ramps and reducing the total from 42 to 26
  • replacing the main lanes on the Brazos River bridge
  • replacing all highway bridges, including the Business 77 interchange, which will be simplified and reduced to two levels. The 11th-12th Street overpass will become an underpass and will have bike-pedestrian connections, as will the reconstructed Fourth-Fifth Street bridge.

In addition to the Texas Transportation Commission’s discretionary funding of $115 million, the MPO will contribute $80 million from its state funding allotment for road improvements over several years.

The TxDOT Waco District, which serves McLennan and seven other counties, would contribute $90 million from a new state funding stream meant to connect rural and urban areas.

That leaves a funding gap of about $15 million, which Littlefield said could be filled with district discretionary funds or a fund meant for bridge replacement.

He said the $300 million is only an estimate, and if the cost is higher, TxDOT may need to “value engineer” the project, trimming some aesthetic features.

“We will never sacrifice safety or anything that is directly related to traffic,” Littlefield said.

Evilia said the Interstate 35 work in Waco will benefit cross-state travelers and locals alike.

“I-35 is used by many Wacoans as an arterial road to get from one side of town to another,” he said. “This should make all that travel easier.”

Bike, pedestrian

He said the work will also improve bike and pedestrian connections between Baylor and downtown Waco.

Evilia credited Littlefield for ensuring that both the I-35 and Highway 84 overpass projects were ready in time for funding.

“If it weren’t for him and his staff making sure everything is ready to go, we wouldn’t have been able to use those dollars,” he said.

The Texas Transportation Commission passed a resolution Thursday thanking Littlefield for his 33 years of service, including four in Waco.

“We were hoping to twist his arm to stay a little longer,” Evilia said.

J.B. Smith is the the Tribune-Herald managing editor. A native of Sulphur Springs, he attended Southwestern University and joined the Tribune-Herald in 1997. He and his wife, Bethany, live in Waco and have two children.

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