The widening of Interstate 35 through Waco is meant to be a boon for freeway drivers. But pedestrian and cycling advocates see it as an opportunity to stitch downtown and the Baylor University area back together.

Leaders of Waco Walks and the Waco Bicycle Club have been meeting with transportation officials to discuss eleventh-hour design tweaks to the three downtown underpasses that could make them more inviting to walkers and bikers moving between downtown and campus.

At a meeting with city of Waco and Texas Department of Transportation staff Thursday, they suggested public art, landscaping and possibly sidewalk railings to overcome the mental barriers to crossing under the highway, especially at Fourth and Fifth streets.

“The space at Fourth and Fifth is so ugly, it’s forbidding to people,” said Ashley Bean Thornton, founder of Waco Walks, who regularly commutes to work at Baylor on foot. “There’s a very short space between campus and the retail area across the interstate, but the most common thing is for people to get in their car and drive to Chick-fil-A or Whataburger. It feels like a million miles away because it’s really ugly.”

Bicycle club President Trent Dougherty said the reconstruction of I-35 is an opportunity to correct an unfriendly underpass design.

“When I moved here in 2009, my first impression of this bridge was, ‘What demonic force designed this to divide downtown from campus?’ ” said Dougherty, a Baylor philosophy associate professor who commutes by bicycle. “That bridge is the No. 1 barrier keeping us from unifying downtown and Baylor.”

TxDOT officials said the design for that crossing, along with the rest of the I-35 reconstruction project through Waco, was completed five years ago after a public meeting process. TxDOT officials only this year scraped enough money together to get started on the Waco project, with $300 million set aside for the section between 12th Street and Loop 340 North. The project will replace and widen the main lanes from six to eight lanes, while rebuilding frontage roads, ramps and bridges.

A contract to build the project is to be let by December 2018.

There could be room to make some minor aesthetic and safety improvements to the underpass designs, said Michael Bolin, TxDOT Waco district transportation planning director. But the design changes would need to be identified by this September, and the money for them would probably have to come from outside TxDOT.

“We don’t have to have every detail finalized (by September), but we need to know things like, are we doing handrails or not?” Bolin said.

The bicycle and pedestrian groups were complimentary of the design work that has been done on the downtown underpasses at 11th Street, Fourth and Fifth streets and University Parks Drive. All three crossings would include sidewalks on both sides of the streets, plus crosswalks, countdown timers and extra-wide outer lanes that cyclists would share with motorists. Lighting would be improved under the bridges.

Underpass rendering

A Texas Department of Transportation sketch shows features that will be incorporated at the downtown street crossings under the reconstructed Interstate 35 section, including sidewalks, countdown timers and crosswalks.

Designs call for tearing down the 11th Street overpass and putting 11th Street at grade, with the highway passing over it. Meanwhile, the Eighth Street pedestrian bridge, which doesn’t meet modern standards, would be removed.

At Fourth and Fifth streets, the labyrinth of lanes around Dutton Avenue on the Baylor side would be simplified, reducing the number of possible “conflict points” between vehicles.

Also, freeway exits that lead to the doorstep of Fourth and Fifth streets would be eliminated. Northbound traffic would have to exit before Eighth Street, and southbound traffic would have to exit north of the Brazos River, giving freeway traffic time to slow down to urban frontage-road speeds.

Dougherty said that’s a major safety improvement, especially for cyclists. He said he was surprised to find the change to the ramps was already in the design.

“This was my dream come true,” Dougherty said. “I expected to come to have to fight for this and that. This is everything I ever dreamed of.”

But he agreed with Thornton that efforts to beautify the underpass would pay off in more cyclist and pedestrian use.

“Even though I’m primarily concerned with functionality, that’s not divorced from aesthetics,” he said.

Thornton’s group has met with arts groups, including Creative Waco, to brainstorm possible creative designs, such as maps or other images inlaid in the concrete, or colorful lighting complementing the new Brazos River bridges, which are fitted with LED lights.

“I wish we had done this in 2012, but we didn’t exist in 2012,” she said of the original public input for the designs. “It seems to me this highway is more than 50 years old. I hope whatever comes next lasts at least that long.

“What a shame it would be to let the opportunity pass to make it something at least not hideous and at best something really neat.”

City planning and parks staff attended the meeting Thursday, along with members of the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization. MPO officials said staff-level discussions will continue with TxDOT staff about design tweaks, but funding remains an unsolved question.

The Tax Increment Financing Zone No. 1, which funds downtown improvements using a portion of downtown property tax revenue, is one option, but the zone’s boundaries end on the downtown side of the bridge at Fourth and Fifth streets.

Another group that will be directly affected by the design is Church Under the Bridge, which has been meeting under the overpass at Fourth and Fifth streets for almost 25 years.

Pastor Jimmy Dorrell said he was “flabbergasted” and honored to be invited to the design meetings for the project more than five years ago, and he expects to move back to the bridge after a few years of displacement during construction.

“I love what they’re doing with the design,” he said. “It’s really got possibilities. If they’ve got more money to make it nicer, that would be great. … (Interstate 35) is a historic and topographical division between downtown and Baylor, and I agree it’s important to make it look right.”

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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