Local transportation planners still are pressing for full funding of Waco’s Interstate 35 reconstruction project to begin by early 2019, but they are considering alternatives that could spread the work out over two or three phases.

The fastest and most cost-effective way to widen and rebuild the eight-mile I-35 section inside Loop 340 is to bid it as a single project, Waco-based Texas Department of Transportation leaders told the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization on Thursday. But scraping together $433 million for the entire project is a challenge.

“That would be ideal, and we are still hopeful that will happen, but realistically, probably not,” said Bobby Littlefield, Waco TxDOT district engineer. “The longer we stand here and wait, the higher that (price) goes.”

He said he is hoping as early as March to learn how much in discretionary funds the Texas Transportation Commission is willing to commit. The Waco district has its own funding streams to add to the project, but if the total falls short of $433 million, he has backup plans that the MPO could consider to get the project started on time.

Plan B would be to build the section from 12th Street to North Loop 340 at a cost of $301 million, starting in fiscal year 2019. The second phase, from 12th Street to South Loop 340, would begin in fiscal year 2022 and cost $191 million. The total cost of the project would be $492 million.

Littlefield said if the commission agrees to fund 50 percent of the project, Plan B would be a possible alternative.

If it’s less, then officials could consider Plan C. Under that plan, work would begin in fiscal year 2019 with a $146 million segment between 12th Street and Forrest Street. A $167 million phase two would begin in 2021, extending from Forrest to North Loop 340, and work would begin in 2024 on the $207 million third phase from 12th Street to South Loop 340.

That plan would cost a total of $520 million and extend construction time until 2027.

Unappealing option

Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver, chairman on the MPO policy board, said that’s an unappealing option.

“The disruption for the citizen goes way up,” he said.

In an interview, MPO director Chris Evilia said he expects the Texas Transportation Commission would have to pay for 80 percent of the Interstate 35 to ensure the whole project can be done at once.

The local MPO, which sets transportation priorities in McLennan County’s urbanized areas, has discretion over a stream of TxDOT funding and is expected to contribute some of it to Interstate 35. The funding stream is expected to be $15 million in 2018, rising to $34.25 million in 2019 and $20 million in 2020.

Littlefield, who sits on the MPO board, said state transportation officials don’t expect the MPO to dedicate its entire portion to the Interstate 35 project.

“They know we have other priorities in the region,” he said.

The second priority is a new $35 million interchange at Speegleville Road and Highway 84, which is tentatively set to begin in late 2018. Littlefield said that project can still happen on time along with Interstate 35.

The MPO board will likely vote in April on whether to phase the I-35 project or hold out for more money, Evilia said.

The eight-mile Waco project is the final segment to be reconstructed in the Interstate 35 Central Texas corridor, which runs 96 miles from north of Hillsboro to south of Salado. The entire corridor project is expected to cost $2.5 billion.

The Waco section is expensive because of its scope, which includes:

• Reconstructing the decades-old main lanes of Interstate 35 and expanding them to eight lanes.

• Rebuilding and widening frontage roads.

• Rebuilding and relocating ramps, with a reduction from 42 to 26 ramps. A new “braided” ramp north of Elm Avenue would allow southbound traffic exiting the main lanes to cross over an entrance ramp to get to Elm.

• Replacing all highway bridges, including the three-level interchange at Business 77, which will be simplified and reduced to two levels. The 11th Street overpass will be converted to an underpass and will have pedestrian connections, as will the reconstructed Fourth and Fifth Street overpass.

• Rebuilding the main lanes on the bridge spanning the Brazos River, which are currently several feet lower than the new frontage road bridges.

“The view you get now is of the bridges, which are pretty, but you can’t see the river,” Waco TxDOT district transportation planning director Michael Bolin told the MPO.

TxDOT officials assured the MPO that four lanes of the interstate would remain open during daytime hours throughout construction. Loop 340, which is being widened in two places, will serve as an alternate route, but traffic will be diverted there only if there’s an accident, Littlefield 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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