Waco will not be “Salado’d” during a four-and-a-half-year, $300 million widening of Interstate 35 slated to start in the spring, a Texas Department of Transportation official said.

Interstate widening in Salado, Belton and Temple started before the state had acquired all of the necessary right of way and before utility infrastructure was relocated, TxDOT Waco District Engineer Stan Swiatek said. The state already has the right of way needed for the upcoming Waco project, and utilities are already being moved, Swiatek said.

Seth Morris, vice president of economic development at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, said he has been surprised by the strong feelings I-35 evokes.

“We’re actually pretty quick to use sometimes harsh words in regards to construction to the south, even to the point where I heard someone say — they used the city of Salado as a verb — ‘Let’s hope the project is not Salado’d,’ ” Morris said.

Swiatek told a group of business owners, elected officials and developers at a chamber event Thursday that officials learned several lessons from the interstate work through the Temple, Salado and Belton areas. TxDOT has undertaken several initiatives to speed up the upcoming construction on I-35 through Waco from 12th Street to North Loop 340, he said.

“Is it going to be easy? No,” Swiatek said. “It’s going to hurt. It’s going to hurt. We want to limit how much it hurts and we want to keep the hurt to as little as possible. One of the other ways that we limit the hurt is to talk about it so that you know it’s coming so that you don’t get surprised, especially if you’re a business owner. … Our goal is to build this project as quickly as we can.”

TxDOT will award the project to a contractor next month, with plans for construction to start in March or April. Companies from across the state and a few outside Texas have expressed interest in the overhaul, he said.

The contract will include $15 million in incentives for meeting incremental deadlines throughout the project, Swiatek said.

I-35 will be widened from three lanes to four lanes in each direction, and frontage roads will be moved to prevent them from being too close to the highway. The frontage roads will have continuous sidewalks and wider outside lanes to allow for a shared bicycle path, he said.

The southbound lanes will close first, and the northbound lanes will be transformed to handle two-way traffic.

While in that state, if the contractor has to close a lane during the day, the contractor will pay TxDOT $20,000 an hour to “rent” the lane back, Swiatek said.

“Why? Because we don’t want him closing a lane during the day,” he said.

Lane closures overnight will cost $2,000 an hour.

“Why? Because we want him to close lanes at night,” he said.

TxDOT representatives will continue to reach out to business owners and other community members along the highway to keep them in the loop about the project, he said.

“We’ll work with you regularly to make sure access to business will not be affected as much as we can,” he said. “We’ll be knocking on your door to let you know weeks in advance when we’re going to impact your driveway.”

There will be a public open house meeting on the project from 3 to 7 p.m. Dec. 11 in Knox Hall at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, 100 Texas Ranger Trail in Waco.

After Thursday’s event, Morris, the chamber vice president, said he is confident I-35 construction in Waco will not be as disruptive for as long as it was to the south. The presentation addressed his concerns, and TxDOT appears to have taken every possible step to make the work easier on locals, Morris said.

Local real estate agent Jim Peevey said the construction will likely affect the fast food restaurants immediately along I-35 near Baylor University. However, most locals will be able to navigate around town knowing how, or learning how, to avoid I-35 when necessary.

“I think Waco in the long term is going to benefit from I-35, I really do, and that’s what I’m looking at is the long term, not the short term,” Peevey said.

The original proposal to widen I-35 through Waco included one project stretching from South Loop 340 to North Loop 340, but the portion from 12th Street to South Loop 340 remains unfunded. Dividing the work into two phases likely will extend the overall timeline of the project and make it more expensive. It is unclear how long it would have taken to fund the whole stretch at once, but work would not have been set to start next year.

Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said he and other local leaders were in Austin just a few weeks ago for a Texas Transportation Commission meeting, urging commissioners to fund the second phase so that it will overlap with the phase set to start in the spring. Getting the two projects working at the same time would help prevent construction in Waco from lasting eight to 10 years, Deaver said.

“We’re kind of all hands on deck trying to get that done right now,” he said. “We definitely have not given up on it.”

State Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, said he does not want Waco to become a bottleneck because the second portion of the project is not funded. Getting the second phase funded is a priority and “common sense,” Anderson said.

“And so if they’re not done simultaneously, if they decide to wait five years or 10 years to start the southern 4C section, well then you go through the whole thing all over again,” Anderson said. “It would seem to be not very wise to do that. I think everybody’s pulling the same rope here locally, trying to get that accomplished, and hopefully we can.”

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