The Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization’s policy board Thursday voted down an $8 million request for additional funds for rebuilding Interstate 35, citing unresolved concerns about increased flood risks the construction could pose for downtown Waco.
The board has control over discretionary “Category 2” funds from the Texas Department of Transportation for projects in McLennan County and has previously allocated $80 million of those funds to the reconstruction and widening of Interstate 35 from North Loop 340 to South 12th Street.
Waco district TxDOT officials have asked for the additional $8 million to help cover a $29 million overrun, but the MPO board has postponed the decision at prior meetings.
Before the vote Thursday, Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver, a member of the policy board, stated he would vote against the measure in light of the construction’s projected impact on flooding.
Texas Department of Transportation engineers and Walker Partners, a local engineering firm working for the city of Waco, have been working with models since April 2018 to try to predict the project’s effects around Waco Creek on either side of the interstate highway.
Even without the construction project, the new modeling shows the Waco Creek area around 11th Street is more flood-prone than previously calculated.
TxDOT is planning to raise the highway’s main lanes four feet to ensure that they remain passable in a 50-year flood, or the kind of rainfall event that has a 1 in 50 chance of happening in a year.
TxDOT engineers have made some design tweaks to address the city’s concerns, but Deaver said the design could still lead one or two feet of increased flooding along the west side of the highway near 10th and 11th Street. The affected area would include Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers and Greater Ebezener Baptist Church.
“We have been working for months with TxDOT now, trying to reach a resolution that’s acceptable,” Deaver said. “We haven’t found that solution yet.”
“Both TxDOT and the city of Waco have agreed on the model, and we have agreed on the depths of the water, and we are not comfortable with the impact that it’s causing here,” Deaver said.
Deaver said the city of Waco is floodplain administrator for Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood insurance program.
“We have an obligation to enforce FEMA’s requirements within our jurisdiction, and we don’t believe their proposed solution meets those requirements, because it increases flooding,” Deaver said.
TxDOT District Engineer Stan Swiatek said that with his agency’s fiscal year starting on Sept. 1, he budgeted around the possibility the measure would not pass, and the gap will be filled with other funding sources.
“It was a cost associated with the rapid construction techniques we’re seeing out there every day,” Swiatek said. “We had to take away from some other projects to fund this and keep moving forward.”
Swiatek was the sole policy board member who voted for the measure.
“We cannot now take Category 2 dollars and put it toward that project any longer,” Swiatek said. “We’ve already funded it to go under contract. It was at the expense of some other projects inside of that boundary.”
Also Thursday, TxDOT engineering assistant Clayton Zacha led a presentation on Category 2 TxDOT projects relevant to Waco besides the I-35 project, including the Speegleville-Highway 84 overpass slated for completion next year, overlay work on US 84 slated for completion next month, and mill and overlay work on 18th Street, which is nearly complete.
Our interview addresses questions the public and press have had about the project, including studies suggesting planned elevation of the interstate might aggravate flooding, the imminent removal of the popular Eighth Street pedestrian bridge and other topics.