Here’s some bitter medicine for those who count on roads following development like flowers follow the rain.
The proposed Connections 2040 Metropolitan Transportation Plan for Greater Waco calls for only a handful of road projects to relieve congestion during the next 25 years, while predicting a McLennan County population increase of 50,000.
The plan reflects dwindling state and federal transportation resources, which cities have relied on to fuel growth for decades.
“We’re not able to expand our growth ring if we can’t depend on TxDOT money to build highways to get there,” Waco Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. said. “We’re having to rethink all of that.”
Local leaders are trying to manage expectations while changing their development policies to encourage “smart growth” within the existing urban footprint.
Their message: You can build as far away from town as you like, but don’t necessarily expect us to build a road to you.
“We’re not telling people they can’t live out there,” said Chris Evilia, director of the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization. “But if you do, you’re either going to have to pay for the infrastructure yourself, or accept what’s out there.”
MPO officials are seeking public input through late January on Connections 2040, which determines priorities for future state funding to McLennan County communities.
The proposal calls for $1 billion of new transportation infrastructure over 25 years, including $643.4 million for highways, $309.5 million for public transit, $55 million for bicycle and pedestrian improvements and $4.9 million for possible inter-city passenger rail.
It may sound like a lot of money, but two-thirds of the highway funding would go to one project: the $413 million expansion of Interstate 35 through Waco. That project is the top priority for the MPO, but funding has yet to be identified for it, Evilia said.
What remains are a handful of other mobility projects, including the $37.3 million expansion of China Spring Road to Wortham Bend Road, which is expected to begin in 2015. Another $20.3 million would widen the road out to FM 185.
The plan includes two overpass and frontage road projects: A $46.8 million project at Speegleville Road and U.S. Highway 84, and a $20.5 million project at Loop 340 and Old Robinson Road. Another $16 million would fund widening projects along State Highway 6 west of McLaughlin Road.
Most of the rest of the road projects are intended to improve safety, such as the proposal to expand Franklin Avenue around New Road and eliminate the fragmented frontage roads that confuse motorists. Some lesser-used roads with high collision rates, such as North 19th Street near McLennan Community College and Sanger Avenue west of Valley Mills Drive would be restriped to include turn lanes and bike lanes.
What’s more notable about the 2040 transportation plan is what’s missing.
There’s no plan to expand Speegleville Road, the two-lane country road that is now lined with subdivisions and River Valley Middle School.
There’s nothing to add capacity to crowded Hewitt Drive. There’s no further funding for the Hewitt Drive alternative, Ritchie Road, beyond the immediate project to expand it around Panther Way.
Forget about completing the frontage roads on Loop 340 between Richland Mall and Central Texas Marketplace to prevent traffic from backing up on ramps.
Further south, the city of Lorena has been positioning itself for growth and has sought an overpass at the railroad tracks on Old Lorena Road at a cost of more than $15 million. But no road money is proposed for that area.
MPO director Chris Evilia, who drafted the proposal, said the state funding drought means local planners have to focus on the most necessary projects, especially those having to do with safety.
Revenue from gasoline taxes over the years hasn’t increased to keep pace with the skyrocketing cost of building roads, and there is little political will to raise it.
The recent passage of Proposition 1 will help by shifting oil and gas revenue from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, freeing up about $1.7 billion worth of state road projects this year. Evilia said it could bring in $8 million to $10 million a year for the Waco area, helping with projects such as the China Spring Road expansion. But he said it meets only a fraction of the area’s needs.
“The overarching theme is: How do we accommodate future mobility demand, knowing that we’re going to get 50,000 or more residents in the region by 2040, and they’re going to bring with them a certain number of jobs?” Evilia said.
In his downtown Waco office, Evilia pulled up a map of projected future growth in the county based on trends from 2000 to 2010. The map shows in bright red the housing growth throughout the western and southern areas of the county, including rural areas far west of Lake Waco. Meanwhile, the historic center of Waco shows population loss.
That scenario means one of two things: More congestion, or more money to relieve congestion.
“If we do nothing, we’re going to have to accept a degraded performance level,” he said. “It’s going to take you longer to get from Point A to Point B.”
But Evilia said there’s an alternative future that would end up costing far less. Under the MPO’s vision, if 10,000 people could move into the urbanized area during the next 25 years, it would make a big difference in transportation costs.
That’s because the inner city generally has plenty of road capacity to handle more cars, he said. About 10 major roads in Waco are at less than 20 percent capacity, including Washington Avenue and La Salle Avenue.
“We have areas that can accommodate a whole lot more growth, and we don’t have to do anything to accommodate increases of traffic in those areas,” Evilia said.
In addition, as people live closer to one another, it’s cheaper to provide utilities and municipal services, and trips for work and shopping are shorter, making it more appealing to walk, bicycle or take public transit, Evilia said.
Mayor Duncan, who sits on the MPO board, said the Waco City Council is already discussing policy changes to encourage close-in development instead of sprawl.
For example, Waco is now one of the few cities that reimburses developers for utilities they install in their developments, but Duncan said the city may begin offering those incentives only in the urban core. Policies to encourage “infill” redevelopment are in the city’s new comprehensive plan, which is out for public comment.
Duncan said he expects pushback from developers who want to continue to develop on the rural frontier of Greater Waco, and he wants them to be part of the discussion. But he said the city can no longer afford the old model of growth.
“If you look at all the transportation costs in a suburban subdivision, they’re much greater than infill,” he said.
Custom home builder Ken Cooper said he understands the funding constraints on building new roads.
“I think the message has gotten out over the last five, six or seven years by virtue of the construction not being there,” he said. “That’s why most of us are trying to look at where we can develop to utilize the existing roads.”
Cooper is finishing a long run of building houses in the upscale Hidden Valley subdivision between Speegleville Road and McGregor’s airport. Now he’s focusing on future development west of the airport as well as in Bosqueville and China Spring.
He said he hopes that plans for the Speegleville overpass progress.
“I’d certainly love to see that area move forward,” he said.
Cooper said he would like to see development come back to the core of the urban area, such as the Brazos River corridor. But he said that market hasn’t yet proven itself.
“There’s not a lot of demand for newer products, if they’re not directly in the downtown market or near Baylor,” he said.
Cooper said that if families are to move back into the city, schools need to improve.
“It’s a tough needle to move, but it’s one that has to be moved,” he said.