With the finishing touches being put on the new main lanes of Interstate 35 north of Waco, officials say the I-35 renovation is Texas Department of Transportation’s largest project, and those orange construction cones won’t be going away anytime soon.
TxDOT spokeswoman Jodi Wheatley said the more she learns about what it takes to build a highway, the more she is surprised any get done.
Two projects are nearing completion, stretching from Waco to West, including segments from North Loop 340 to Farm-to-Market Road 1858, and then from West to Abbott, completing about five years of work.
The 20-mile stretch features three wider driving lanes in each direction of the highway with improved access roads.
Some work remains on the access roads between Waco and West, but the main driving lanes are open on the southbound side and nearly completed on the northbound side.
The work is aimed to keep pace with increased traffic on the interstate.
I-35 ultimately will be six lanes across the region, Wheatley said. The final product will be something Texas can be proud of for a long time, she said.
“The safety elements are greatly improved, and the stress level of driving on congested lane highways is greatly relieved,” she said.
But as one project wraps up, many more are in the works.
Construction is expected to be completed in the spring of 2016 on 20 miles of I-35, stretching from Sun Valley Boulevard to just north of the Troy city limits south of Waco. The segment from Troy to near Temple also is expected to be completed next year.
New federal standards also require access roads to be one-way, she said. That rule has been incorporated into the I-35 project, and while most of the access roads in Waco are already one-way streets, communities like West are having to adjust to a change in direction.
“It’s a difficult transition for some of the small towns where everyone is used to it (being two-way),” she said.
Precinct 1 County Commissioner Kelly Snell said construction on I-35 has come a long way and has made the area better, despite the inconvenience.
“There are going to be people jumping up and down for joy, me being one of them,” Snell said about the work finishing.
One-way access roads have been a challenge to cities in his precinct, including Lorena, Hewitt and Robinson, Snell said. The areas surrounding those access roads have made it difficult to travel easily from one city to the next.
Snell said while there were some planning meetings held before construction began, he wished TxDOT would have done more to help reduce the inconvenience caused to drivers.
But a six-lane thoroughfare will help stop the bottleneck in traffic that often occurs in Waco, he said.
The I-35 expansion and improvement project also includes continuous access roads, something Waco hasn’t seen, Wheatley said.
TxDOT is working in both directions from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the railroad crossing just to the north, along with the north-to-south turnaround under I-35 on the south side of the railroad crossing. The two areas will be closed for a little more than a year as they are rebuilt and access road bridges added over the railroad crossing.
Wheatley said 25 percent to 35 percent of I-35 traffic is long-haul trucks, and truck traffic is growing.
“At night, when local traffic has gone home, the percentage is even higher,” she said.
Signs will begin to appear where six lanes already have been completed, letting drivers know that trucks are not permitted in the far left lane, Wheatley said.
The law will go into effect as soon as the signs are in place, she said, adding she didn’t have a timeline for when those would be ready. The signs are similar to those that have been in Austin for a few years and can only be added to highways with at least three lanes, she said.
A lot of the planning for much of the I-35 work was done in conjunction with the communities the interstate passes through, she said.
TxDOT, the city of Waco and Baylor University worked together to get the new LED-lighting system for the two signature Brazos River bridges. All the communities had an opportunity to make decisions on the aesthetics of the highway where possible, she said.
Drivers exiting in West now are greeted with murals depicting the area’s Czech heritage, and the community in Temple wanted extra landscaping to highlight the new roads, she said.