I-35 meeting

Visitors peruse maps of the Interstate 35 northern phase at an informational meeting this week.

The six-year project to reconstruct and widen Interstate 35 north of 12th Street is fully funded and set to start by month’s end. But the next phase south of 12th Street may be delayed 15 years or more, regional transportation leaders said Thursday.

The Waco Metropolitan Planning Authority board on Thursday was set to approve an $8 million contribution from its state allowance to help with cost overruns on the northern section, which is set to cost $341 million.

However, Texas Department of Transportation officials told the board they believe that last gap in financing can be closed without the MPO’s help. The MPO gets an allotment of what are called “Category 2” funds to spend on local needs each year, and the board has already contributed $80 million of such funds to the northern section.

The second phase of the Interstate project, between 12th Street and South Loop 340, would cost $240 million, and TxDOT has proposed that the MPO contribute $60 million in Category 2 funds toward it.

But at the meeting Tuesday, board members appeared to favor putting that project on ice for now. Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver and Councilman Dillon Meek, who is the board chairman, said the issue is not just cost.

Meek said it could be several years before TxDOT finds the money for the second phase and finishes design and bidding. It is even possible that the groundbreaking for the second phase could occur as the first phase is wrapping up, he said.

“If we were to proceed as planned, it could result in a 10-year construction project, which I believe would be not only a headache for citizens but a setback for economic development,” Meek said.

Deaver agreed, saying that if the southern phase cannot get started in the next year, he would support putting it off about 15 years and using Category 2 funds for other local needs.

TxDOT District Engineer Stan Swiatek said much of the southern leg was built in the 1990s, and its pavement has about another 25 years of useful life left. He said a “rest period” between the two phases makes sense.

MPO director Chris Evilia said he would recommend keeping the project in the MPO plan so TxDOT can continue to develop the design and monitor funding opportunities.

In the meantime, the MPO can work with the state on more limited projects in the southern zone, such as new entrance and exit ramps between New Road and South Loop 340.

Upcoming work

Meanwhile, the public this week got new details about what to expect in the first phase of construction.

On April 28 and 29, crews with Webber Construction will close one of the northbound main lanes for repaving, along with some southbound and northbound frontage road closures. In the same week, they will permanently remove the southbound exit for Fourth and Fifth streets.

Later this spring, the pedestrian bridge at Eighth Street will be permanently removed, as will the direct ramp at Business 77.

The motoring public can expect periodic lane closures, especially at night, as the 24-hour-day project rolls along toward a 2024 deadline. And in mid-2020, the experience of driving I-35 through Waco will hit a “painful” stage, with road work reducing traffic to two lanes each way, a TxDOT official said at a public meeting Wednesday.

By 2024, the 6-mile segment will be rebuilt and expanded to four main lanes in each direction, with continuous frontage roads, new overpasses and a new ramp configuration. Some ramps will be removed, while many entrance-exit ramps will be flipped, with the result that travelers must exit much earlier to get to destinations such as downtown Waco.

Mayor Deaver said he believes TxDOT and the contractor are well-prepared for the project, and he believes it will run more smoothly than recent projects in Temple and Salado. To begin with, TxDOT has acquired 100 percent of the right-of-way in the Waco project, unlike the Temple segment.

“From what I’m seeing, TxDOT has gone above and beyond,” Deaver said. “It appears TxDOT really wants to get this done on time.”

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.

Recommended for you