Local transportation leaders decided Thursday to recommend throwing $8 million more behind the first phase of Interstate 35 construction through Waco.
But with a deadline looming next month, the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization’s technical committee did not come back with a recommendation on how much local discretionary money to put into the second phase of interstate work, which the state has not yet funded.
The $8 million boost, on top of $80 million the MPO has already committed to the first phase, essentially would ensure the work takes four years instead of seven years, said Michael Bolin, deputy district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation’s Waco district. The second-place bid for the work came in $8.3 million cheaper than the winning bid, but was not the successful because the company did not meet timeline requirements TxDOT put in place to minimize the project’s impact on the city, Bolin said.
Both bids came in higher than the $300 million estimate for the project, which is set to start in the spring and stretch from 12th Street north to Loop 340. With some changes to reduce utility relocation costs after the high bids came in, the state was left to find $29 million, and asked the MPO for $8 million of it.
The MPO policy board will meet Jan. 17 and have the option to take the technical committee’s recommendation to offer the $8 million. MPOs statewide get state highway money every year that they are allowed to use as they see fit on local highway projects. The Waco MPO has about $231 million through 2029, which is where the money it puts into the interstate would come from, Waco MPO Director Chris Evilia said.
Though the state will pay for the majority of interstate work through Waco, use of the MPO’s discretionary fund helps the projects rise higher on TxDOT’s priority list. On the other hand, pouring money into the interstate leaves other work in the area unfunded.
The Waco MPO policy board will need to decide by its February meeting how to rank its projects, Bolin said.
“That’s where they earn their money being on the policy board,” Bolin said. “Right now, we’re kind of in a climate where it’s first to the trough.”
“If the only thing this project is waiting on is money, they get creative sometimes,” Bolin said.
City officials have said they want to get the second phase of interstate work, from 12th Street south to Loop 340, started as soon as possible. With the prospect of the second phase not starting until after the first phase wraps up, possibly bringing a decadelong interstate overhaul in Waco, city council members even headed to Austin late last year to discuss options with state lawmakers.
2nd phase in 2021
The soonest work could start on the second phase, estimated to cost $240 million, is 2021.
Without a recommendation Thursday from the MPO technical committee, a $60 million placeholder remains for the MPO policy board to consider for the second phase of I-35 work.
Even if the MPO commits that money, it would not guarantee the state funds the project immediately, Bolin said. Evilia previously said the $240 million estimate for the total cost may be optimistic since the cost of the first phase came in higher than expected.
Regardless of the MPO’s decision on how to rank projects, it will be able to revisit its rankings, said technical committee member Amy Burlarley-Hyland, assistant director of public works for the city of Waco.
“A decision about which priorities and how to organize this list today doesn’t stop us from changing priorities at another date,” she said. “We’re not setting something in stone with a recommendation to the policy board.”
Bolin said, for instance, the “mall to mall” project on Loop 340 the Waco MPO policy board currently has high on its importance list has raised some concerns with TxDOT. The stretch between Richland Mall and Central Texas Marketplace is considered an alternate route for I-35 and will become more important when the interstate is under construction, he said.
The proposed $40 million project would add continuous frontage roads to the stretch of Loop 340/Highway 6 from Bagby Avenue to Highway 84, including four new frontage road bridges over railroad tracks.
“Granted the work doesn’t directly impact the existing lanes as they are, but we really want to start looking at that project and how it overlaps with the I-35 project,” Bolin said. “We continue at TxDOT to have concerns about East Loop project simply because having that under construction at the same time as I-35 raises concerns since the loop is the alternate route.”