The Interstate 35 overpass at the busy New Road intersection would be torn down under a proposed $76 million improvement plan. Its replacement would have an extra southbound lane to accommodate traffic exiting to Highway 6.

Waco-area transportation leaders Friday approved $76 million worth of work to Interstate 35 near New Road, with hopes of finishing it in 2023, around the time larger I-35 reconstruction wraps up to the north.

The Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization policy board approved the work, including new ramps, frontage roads and overpasses at Valley Mills Drive and New Road, as part of a long-range plan called Connections 2045.

The improvements, divided between two $38 million projects, are intended to relieve growing safety and rush-hour congestion issues at I-35 and its crossings in South Waco, especially at New Road.

MPO staff proposed to expedite the “breakout projects” and postpone the much more expensive full reconstruction of the I-35 section, called 4C, until after 2030.

In December, Waco City Council leaders said they would prefer to do the project all at once instead of breaking out projects, even if that meant the work would not start until after 2030. They called for a 10-year break on I-35 construction and said doing the work piecemeal would prolong the work-zone impact on local businesses and motorists and would cost more in the long run.

But the MPO’s technical committee last week made the case for the separate breakout projects. And on Friday, local Texas Department of Transportation officials told the MPO board that approving the breakout projects in the long-term plan now could put the construction on the fast track, allowing it overlap the ongoing I-35 work.

TxDOT Waco District engineer Stan Swiatek said he thinks it is possible to get the project design and Texas Transportation Commission funding approval wrapped up this year and award a contract early next year.

That would clear the way for completing the projects by early 2023, he said.

TxDOT would likely include incentives to the chosen contractor to expedite the work. Swiatek said he would expect a bid from Webber LLC, which is overseeing the $341 million I-35 reconstruction between 18th Street and the north end of Loop 340 and is significantly ahead of schedule.

The money for the two $38 million projects would come from Category 2 funds, which TxDOT sets aside for local projects chosen by the MPO board.

Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver and council members John Kinnaird and Dillon Meek, all members of the MPO board, raised questions about the breakout projects but voted to include them in the Connections 2045 plan, with the caveat that the decision is not binding.

“It’s easier to pull them off than put them back on,” Meek said.

He and other members asked TxDOT officials to come back to the MPO board with more details on the projects.

The breakout projects originated with a draft plan of Connections 2045 that MPO staff released in November.

MPO director Chris Evilia said that while the southern section of Interstate 35 through Waco is not considered congested by TxDOT standards, traffic can pile up weekdays between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m., reducing its speeds by 6 to 8 mph.

“The reason that’s occurring is that there are a lot of weaving movements taking place with traffic merging at Valley Mills Drive and at New Road,” he said.

That section of I-35 has also seen accidents caused by cars and big trucks jockeying for position to exit for destinations such as the Flying J truck stop at New Road, Evilia said.

The proposed breakout projects would address that problem by flipping entrance and exit ramps, effectively requiring vehicles to exit earlier and stay longer on the frontage road.

Southbound traffic headed for New Road would have to exit just past Valley Mills Drive, and traffic headed to South Loop 340 would have to exit right after New Road.

To accommodate traffic for the Loop 340 exit, the project would add an auxiliary lane over New Road. That would require building a new overpass at New Road to replace an existing one that does not meet height standards.

The other $38 million project would address northbound Interstate 35, including the construction of a frontage road section from Irving Lee Street to Valley Mills Drive. Northbound frontage road traffic is currently diverted onto the traffic circle.

The northbound project would also replace the Valley Mills Drive overpass with a wider one.

Putting off the larger 4C project until after 2030 comes at a significant cost in the long term.

The 4C project itself emerged as a phased alternative to rebuilding all of Interstate 35 between the north and south intersections of Loop 340. The latest price tag for the southern section is about $260 million, and local officials say there is little hope of finding that money from the state anytime soon.

Doing the smaller projects separately itself adds $40 to $50 million to the total cost of the 4C section, and that does not count inflation over the next decade.

Still, Evilia said the compromise plan allows the MPO to address safety issues on I-35 while allowing other projects, such as one to add continuous frontage roads on Loop 340 from Bagby Avenue to Waco Drive, to move ahead quickly.

“If we can get these two breakout projects complete, it probably buys us a considerable amount of time until we need to do full reconstruction,” Evilia said.

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.

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