Local transportation officials are looking at sacrificing most of their state funding for two years to get the Interstate 35 Waco expansion started — still far short of the project’s $400 million price tag.
The Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization last week discussed whether to devote up to $75.8 million in discretionary funds in 2018 and 2019 to help expedite the widening and reconstruction of nine miles of I-35 within Loop 340.
The bulk of that money would come from Proposition 7, a state highway program that is awaiting Texas voter approval Nov. 3.
The MPO board, which sets transportation priorities for urbanized parts of McLennan County, made no decision at its Thursday meeting, noting that the Proposition 7 funding isn’t even a sure thing yet.
Board members said putting all their eggs in the I-35 basket would mean more delays for long-awaited projects.
“Those two are going to get done,” MPO Director Chris Evilia said. “Anything beyond that is probably on hold if we go ahead and buy into this concept.”
The MPO would have to postpone the redesign of the congested New Road and Franklin Avenue intersection, and widening State Highway 6 to four lanes east of Farm-to-Market Road 185.
Board member and Waco City Councilman Kyle Deaver’s concern was about the proposed $32 million Speegleville Road overpass at U.S. Highway 84.
“It’s hard to imagine putting off the (Highway) 84 project until 2020,” he said.
Still, MPO board members emphasized that I-35 remains their top priority.
The project involves expanding four- and six-lane sections to eight lanes, replacing all overpasses and the main lanes on the Brazos River bridge, and reconfiguring exits.
Waco City Manager Dale Fisseler told fellow MPO board members that recent new funding opportunities, such as Proposition 1 and Proposition 7, are welcome, but he’s frustrated that they haven’t been enough to fund I-35.
“Our challenge as an MPO is that we keep saying I-35 is our first priority, and people see we say that, but then see other projects moving ahead,” he said. “It just seems like because it’s a big project, we’re always going to have a lot of little projects that are going to leapfrog ahead of it.”
Waco Texas Department of Transportation district engineer Bobby Littlefield said state officials also consider I-35 through Waco as a high priority, but the current funding system isn’t sufficient.
Short of introducing toll lanes — which Littlefield said are increasingly unpopular — a major infusion of federal cash would be required.
“It would need a federal program,” he said.
Evilia said if Congress can pass a new transportation bill — which it has failed to do for a decade — that would give the state of Texas the means to do a project like I-35 through Waco. Still, the MPO would likely need to set aside its funds to get the project off high center, Evilia said. “Without that, I don’t think we would have a chance,” he said.
The MPO already has reserved $19 million in past years’ funding from the state to make available for the I-35 project. Proposition 1, which passed in 2014, is expected to provide $18.8 million in fiscal years 2018 and 2019. Proposition 7 could provide another $38 million in that two-year period.
The federal government built the interstate system and historically has paid for its improvements, Evilia said.
But federal highway funding has stagnated with the decline of gas taxes and Congress’ failure to authorize a new transportation bill, and cities have become more willing to contribute state discretionary dollars to expedite interstate construction, he said.
In an interview Friday, U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-College Station, said he is hopeful the Senate and House will authorize a new transportation bill with bipartisan support by the time the current extension expires Oct. 9.
“The way to fix the gap in Interstate 35 going through Waco is to get this highway bill passed and make sure the program is adequately funded,” said Flores, chairman of the influential Republican Study Committee. “If things work out the way I hope, we’ll have a six-year highway bill sometime this fall.”
Flores supports a $90 billion increase in highway funding during the next six years, funded by eliminating diversions from the highway fund and changes in international corporate taxation.
Flores also wants to cut back on the “bureaucracy” that he said adds upfront costs to federal highway projects. He wants to limit the use of the gas tax to roads and bridges, instead of allowing it to be used for pedestrian and mass transit projects.
“I believe (mass transit) has not shown itself to be economically viable in Texas,” he said.
Flores said members of Congress can no longer use earmarks to get projects like I-35 done, but he can advocate for it with state and federal officials.
“I can jawbone the state, and I would,” he said. “I’ll be telling them what they already know. Interstate 35 is a major priority for them.”