The Texas Transportation Commission has green-lighted $98.5 million worth of Waco-area road projects for the next decade, but widening another stretch of Interstate 35 is not one of them.
The commission approved a Unified Transportation Plan Thursday that divvies up more than $77 billion in projected state highway funds for the next 10 years. The plan is updated yearly.
Commissioners approved five projects in Greater Waco, including two up for funding next year.
The biggest chunk would go to the $40 million “mall-to-mall” project, which would upgrade Loop 340 between Highway 84 and Interstate 35. The project would create continuous frontage roads along the loop, replace and upgrade ramps, and create new overpasses.
The project was the top priority of the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization, which plans transportation improvements in Greater Waco and controls some Texas Department of Transportation money. The work is up for funding in 2020.
Also at the front of the line is the $8 million widening of Highway 6 between McLaughlin Road and Farm-to-Market Road 185, also known as North River Crossing. The road would expand from two lanes to five.
The three other projects are set to be funded no earlier than 2024, which makes funding availability somewhat less certain, MPO director Chris Evilia said. Those projects are as follows:
- Widening Loop 340 to four lanes from Highway 84 in Bellmead to Marlin Highway, at a cost of $23.5 million
- Realigning Franklin Avenue between New Road and Lake Air Drive to eliminate frontage roads, while constructing an interchange at New Road. The cost is estimated at $11 million
- Widening Spring Valley Road between Hewitt Drive and Sun Valley Boulevard, with left turn lane, shoulders and curb and gutters, at a cost of $16 million.
Another top priority for the MPO — rebuilding and expanding Interstate 35 to eight lanes from 12th Street to South Loop 340 — did not make it into the plan. The section, known as 4C, was cut from the ongoing I-35 project in Waco for budgetary reasons. The most recent projections show it would cost $240 million to build.
“Four C of Interstate 35 is still important to the (MPO) board and to the district,” Evilia said. “But the message we got loud and clear is that there’s just not enough money to do a project like that. The focus is shifting to the big metros.
“Honestly, you could soak up every dollar that comes into TxDOT, and the four metro areas would still need more.”
On the other hand, the MPO now has the opportunity to shift attention to other Waco-area priorities after spending much of its discretionary money on Interstate 35 for the past few years.
The $40 million mall-to-mall project, so called because it links Richland Mall to the Central Texas Marketplace, is already about 70% designed. TxDOT is buying right of way and expects to have the project ready for contractors to bid on by 2023, TxDOT Waco district spokesman Ken Roberts said.
The project is expected to reduce congestion and replace dangerous entrance and exit ramps, while eliminating the confusion of noncontinuous frontage roads.
The Highway 6 project at McLaughlin Road is also set to be ready for contractors to bid on in 2023, and a public meeting is planned for late this year.
Evilia said the funding for the other three projects depends on decisions by state and federal legislators, but the commission’s approval should help accelerate planning.
The Loop 340 project in Bellmead is 70% designed, but transportation officials are holding off on construction until the current I-35 construction project is finished, Evilia said.
East Loop 340 is the official alternate route for Interstate 35, so officials want to avoid construction work on the loop in the short term. By the same token, getting rid of the two-lane bottleneck is important, Evilia said.
“If for whatever reason we have to send folks down that way, the fact that it has two lanes is probably not ideal,” he said. “Fortunately, we haven’t seen a lot of crashes there, but when we do they’re bad.”
Of all the state-approved projects, the Franklin Avenue project remains the fuzziest. The original proposal was to build an interchange at Franklin and New Road, but the MPO board has weighed a cheaper at-grade alternative called a “Michigan left.”
The solution would eliminate left turns from New Road onto Franklin, which would speed traffic through the intersection. Motorists who want to turn left would instead turn right, then made a U-turn in the middle of Franklin Avenue.
But local TxDOT officials are not yet sold on the idea, which is common in Michigan but not Texas.
“Given that it’s one of those devices that Texans are not used to, it could very well be a safety issue that needs to be addressed more clearly,” Evilia said.
He said MPO officials hope to get approval in next year’s Unified Transportation Plan for two overpasses on State Highway 31 to prevent serious wrecks. One would be at Heritage Parkway and the other at TK Parkway, near where the city of Waco is proposing a new landfill.