Interstate 35 will lose a lane this week as construction work starts to widen and rebuild the freeway through much of Waco.

And the traffic inconveniences are only going to increase as the $341 million project ramps up in coming months. Transportation officials say drivers will need to pay attention to entrances and exits and prepare for delays over the next 5½ years.

A northbound main lane closure starts Monday for the entire 6-mile section of the Waco project between 12th Street and North Loop 340, leaving only two lanes in that direction. Crews will use the closures to reinforce the pavement and shoulder.

Also starting this week, motorists will see various short- and long-term closures along the southbound frontage roads, Texas Department of Transportation officials said.

On Wednesday, TxDOT will permanently close Exit 335A on southbound I-35, which now leads to Fourth and Fifth streets. Motorists should use the University Parks exits instead, TxDOT officials said.

Farther south, access to the southbound frontage road will be permanently eliminated at 13th, 15th and 16th streets.

On the northbound side, the entrance ramp from the frontage road just north of the Brazos River will be closed for the duration of the project, with drivers rerouted through the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard intersection.

More big changes start this spring, including the removal of the Business 77 direct access ramps in East Waco and the pedestrian bridge near Baylor.

TxDOT’s electronic message signs will keep drivers informed of changes from moment to moment, and more information is available at and on Twitter, @TxDOTWacoPIO.

Waco TxDOT spokesman Kenneth Roberts said officials have been keeping the community informed through public meetings and a committee to deal with the concerns of local businesses and the trucking industry.

“We’re going out far and wide to ensure that we can reach not just Waco proper but beyond that,” Roberts said. “We’re utilizing every possible means to ensure the public will remain well-versed on what’s going on.”

By mid-next year, the northbound side of Interstate 35 will be divided with a barrier so southbound traffic can be diverted onto it, resulting in only two lanes each direction.

Frontage road work is expected to wrap up in early 2022, and main lane work the following year.

The project, to be complete in late 2024, will reconfigure entrance and exits and replace bridges and interchanges that have been in service more than 50 years.

In the meantime, some locals will be rerouting their usual commutes, including interim Bellmead City Manager Yost Zakhary, a longtime resident of Woodway.

Zakhary said he will try out a variety of alternative routes, including Waco Drive and East Loop 340.

“I do expect to see increased traffic coming around on Loop 340,” he said.

Zakhary expects to see challenges for commuters trying to get to employers including L3 Technologies and Sherwin-Williams, and for businesses along the route.

“We don’t yet know the exact economic impact that’s going to have,” he said. “We’re going to have to monitor that very closely and make adjustments accordingly.”

He said motorists should be patient and study their routes before heading out.

“We ask that people drive with great care and consideration,” he said. “One crash will really jam everything up.”

Waco saw 2,284 crashes along I-35 between 2012 and 2017, according to TxDOT.

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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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