Long envisioned, long delayed, work has finally begun on dramatically transforming and improving Interstate 35 through Waco, extending from the north end of Loop 340 around Bellmead, down through the bustling stretch dividing Baylor University and a wide range of fast-food restaurants catering to tourists and students, just blocks from hectic Magnolia Market at the Silos, and finishing up just beyond South 12th Street. If motorists contemplate delays and detours with dread, merchants experience equal doses of anxiety as they wonder how business will be impacted during this long-term project, labeled by highway engineers as Phase 4B.

While city boosters have long lobbied for widening I-35 through Waco, state highway officials say the project is being pursued in the name of public safety, addressing fast-deteriorating pavement as well as on and off ramps and pivotal frontage roads that, when finished, will ensure more overall mobility benefiting both “through traffic” — including truckers — as well as locals who might find frontage roads far more efficient than at present. (140,000-plus vehicles travel this section daily.) The addition of lanes (from three lanes to four each way) is somewhat coincidental, given that scores of other highway stretches in Texas rank far above our piece of I-35 in genuine congestion — something any trip through the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, Austin and Houston readily demonstrates. And public safety is a concern of the Texas Transportation Commission, given that Texas leads the nation in traffic deaths and some state leaders are reluctant to press state laws demanding safety, lest these interfere with motorists’ individual liberty.

This interview with Texas Department of Transportation district engineer Stan Swiatek addresses questions the public and press have had about the project, including 2018 studies suggesting planned elevation of the interstate through Waco might aggravate flooding, based on hypothetical modeling commissioned by the city of Waco. City officials have discussed construction of a mile-long drainage tunnel at a cost of up to $20 million and have pressed highway officials to assume much of the burden of diverting water in event of a 50-year flood; highway officials insist their only obligation is ensuring they convey excess water to wherever it was naturally bound, not diverting it, and are adding culverts to the project to better address the situation. Also discussed: imminent removal of the popular Eighth Street pedestrian bridge that links the Baylor campus to nearby fast-food restaurants and the southern leg of interstate through Waco — dubbed 4C — that will await any overhaul such as we’re now beginning to witness to the north. Cynics bet the 4B phase now underway — construction work began April 29 — will take five years or longer; highway officials say a little more than four but less than five. Besides Swiatek, TxDOT spokesman Ken Roberts sat for the Trib interview.

Q This $341 million rebuild of I-35 through the entire Waco district, including north and south of Waco, began when?

A About 10 years ago. We started south of Salado. Part of it, if you will, was the construction of the safety rest areas down there. Probably the first major project was in Temple, the interchange at I-35 and South Loop 363.

Q It will take four to five years to get Phase 4B done. Do you anticipate sufficient state funds for the final segment, 4C, will be secured by the time 4B is finished?

A The reason we’re doing 4B now is the road is falling apart. It’s beyond its useful life. Phases 4B and 4C used to be one project. This predates me, but I believe it was a loop-to-loop project [involving Loop 340]. It got cut in half because of [state] funding concerns. Why is 4B being done before 4C? With 4C [which extends from the southern edge of 4B to South Loop 340, near Central Texas Marketplace], the pavement was rebuilt in the 1990s and it basically has a 40- or 50-year life. But 4B, which we’re doing now, was not redone in the ’90s and that’s why, with rainy days like we have today, you get water in your [infrastructure] base. That’s why you get potholes. The road [in the northern stretch of I-35 through Waco] literally is falling apart. We’re out there every night holding it together.

That’s why it came up for a rebuild. The big priorities now for the Texas Transportation Commission are safety, connectivity, congestion and maintainability. And, well, service life falls in our maintainability section. Now, while we might think we have a traffic problem on I-35 in terms of congestion, compared to other places in this state, we really don’t.

So is funding for 4C coming?

4C has an estimated cost in today’s dollars of $230 million and it was not totally funded. TxDOT’s priorities first and foremost are to maintain what we have. If you drive 4C, it’s not in bad shape. Look at the pavement — it’s not cracked, it’s not potholing, it’s not blowing up. And because it was redone in the 1990s, we have a projected service life that should easily get us into the 2030 time frame. Will congestion move up the priority list?

I don’t know. We monitor that. We have ways of monitoring growth and things like that. So if it starts moving up in these different priorities I’ve listed, yeah, the money will come. But right now, it’s not in the foreseeable future.

Q You’ve mentioned that all this involves more than just adding lanes to Interstate 35.

A You wouldn’t build that roadway as it is today, as it was built in the 1960s. So when you bring it up to current standards, just tacking on another lane for congestion purposes doesn’t make sense. A total rebuild is the way to go. And when you get north of the river here, past Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and toward Highway 77, you see how you go up and down — well, all that’s going away. You’re not going to roller-coaster through there anymore. It’s going to be pretty much at the same grade, which is much safer. Right now it’s a bottleneck for trucks, heavy trucks, when they’re coming up the grades.

Q Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. I don’t know whether to label it controversy or disagreement between TxDOT and the Metropolitan Planning Organization, but let’s discuss ramifications of raising the interstate roadbed from Eighth Street down to Fourth/Fifth streets and the potential need for a drainage project to divert Waco Creek water in another flood like we had in 1989, what some people believe to have been a rare 50-year flood.

Some local leaders who make up the MPO have suggested that TxDOT and its engineering specs aggravate this flooding potential by raising the roadbed. They say you guys should therefore fund this drainage solution. Are you still at loggerheads over this?

A I wouldn’t call it loggerheads. We’re just not in full agreement. What are TxDOT’s responsibilities? For starters, the interstate out there was built under a totally different set of rules enacted in the 1960s. When we make changes now — whether we build a new roadway or make changes to existing roadway — TxDOT has basic responsibilities. We do this everywhere. And we’re responsible for controlling the water that literally drops on our right-of-way. We cannot increase downstream flooding based on water that hits our right-of-way. And we have done that. When water is brought to our right-of-way through a creek, through another storm system, our responsibility is to convey it across our right-of-way [the interstate] and let it go where Mother Nature always meant to take it. The water coming to our right-of-way comes from the city of Waco. It’s not TxDOT water, it’s city of Waco water, it comes from the watershed that is located in the city of Waco. So our responsibility is to transmit that water from one right-of-way line to the other right-of-way line. When we go from one right-of-way line to another, we call that conveyance.

Q Right.

A But the city wants that water diverted. They want to move it to the river outside its natural course. That’s not a TxDOT responsibility.

Q But wouldn’t raising the roadbed increase the amount of water?

A It doesn’t. I think the city argument is that the highway acts like a dam and could cause water to back up into the businesses.

Q But if that five feet of elevation wasn’t there, would that water—

A Well, it’s not five feet.

Q What is it, for the record?

A Well, it changes as you go through there, again, because of roadway geometry and things like that. But it’s three and a half feet to four feet — somewhere in there.

Q The elevation?

A Additional elevation.

There’s another requirement that TxDOT has, a responsibility we have to the Federal Highway Administration. They have rules about interstates. Under a 50-year storm, you cannot inundate the main length of an interstate highway. So, yes, we raised the grade because under a 50-year storm scenario, they don’t want any flooding of the main highway. Remember, in so many respects, it’s really the Dwight D. Eisenhower Interstate, it’s a defense priority [as originally designed]. Yes, the interstate highway system is also a huge economic engine, but it was originally built for defense. That’s just the history of our interstate system. Eisenhower saw the Autobahn in Germany and said we needed that in the United States.

And you don’t want that interstate system going underwater during a 50-year flood, which is a relatively unlikely event but, again, you’re entering a world of probability when exactly this will happen, how often it will happen. So engineers, hydrologists model these things and determine what that elevation should be.

Now, I’m getting nerdy on you here, but when we do build or change a roadway, we have requirements when we have what’s called a headwater and a tailwater [in flooding]. Consider the interstate. Waco Creek’s waters are coming this way, it has gone into flood stage, it’s out of the banks during what might be a 50-year storm. What we as highway engineers can’t do is pick a winner and a loser. We want the headwater, which is where the water’s coming from, to be at the same natural elevation as the tailwater, OK? So we design our structures to do just that, to balance the headwaters and tailwaters. You don’t always realize it, but you’re actually in a long curve as you come through that section across 11th and 12th streets going north, and the downstream water from the new [flooding] model that the city was running was inundating the main lanes [of I-35]. So we raised those main lanes.

Frontage roads are underwater [in such a hypothetical flooding], OK? But the main lanes aren’t. The main lanes are always going to be held sacred. Of course, there’s also some debate as to whether the flood that put part of the interstate in Waco underwater in 1989 was truly a 50-year flood. There was some debris that clogged drains and things like this that caused some of the flooding.

And the 1989 flood is not technically documented as a 50-year storm.

Q If I’m a merchant along I-35 or live in some residences near 11th and 12th streets, would you be telling me that I need to brace myself during a 50-year flood?

A No, I would tell you that, during a flood, TxDOT will ensure flood levels are the same.

In reacting to computer-model information [involving potential flooding] that came to our attention , it required us to raise the roadway, which is a responsibility to the Federal Highway Administration. That means keeping the interstate open during a 50-year flooding event. That’s not some hydrologic requirement, it’s a safety requirement. You don’t want an interstate underwater. Just consider the amount of traffic that would go crazy.

Q Most people would agree.

A We’ve seen water over the interstate in our Beaumont district. Between us and Louisiana, an interstate bridge went underwater last year.

It was designed back in the ’60s. But when they put the bridge back — well, it’s never going to go underwater again, I guarantee. So we’re better than we were 40 years ago, 50 years ago. And so when this additional, theoretical amount of water came up from the city of Waco, even though it was late in the game [in terms of I-35 construction startup], we said, “You guys have a good point there.” So we raised the profile.

Q So you’ve already changed your design as a result of these new water-modeling projections.

A Before the bid, in December, we changed it last fall.

And we’re designing it even now to add additional culverts under the roadway that will alleviate the situation.

They’re going to fall somewhere between 11th and 12th streets and Fourth and Fifth streets. There may be a series of them.

We are meeting our responsibilities. We are doing our darn best to make sure we’re not hurting the city of Waco and they’re not hurting us. At the same time, I can’t spend transportation dollars on a non-transportation issue. I work for the Department of Transportation. That’s my charge. To look at this another way, if someone says it looks like Interstate 35 is a dam [for floodwaters from Waco Creek during a 50-year flooding event], well, what we’re designing now are holes in the “dam” so that a drop of water will never know the interstate was there — and when it does get to the Brazos River, I-35 is not something it remembers going by.

Q Is it correct to say now that the city of Waco, the MPO and TxDOT are on the same page with relation to Waco Creek?

A I can’t speak for the city. The one thing I have going on that the city doesn’t have is a $341 million contractor who’s all over this interstate, building this project. I have to make sure this project doesn’t get delayed. That’s a responsibility of mine — to keep Webber Construction Company moving or else I’m going to be wasting money on delays and things I can’t afford.

Q Looking beyond this new flooding analysis, what’s the scariest prospect for you?

A The potential pitfalls are the things we’re not thinking of.

Q Isn’t that pretty much every project?

A Of this nature, sure. Those are the things that are totally out of our control. The things that are uncontrolled are the things that would keep me up at night. Then again, this is a very controlled situation. We have an excellent contractor. They’re one of the best in the state.

We wanted somebody that’s going to pursue the work and get out of here as fast as they can. When we sat down with them, one of the first things out of their mouths was:

“We see what you’re doing here and that’s why we got the job.”

Q So what’s the difference between our project and the I-35 improvement work down in Salado, which nobody really wants to talk about but seemed to go on forever? From what I’ve seen, they didn’t have all the right-of-ways bought for that project. That slowed them down.

A Right-of-ways and utilities. We own all the right-of-way we need to build this project and we have all our utilities relocated. I suppose a utility situation I don’t know about is out there. That happens — something that’s out there from 1940 that nobody has on a drawing that we hit.

But all our utilities are relocated. Nobody can remember the last time TxDOT did that, but we did it on this project. All our right-of-ways are purchased. We own it outright. It’s our property. All those things that hinder other projects? We don’t have those obstacles here. What that has allowed us to do is, when we contracted, we contracted it with performance incentives and disincentives. We did A plus B contracting where the contractor also bids the time [involved to complete the project].

There’s financial incentives for him to get out of here quick. In our contract, we charge the contractor every time he closes the interstate. During the day, it’s $20,000 an hour. At night, it’s $2,000 an hour, up to $20,000 for the whole night shift.

Q There’s always some misunderstanding about a project of this scope.

What’s the biggest you’ve faced with this one?

A They think this is going to be Salado, Belton and Temple all over again. And we’ve already done numerous things to make sure that doesn’t happen. We’ve got a contractor financially incentivized to not let that happen.

Q When I was at a public information meeting on this project late last year, some restaurant proprietors along I-35 voiced concern about extra long highway exit ramps and fewer of them. If you’re southbound and want to stop at Chick-fil-A or McDonald’s, you’ve got to know well before you cross the Brazos.

A The unfortunate thing is the Fourth/Fifth Street exit that we just took down: It’s never coming back. In the whole public involvement process, it was shown to be unsafe. It doesn’t meet current safety standards for an exit ramp off a busy interstate. It’s too short. When you come off the highway there, you’ve got to slam on the brakes and stop at a light that would actually back up onto the main lanes, another problem. Because of the reality of what you have there, there’s no way you can make that ramp long enough because of the necessary braking distances, grade differences, the queuing distances off the traffic light. There’s all kinds of things that engineers get concerned about. That’s why you move [exit ramps] back. One big concern was that you had only one traffic light after you exited to Fourth/Fifth Street; now you’ll have two — one at University Parks Drive, another at Fourth/Fifth Street. The answer to that is really what you guys are in the business of — communication. Get upstream and communicate to travelers how to get to those places.

Q With newly built McLane Stadium along I-35 in Waco, how big of a factor is Baylor game-day traffic in your design?

A Very. We have a whole list of events. One of our concerns was that the Big 12 can’t tell you what the schedule is three years from now. But we have a whole list of special events when certain exits cannot be closed and, if they are, the contractor pays a financial penalty for it. We have spent a lot of time doing that. We have a whole communication effort with Baylor University for some of their events and with the city for some of their events: the marathons, the Magnolia Days, the move-ins, the graduations, football and everything.

Q A reader contacted us wanting to know why you’re taking down the Eighth Street pedestrian bridge. That’s such a great way for students who don’t have a car to get from Baylor to the restaurants across the busy highway. Why not replace it at a time when there’s more and more accent on pedestrian traffic?

A Multiple facets for that issue. For one, the current pedestrian bridge doesn’t meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

And there’s also a vertical clearance requirement where that bridge would have to be even higher. So with the road coming up, the bridge would be even higher. And when you start working back to allowable slopes of ADA requirements and the ramps and what-have-you to get to the bottom, it’s within reasonable distance to walk up and under the Fourth/Fifth overpass or, later on, under 11th and 12th, it’s almost comparable. It’s in the way right now, but to make it ADA-compliant, it becomes almost like: Why would we spend a couple million dollars for an extra couple hundred feet?

Q So you’re saying that to meet ADA compliance, the slope has to be not so steep and it’s almost as easy to walk to 12th Street as walk all the way up those ramps?

A Yes. And the right-of-way’s footprint, when you build those ramps, is huge. You’d have to take it from Baylor or from Panera Bread or Chick-fil-A or MOD Pizza or whoever’s over there. The real-estate footprint, when you actually put those new ramps in there — we’d have to go and buy that much more right-of-way. In all the public involvement processes, it was always shown as being removed and there were no negative comments.

When we’re done and out of there, 11th and 12th and Fourth and Fifth streets — we’re spending a lot of money on lighting and pedestrian features there. That would be their route.

Q Right now, I walk all the time. I would not want to walk under Fourth Street. It’s just not safe, much less if you’re in a wheelchair.

A Well, right now it doesn’t meet ADA standards, for starters. Second of all, you’re going to have much more extravagant lighting under there. We have an agreement with the city where the city is paying more than $2 million.

It’s all going to be tied in eventually to the bridge lighting as a theme of coming through Waco. You’re going to have a lighting show.

Q But you think it will be significantly safer for people on foot?

A Yes.

Q We have talked about the pedestrian bridge, which will be removed any day now. The elevated ramps between U.S. Business 77 and I-35 go away starting [tonight] and into Monday. Anything else in the immediate time frame we need to be ready for?

A You’ll see a continuous barrier wall put out moving forward because we’re widening the northbound part of the interstate, so we can eventually put all four lanes in the northbound section. We’re widening those northbound lanes so we can take the southbound traffic and put them on the northbound lanes, so then we can actually build the southbound lanes first. And you’re going to see the 11th and 12th street road bridge close [today].

You’re going to see a lot of frontage road work, because we have to move the frontage roads out first. Because their schedule is so complicated, the contractor has not yet delivered the entire project schedule, but a lot of these things will be scheduled out. Right now we have a short-term look at what they’re doing. But they’re going to work everywhere they can. I’ve been doing transportation for 25 years and I’ve never seen the kind of effort we’re seeing from them right now.

Q What’s the story on the Twin Bridges over Lake Waco? I can’t remember whether this came up at a county commissioners meeting or what, but there was a discussion about just taking the whole thing down and building a new bridge.

A That’s our long-term plan, yeah, in six or seven years.

Q How much of a project would that be?

A We’re now in our schematic phase. You’re probably looking at $20 million to $25 million.

Q To do the whole bridge? Replacing the bridge?

A Conceptually, the plan is to replace the two bridges that are there with a single six-lane bridge.

Because of some of the things that we learned while we were doing the recent past construction upgrades, we’ll probably come in and build in the middle. We’ll kind of do a three-card Monte thing with traffic.

We’ll probably end up building in the middle, put traffic on it, tear one down, build up, then tear the other down and build up, while we shift traffic around.

Q What’s wrong with the current structure?

A Relatively long bridge, no shoulders. There’s nowhere to break down, pull over. There is a safety issue just based on how old it is. Structurally, it’s fine. During our recent construction, we did some structural modifications. Those are taken care of.


Photo gallery: Interstate 35 project

Q&A conducted Wednesday by Trib managing editor J.B. Smith, editor Steve Boggs and opinion editor Bill Whitaker. Condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.