Friday, February 25, 2000

Brief Overview of TxDOT's Biggest Projects

Department of Transportation moving out on major highway projects


by James A. Cooley
The Lone Star Report Copyright 2000
Volume 4, Issue 23

Texans like to drive, and they like having good highways on which to drive. But lately some of those highways have been operating at twice their designed capacity. Add the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the gridlock becomes more than most Texans wish to endure.

Relief is on the way in the form of several billion dollars worth of highway construction and renovation. Here is a brief overview of some of the biggest projects on the horizon. Special thanks to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) for invaluable assistance.

IH-35 Corridor

Roughly $1 billion in improvements are now underway to 94 miles of IH-35 in Bell, Falls, McLennan, and Hill counties. The major upgrade includes expanding the highway to six lanes in the rural areas, with the ability to add two more lanes later; and making all of the urban sections eight lanes now.

Also included are concrete median barriers and improvements to existing bridge clearances, entrance and exit ramps, and frontage roads. Six new major interchanges are in the pipeline for Belton, Temple, Waco and Hillsboro.

The work is estimated to take 10-12 years to complete — and already is causing delays and headaches for Dallas-to-Austin drivers.

The problems in the downtown Austin section are currently being studied. Three potential options for the elevated section are:

1) Maintaining the existing west side elevated structure as high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes serving both southbound and northbound traffic. Widening the east side elevated structure to provide for four northbound lanes and modifying the lower level to provide for four southbound lanes;

2) Maintaining the existing west side elevated structure as HOV lanes serving both southbound and northbound traffic. Removing the east side elevated structure and rebuilding the expressway to accommodate future traffic demands and, at the same time, acquiring additional right-of-way along the east side of IH 35; or

3) Removing both elevated structures and depressing the entire section of main lanes and HOV lanes below grade, acquiring additional right-of-way on the east side.

For the stretch from the upper deck to Town Lake, planners are considering either elevated HOV lanes that disperse the traffic into the central business district or depressed main lanes through the downtown area.

Several other projects are also underway for uncorking bottlenecks at such intersections as U.S. 290 and 183, as well as at several local street intersections. Fixes include everything from lengthened acceleration lanes on entrance ramps to improved traffic signals at feeder intersections.

A Major Investment Study is also underway for improvements to IH-35E in booming Denton County.

The SH 130 bypass route to relieve some of the IH 35 congestion in the center of the state is now in the route planning phase. The debate over whether to build the proposed turnpike along an eastern or western path has been packing public hearing rooms. A formal decision on the recommended route is due this fall.

IH-635 (LBJ Freeway)

During much of the typical work day, a 75-year-old grandmother with a walker could just about keep pace with the traffic on the LBJ.

TxDOT, for planning purposes, has split its remedial project into east and west sections, with US 75 as the dividing line. A portion of the east section, near Mesquite, is designated as a separate project. Planning stages for all three sections are scheduled for completion by year’s end; construction would start in 2002.

On tap for the project are additional main lanes and new highway tunnels. Of special note is a proposal to add two to six HOT lanes to the middle of the expressway. A HOT lane packages High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) and tolled traffic (T). Vehicles with multiple occupants could travel these special lanes free; lone drivers would pay a toll based on time of day.

Claimed benefits include greater available revenue to complete the projects, improved safety, and enhanced air quality.

IH-10 (Katy Freeway)

Severe congestion problems on Houston’s notorious Katy Freeway contribute to an accident rate one-third higher than on similar Texas roadways. Improvements costing $1 billion are proposed, among them an extra lane in each direction for sections not already at three lanes.

Also proposed is a “barrier-separated, special use/express (SUL) facility…in the center of the highway from IH 610 to SH 99.” This SUL would be four lanes wide from IH 610 to SH 6 and two lanes from SH 6 to SH 69.

The current project schedule calls for starting right-of-way acquisition by September, 2000, with construction beginning in January, 2003.

Among other Houston area projects: a TxDOT multi-modal study of IH 45 south from Houston to Galveston and a Major Investment Study of possible upgrades along the IH 45/US 59 corridor.

IH-69 (NAFTA Highway)

This is the single most expensive project being planned, with a total estimated cost for the Texas segment of $5 billion. When completed, the NAFTA Highway will stretch all the way from Mexico to Canada. The Texas portion alone will cover 955 miles from Laredo to Texarkana.

The Texas Transportation Commission last month approved funding of $19.2 million for environmental studies. “Candidate routes” under study in the Houston area include US 59, SH 99, and the SH 8 beltway.

This project is a visible priority of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land), whose status gives him the clout to keep this one moving.

Other NAFTA-related projects in the works include major work in the border region counties on US 83, US 77/83, and US 281. The primary goal is to upgrade the major expressway system in the Rio Grande Valley to six lanes divided in all urban areas and, by 2010, to convert the system to interstate standards.

Planned upgrades total $592 million. Projects already under way add another $125 million.

A consultant is now performing a $1.5 million study to ascertain improvements needed to IH-27 to facilitate a proposed “Ports to Plains” project that would efficiently link the Mexican border to Denver. The study is due for completion next spring. O

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