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$46.5 million Loop 340 'mall-to-mall' project survives in stripped-down Waco road plan

$46.5 million Loop 340 'mall-to-mall' project survives in stripped-down Waco road plan

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Local officials Thursday cut five major projects out of the short-term transportation plan for McLennan County because of state budget constraints but ensured that the “mall-to-mall” project on Loop 340 will be expedited.

The Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization approved an amended Transportation Improvement Plan that allocates $51.5 million of its discretionary money for 2021-24 from the Texas Department of Transportation.

Most of that money will go to the $46.5 million project to build continuous frontage roads and new overpasses and ramps on Loop 340/Highway 6 between Richland Mall and Central Texas Marketplace. The project is scheduled to be under contract in November and start early next year, and the MPO’s budget includes $2 million as contractor incentives to expedite the project.

Casualties of the budget cuts include two “breakout projects” on Interstate 35 between Valley Mills Drive and Highway 6 that would improve safety and mobility on a stretch that was left out of the ongoing project to widen and rebuild I-35 through Waco. The two projects would cost a combined $33 million.

MPO

Improvements to Spring Valley Road were among projects stripped from the three-year Transportation Improvement Plan. Hewitt has already carried out some relocation of utility infrastructure in anticipation of the project, which would add a center turn lane and wider shoulders.

Also dropped from the plan are the following:

  • A $10 million contribution toward a $12 million project to add a continuous center turn lane on Spring Valley Road in Hewitt between Sun Valley Boulevard and Hewitt Drive. The project would also include pedestrian improvements around Spring Valley Elementary School
  • An $8 million project to widen Highway 6 between McLaughlin Road and Farm-to-Market Road 185
  • A $10 million overpass on State Highway 31 at F.M. 2311 near Axtell, which is now a dangerous at-grade intersection.

Left intact was another $10 million overpass project at Highway 31 and F.M. 939, now a deadly intersection and the turnoff for a proposed new city of Waco landfill. MPO director Chris Evilia said the MPO would set aside $5 million of its discretionary funds for the project, with the balance coming from discretionary funds from TxDOT’s Waco district. The project is expected to start this summer, he said.

MPO project cancellation map

As recently as June, Waco MPO officials were expecting a three-year allocation of $134 million in what are called “Category 2” funds, the locally controlled discretionary money from the state. But the state in August ordered MPOs around the state to slash those projections because state funds were overcommitted. The Waco MPO whittled its wish list but was required to cut another $18.4 million this past fall. In December, the MPO board, which includes leaders of McLennan County and its cities, discussed the stripped-down list and agreed to a public input process on that list.

Thursday’s vote does not mean the projects that were cut from the three-year plan are dead, Evilia told the board Thursday.

Evilia said the other high-priority projects will be listed in an appendix for the Transportation Improvement Plan, which will allow right-of-way acquisition and utility work to begin to make them shovel-ready.

He said the two I-35 breakout projects will probably be rolled into a larger package to rebuild and widen Interstate 35 through the southern part of Waco, a project that could come “significantly later” than the current 2021-24 planning period.

MPO

Interstate 35 at Irving Lee Drive was part of a safety project that has been indefinitely postponed.

The right-of-way acquisition process has already started for the mall-to-mall project. The city of Waco will have to buy bits of private land for the new frontage roads but will be at least partly reimbursed by the state, Evilia said. The city will also have to pay to relocate its utilities along the route.

The $46.5 million price tag excludes those costs as well as the engineering costs that the state will incur.

The route is seen as an essential link with hospitals, retail centers, housing areas and industrial employers, including an Amazon Fulfillment Center now under construction at 2000 Exchange Parkway.

In the short term, construction on the freeway section will create some traffic challenges, especially since mainlane overpasses have to be replaced.

“It’s going to be pretty rough,” Evilia said.


Commuters waste about 54 hours a year in traffic, and it's not just during rush hour

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Managing editor

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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