North Texas leaders were optimistic Thursday about progress for a long-awaited expansion of Interstate 635 LBJ East. But they left an Austin meeting disappointed after 20 years of fighting for improvements.
Feeder roads are not continuous on the segment of I-635 LBJ Freeway through Northeast Dallas, Garland and Mesquite between U.S. Highway 75 Central Expressway and Interstate 30.
"It's one of the most dangerous and congested thoroughfares in the region," Northeast Dallas resident Lynn Davenport told the Texas Transportation Commission Thursday.
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An expansion plan up for a vote at the commission called for completing the feeder roads, adding main lanes and adding managed toll express lanes.
"Right now this is the number-one project, and we just are suffering through delay, delay and delay," said Dallas City Councilman Lee Kleinman.
He spoke at the commission meeting along with other City Council members from Garland and Fort Worth. The mayor of Cedar Hill who leads the North Texas Regional Transportation Council was there, along with Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.
"In the jaws of victory I hope we don't pull out defeat. This project is escalating at $5 million a month, and I think enough time has gone by," Morris said.
Dallas City Councilman Adam McGough led a group of Northeast Dallas neighbors.
"We can't wait," McGough said. "Delay is not an option anymore. I understand what all's going on here, and I know it's part of this game we are playing, but for us, it's our lives."
The "game" is that top state officials, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott, have made it clear they want no more toll lanes included in new Texas highway projects.
Commission Chairman Bruce Bugg said the plan up for a vote Thursday still included toll lanes. He said the plan in Thursday's agenda could not be approved.
"We are at the end of the day about easing congestion, but we want to get this right," Bugg said.
State Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, said he strongly opposes toll lanes, but disagreed with the delay.
"The only stumbling block we've got right now, sir, is the commission blessing this to move forward," Hall said.
The action Thursday was to seek proposals from design/build contractors to pursue the project. Texas Department of Transportation documents list the cost as around $1.8 billion. Available funding without tolls is $832 million, leaving a potential gap of $1 billion if toll lanes are not included.
Morris said a design/build contractor might discover savings to reduce the cost, and potions of the project could be built with available funds, but those options would not be known without moving forward on procurement of a contractor.
"There's no reason in my opinion why this project couldn't be voted on today to go to a procurement process," Morris said.
Chairman Bugg directed TxDOT staff to work with Morris and North Texas officials on developing a revised plan, but he gave no deadline for returning to the issue.
The North Texas leaders said a vote Thursday could at least have made progress on building the feeder roads needed through for LBJ East.
"There could be so much improvement without managed toll lanes, and they wouldn't even move forward on that. That is disappointing," Kleinman said.