Texas Department of Transportation

Travelers Through, to Waco: I-35 Expansion Could Mean Delays

Chris Garcia worries about the widening of Interstate 35 near his front door.

"I understand Exit 338-A is supposed to be moving," said Garcia, who manages Collin Street Bakery on I-35 near Bellmead. "It may move forward or it may move backward. One way it hurts, the other it doesn't so much."

The Waco Tribune-Herald reports in either case, Garcia sees the $341 million project spread over four to five years evolving into a slow-motion nightmare. Diversions could mean "no easy on-and-offs," and motorists struggling to retain their bearings.

Mitigating circumstances should allow Collin Street Bakery to survive.

"We're world famous. We're known for our fruitcake, and the biggest percentage of our sales are mail-out," said Garcia, who has worked for the Corsicana-based company a dozen years. "Customers are my No. 1 concern. We get a lot of travelers, but we also get our share of locals. And we have regulars. Some stop twice a year. I count those as regulars."

He quickly ended the conversation to greet a bus entering the parking lot.

Ken Roberts, spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation, said he gladly would dispatch a staffer to meet with Garcia and talk shop and specifics. Or, he said, Garcia may be invited to visit TxDOT headquarters in Waco to view maps and schematics that shed light on the 6-mile undertaking, one that will transform the big highway's appearance and function.

Years in the planning stages, with TxDOT acquiring tracts along both sides of the highway, construction formally began in late April. Crews closed a northbound lane, the first of many adjustments motorists will face. Eventually, I-35 will be expanded from three to four lanes in each direction. TxDOT will rebuild all overpasses, make frontage roads wider and stronger and level a pedestrian bridge, said TxDOT information officer Jodi Wheatley in a statement.

"This one section in Waco has the most users of any section of I-35 in the entire Waco District corridor, with 140,000-plus vehicles traveling through every day," Wheatley said. "There's no question this new area will be much different upon completion. However, getting there will be tough at times, with plenty of disruptions over the next several years, through most of 2024."

The bottom line is that conditions are changing when Waco is becoming a tourist mecca, attracting more than 2.5 million visitors a year. Downtown venues that include Magnolia Market at the Silos swell with crowds, fans of Chip and Joanna Gaines and their HGTV show "Fixer Upper." Many of the visitors arrive on what will become a 6-mile work zone.

But local leaders say planning and TxDOT's willingness to take the lead in making the project as painless as possible should help.

"Will it be uncomfortable? Yes. Interstate 35 is one of the most critical freight corridors in the United States. It is critical to the state economy and the local economy. Its impact on freight and tourism is considerable," said Jessica Attas, vice president for public policy at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce. Attas serves on a TxDOT I-35-related advisory committee.

"Fortunately, TxDOT has tried to stay ahead of the game," Attas added. "It has kept stakeholders in the loop, and we feel very positive that what happened in Temple and Salado can be prevented.

"The contractor has incentives to finish the project expeditiously, with bidding based on the number of days it takes to complete the work. But he also must hit on all the quality and safety metrics," Attas said. "Everyone is determined to get through the next four years and reap the benefits."

She said TxDOT notified sign companies that messages on billboards, particularly those that include directions or exits, may need tweaking.

Attas said her committee has heard from business owners. David Sykora, who owns the popular Chick-fil-A location at South Seventh Street and I-35, often surrounded by a sea of parked vehicles and dual-lane drive customers, has attended several meetings and is among the most vocal.

"For us right now it is wait-and-see on the interstate expansion," said Sykora. "We are confident that TxDOT, City Council and government, and the Waco Chamber of Commerce have represented local businesses well and will do everything possible to move the progress for our town forward."

Megan Henderson, executive director of City Center Waco, said the I-35 widening may impact more the casual traveler than tourists.

"If you're planning a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Waco, you will find a way to get downtown, regardless of how the route is configured," Henderson said. "You will not be deterred if you set out to take a vacation to Waco. You're coming. It may take a few more minutes to get downtown, but you're coming."

She said she did not quit driving to Austin when I-35 through Temple was under construction, creating bottlenecks and delays.

Henderson said "convenience businesses" hugging I-35 through Waco may suffer the most during construction, as they often require travelers to make last-minute decisions on where to shop, dine or take bathroom breaks.

She said she hopes hand-wringing will yield to determination among locals to support I-35 area stores and restaurants that may face challenges.

"We need to buckle up and vow to support our local businesses," she said.

She said she has heard conversation about the possibility rerouted traffic will patronize other retailing areas, including LaSalle Avenue.

Bill Hamer, owner of LaSalle Shoppes, a novelty and antique emporium at 2223 LaSalle Avenue, said that notion appeals to him.

"I've thought about that," he said. "A lot of people travel LaSalle already, but we could see more, people not wanting to fight the traffic on I-35 and traveling to Loop 340. You could swing right onto LaSalle Avenue. This thing is just getting started, but it won't take us long to find out the impact."

Bellmead City Manager Yost Zakhary said he continues to gather information on how the widening may impact the community's bottom line. It relies heavily upon sales tax revenue to keep the books in the black.

"H-E-B, Sam's Club, Home Depot, all these centers are important to us. A majority of our tax revenue comes from commercial development," Zakhary said. "Woodway is heavily residential with light commercial."

Zakhary previously served as Woodway's city manager.

"Our public works director tells me TxDOT is doing everything it can not to impact business, but I think there will be some inconvenience," he added.

Waco City Councilman John Kinnaird, who also serves on an I-35-related advisory committee, said he doubts the widening, though inconvenient, stands to pull the plug on economic development momentum building locally, much of it centered downtown and along the Lake Brazos corridor.

"We are still very much a nationwide destination," he said. "Leadership understands the impact. TxDOT has ensured better communication and signage and as many access points as possible during construction. Afterward, I believe our image as a destination point will be enhanced."

Wheatley, with TxDOT, said residents and motorists can track progress on the widening at My35.org. DriveTexas.org includes updates on speed limit changes, lane closings, traffic delays, travel times and incident reports.

Travelers also may sign up for I-35-related email alerts.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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