Engineers in TX fight challenges to widen I-35

WACO, TX Regional transportation engineers in Waco in the early 1950s designed a state-of-the-art expansion of old U.S. Highway 81, then the north-south road cutting through the city and county. But then federal officials presented an even grander plan.

When plans emerged for an interstate highway connecting Laredo, San Antonio, Austin, Waco, Dallas and Fort Worth, all the way to Minnesota, local transportation officials had a choice: continue working off the relatively modest designs for Highway 81 or start the long design process from scratch.

A plan for what evolved into part of the U.S. interstate highway system through Salado dating back to 1955 indicates which way local engineers went.

The document bears the Highway 81 designs and carries the title, "U.S. HIGHWAY NO. 81." However, that line was crossed out and "IH-35" was scribbled in to replace it.

Regional engineers in charge of the highway through Bell, Falls, Hill and McLennan counties developed I-35 using Highway 81 plans. Exceptions are the interstate from downtown Waco to Elm Mott and a stretch going around Hillsboro.

The result of this long-ago local course of action: a local section of I-35 that is relatively cramped when compared to points north and south.

In those areas, engineers started fresh and, for the most part, built a brand-new highway instead of building on an existing one.

In Williamson County, for example, just south of the Waco region, the state purchased 400-foot-wide swaths of land for the interstate. It bought nearly as much land in stretches north of Hillsboro, past where the interstate splits.

Kevin Kennedy, a Georgetown-based transportation consultant with KCI whose father worked as a state engineer in the 1950s, said Waco engineers had pride of ownership over their plans for U.S. 81, which called for far less right of way.

He said the Waco region's engineers would have been naturally reluctant to go back to the drawing board.

They felt "they were out on the cutting edge with one of the premier rural (highways) in the state with U.S. 81," said Kennedy, who worked on recent widening plans for the Salado section of I-35.

"These guys in Waco, they were working on this thing and were married to it. They'd already acquired land for U.S. 81 and didn't want to go back to the property owners and do that again," Kennedy said.

However, in the few areas where Waco engineers picked a different path from the old U.S. Highway 81 designs and went forward with a fresh land acquisition process, they came away with more state-owned land, said Richard Skopik, the Texas Department of Transportation district engineer for the Waco region.

"Wherever the planners or designers deviated from 81, like in Waco, Bellmead and Lacy Lakeview, and around Hillsboro, the footprint is a little wider," Skopik said.

And those wider berths of state land make the present-day task of widening sections of interstate from their original four to six lanes far simpler, he added.

Engineers who worked for the Waco region during the 1950s now say there was a reluctance to abandon years of planning work on U.S. Highway 81 and go back to the drawing board. They also said they were under pressure to keep costs low and buy up a minimum amount of land along the old north-south route.

"Back in those days, you bought just enough land to get by and not enough for the future," said Les Fisseler, a retired engineer who started working for the state in 1955.

A more slender I-35 footprint wasn't initially a cause of much concern or contention, according to news reports from the 1950s and '60s.

But modern-day engineers working on ongoing lane-widening projects said they've been hemmed in along the narrowest parts of this increasingly busy interstate.

The dearth of state-owned land along I-35 is a problem compounded by the handful of properties along I-35 that have received historic designations over the years.

Engineers must jump through a number of legal hoops before seizing a historic building or property through eminent domain.

In Bruceville-Eddy, engineers managed to thread the needle when expanding the highway between a historically designated bank that currently houses an art gallery on the west and Union Pacific's rail line to the east.

Skopik said he looked into relocating the railroad, but the idea proved "cost-prohibitive."

In Salado, engineers weaved nimbly between the historic Robertson Ranch, which received an original Texas land grant, and the Stagecoach Inn, once a stop on the Chisholm Trail.

But there's not much wiggle room left for future expansion.

Kevin Dickey, the transportation department's advance planning director for the Waco region, said "the footprint has enough space to put a seventh or eighth lane, but after that we don't have any more room."

Kennedy, the transportation consultant, mused on what might have been had the Waco engineers purchased more land as they developed I-35.

"They would have bought more right of way from the Robertson Ranch, and they would have wiped out the bank (in Bruceville-Eddy)."

Instead, he said "you have a set of challenges for the TxDOT engineers in Waco that they don't have in other parts of the state."

Solutions to those challenges, he added, are often expensive and tend to involve buying up private land that has exponentially increased in price in the past five decades.

Chris Evilia, director of the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization, which prioritizes local highway and road projects, said engineers of the past were in a tough position, given their progress on old Highway 81.

"It's a classic quandary: (transportation) design is always evolving but at some point you have to make the decision of what are you going to go with," he said.

Kennedy sees it more as a cautionary tale for transportation planners looking to save a buck in the short-term by keeping land purchases to an absolute minimum.

"If you're planning, plan big and be bold," Kennedy said.

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