In anticipation of a predicted one million Hidalgo County residents by the year 2040, the Texas Department of Transportation is planning a series of road projects designed to ease congestion on the Valley’s two major interstates. And it’s seeking public comment on the first project that would double the size of the single lane ramps that transition traffic between Interstate 2, also known as Expressway 83, and I-69C, also known as Expressway 281. The road-widening project will impact the cities of McAllen, Pharr and San Juan.
And depending on the design option selected, the project could cost up to $325 million, according to one TxDOT official involved in the project.
The photo is of the view southbound on Interstate 69C facing the east-west interchange with I-2 during rush hour traffic March 30. The Texas Department of Transportation is seeking the public’s opinion on three options being considered to increase the number of lanes on the ramps used at the interchange. The project could impact property owners in the cities of McAllen, Pharr and San Juan. Progress Times photo by Joe Hinton
On March 30 more than a dozen TxDOT officials were on hand at the Boggus Ford Event Center in Pharr to unveil three options the department is considering for the ramps or “connectors,” that transition traffic between the north-south running I-69C and the east-west running I-2. The connectors begin in McAllen and San Juan and are centered in Pharr.
“A connector is whatever takes you from one interstate to another,” said Octavio Saenz, TxDOT spokesman.
As explained by Saenz, the first option would construct two additional pillars that would sandwich the existing single pillar system with cross beams connected at the top creating a support structure resembling a “T.” By placing the additional pillars on the outer edges of the existing roadway, cross beams could be installed on which the additional lane and shoulders would be supported.
All three options call for two 12-foot-wide vehicular lanes with a 10-foot- wide inside shoulder and a four-foot wide outer shoulder, per TxDOT diagrams on display at the open house.
The advantage of option one is that no additional rights of way are required from area property owners, said Saenz.
“The benefit is you’re not taking any land. But the question is, is it going to be good enough 20 years from now,” Saenz said.
“That option has a lot of maintenance issues because you’re expanding onto an already existing, older structure,” said Robin Gelston, a TxDOT environmental coordinator. “And does that old structure hold the new structure and do you increase the life span of that bridge if it’s already a 20-year-old bridge structure? So the question is, does that have complications.”
Saenz said the current interstate exchange was built in the 1990s with 1980s population projections. He said between 2005 and 2015 Hidalgo County’s population increased by 175,000 and that by 2040 the U.S. Census Bureau is predicting the county’s population will reach one million.
“And right now the entire Rio Grande Valley population is 1.3 million,” said Saenz. “So what we’re looking at now is what do we do to insure that this interchange continues vehicle capacity and be at a high level of service for the next 20 years.”
Saenz said the second option would build twin connectors alongside the existing ones to support the additional lane and shoulders.
“But it takes a lot more right of way because your adding a lot more noodles to the soup,” Saenz said.
“Option two is problematic because you have to build over the existing direct connectors so that one requires a lot of additional right of way,” Gelston said.
Gelston said option two would require the state purchase an additional 13 acres of land whereas the third option would require the purchase of one acre of private property.
As explained by both Saenz and Gelston, the third option would demolish the existing connecting system and reconstructing it from the ground up.
Gelston said TxDOT estimates the cost of the options range from $150 million to $325 million, which exceeds the $150 million in funding State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa announced last month TxDOT had secured for the project.
Saenz said until design decisions are made, no final cost estimates can be determined.
Gelston said TxDOT is evaluating the three options based on 13 areas of criteria including the amount of new right of way required, the complexity of construction, cost and longevity of the completed project, among others.
Gelston said the ultimate decision lies with TxDOT District Engineer Toribio Garza Jr. Garza attended the open house but declined to comment on the project referring all media questions to Saenz. During the early portion of the open house Garza could be seen in discussions with Pharr Mayor Dr. Ambrosio “Amos” Hernandez and Andrew Cannon, transportation director for the Hidalgo County Metropolitan Planning Organization.
Pharr Planning Director Xavier Cervantes was also in attendance reviewing the plans but also declined comment.
According to Saenz, after an option is decided, TxDOT will advertise for bids from construction companies to build the project in late 2018 or early 2019 with construction beginning either in late 2019 or 2020. He said until an option is decided and bids are received the department could not estimate how long construction will take.
The latter issue is a concern to Pharr resident Kenneth Fletcher, a veterinarian who travels the county as an employee of a mobile vaccination clinic. Fletcher said he attended the open house to suggest any native plants displaced by construction be donated to the City of Pharr for replanting. He said he already avoids the interchange during rush hours and is opposed to completely demolishing the existing structures and rebuilding from the ground up.
“We don’t want that because it’d take forever and I’m 70 in May and I don’t want to pass away driving 10 miles an hour,” Fletcher said.
Saenz said two other projects TxDOT has in the making to help alleviate interstate congestion is the proposed State Highway 68 that would start in the lower mid-Valley and travel north to FM 490. That project would allow travelers to connect with I-69 while avoiding the I-2 interchange altogether, Saenz said. Another proposed roadway would circumvent Brownsville, alleviating commercial vehicle traffic from the border through the city’s center.
Saenz said he currently did not have a timetable for either project.