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TxDOT, Contractors Make Big Moves on I-35

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The heavily traveled Interstate-35 corridor is infamous for areas of congestion; fortunately, for motorists and contractors, significant highway funding is speeding along to bring needed relief. Under current plans, the Texas Dept. of Transportation (TxDOT) is investing more than $1 billion to widen the interstate—with more than a half billion in work under way and nearly $400 million in projects scheduled to bid this fall. The agency, which has at least another $500 million in additional work on the horizon and more in planning, has launched unprecedented outreach programs to shape the future expansion of the corridor.

Image courtesy of Texas Dept. of Transportation
Construction workers build a flyover south of Waco.
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After nearly five decades, I-35 needs a makeover. Calls to expand the roadway to a minimum of three lanes in each direction gained traction in the 1990s as congestion concerns rose following passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. “Since the early 1980s we have known the traffic on I-35 between Laredo, where Texas and Mexico come together, and Gainesville, north of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, has seen a tremendous growth in traffic related to trade and commerce, not only for Texas but for the entire U.S.,” says John Barton, TxDOT interim deputy executive director and assistant executive director for engineering operations in Austin.

For the latest round of projects, TxDOT is drawing largely from funding derived from a combination of bonds and federal stimulus money. The $3-billion Proposition-12 bond initiative, which passed in 2007, includes about $500 million for I-35 projects. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) contributed about $200 million to the effort.

The primary focus for current construction is Central Texas and the Waco area. Although its plans are big, TxDOT split up the work into projects of various sizes that benefit a variety of contractors, says Barton. Current projects are estimated to range from $70 million to $150 million. With extensive subcontracting, there are numerous additional opportunities for smaller companies, he adds.

‘MY 35’

Just as the highway system is expanding, TxDOT is also broadening its approach to project planning. Key among the agency's new initiatives is “MY 35,” a comprehensive plan to glean the public's view of how to shape the interstate, with a goal of creating a blueprint for expansion and improvement. TxDOT calls MY 35 “a different approach to transportation planning that gets local decision makers involved early.”

Public opinion is particularly important given that roughly 85% of the state's population lives within 50 miles of I-35, Barton estimates. TxDOT reached out to communities along the corridor and formed groups to help the agency look at the future of both highway and rail improvements.

“As we rebuild this facility to address our current demands, [TxDOT is asking] what will we need to be doing in the year 2050?” Barton says. “The MY 35 initiative helps the department do a better job of information sharing and lessons learned.”

Engineers from agency districts have worked on the projects, lending their engineering and construction management expertise. “They are bringing to the table knowledge and skills they have acquired over the years working on projects similar to these, and they are learning from the experiences gained by each of the design teams working on independent projects along I-35,” Barton says. “We have indoctrinated a lessons- learned sharing practice across the state.”

Engineers meet monthly to discuss what they have discovered, with a particular emphasis on managing construction and traffic flow challenges along the interstate corridor. For instance, to minimize disruptions to traffic during rebuilding, TxDOT is using expedited bridge building techniques, such as prefabricating columns and erecting them overnight.

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