Scott Ball / Rivard Report
The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is giving residents a sneak peek at its plan to expand Interstate 35 from Northeast San Antonio through the growing towns of Selma and Schertz.
Those plans, simply put, call for turning much of that portion of I-35 into a double-decker freeway – with no tolls.
More than 100 people visited the event center at Morgan’s Wonderland on Thursday night to look at preliminary schematics and display boards for the expansion project.
During Thursday’s event, many people asked TxDOT and other project representatives for the reason behind the double-decker plan. TxDOT engineer Daniel Worden replied succinctly: “There’s no option but to go up. There’s really no more right of way.”
Population growth in the area is projected to more than double the average annual daily traffic count on the corridor, from 169,017 to 393,200, by 2044, according to TxDOT.
Jonathan Bean, TxDOT director of transportation, planning, and development for the San Antonio District, told the crowd that with no expansion, the average drive time on I-35 from AT&T Center Parkway to FM 1103 in Schertz could be nearly 50 minutes by 2044.
With the $2.1 billion expansion project completed, that average drive time could be between 15 and nearly 20 minutes by 2044, Bean said.
TxDOT aims to build elevated lanes between frontage roads and the existing interstate main lanes from Loop 410 South – near AT&T Center Parkway – to Farm Road 3009 in Schertz. Those 15 miles of elevated lanes would consist of two general-purpose lanes and one high occupancy vehicle lane (HOV) in each direction, narrowing to two elevated lanes each way between Schertz Parkway and FM 3009.
From 3009 to FM 1103, a distance of less than 3 miles, the project would widen I-35 by two lanes – one general-purpose and one HOV – in each direction.
TxDOT anticipates work to begin in spring 2021, with phased construction lasting four to five years.
When TxDOT began developing I-35 expansion plans a few years ago, the proposal called for elevated toll lanes. But in recent years TxDOT has followed state lawmakers’ charge to increase road capacity without using toll roads.
Initial plans also called for connections to the elevated toll lanes at 410 South and 410 North (near Windcrest) and Loop 1604 West. The new expansion plan adds a connection to Loop 1604 East/Pat Booker Road.
TxDOT proposes crossovers between the elevated lanes in three locations to permit passage of emergency first-responders: between Walzem and Eisenhauer roads, north of O’Connor Road and north of Olympia Parkway.
The initial phases, from Loop 410 North to FM 3009, are funded, and the State is awaiting funding approval for work between 410 South and 410 North. The rest of the project routes are currently without funding sources.
A handful of government and business representatives from Schertz checked out the expansion plans Thursday. City Councilman Ralph Gutierrez described the plan as “excellent” and likely the best way to keep traffic flowing on I-35 without disrupting commerce.
“This is a way to get the traffic moving without bypassing our city,” he added.
Steve Gatlin, who manages one of many distribution/industrial plants along I-35 in Selma and Schertz, came to Thursday’s meeting worried that a double-decker freeway could pose a problem for traffic coming and out of his facility. He changed his mind after seeing the schematics and conceptual renderings, feeling more assured there would be minimal disruption, if any.
“It’ll probably enhance (road conditions) for people commuting to work and into other deeper parts of town,” Gatlin said.
Only three attendees offered formal comments during the public hearing, but there was a common theme.
Those speakers did not criticize the freeway expansion plan but wondered whether TxDOT and State and local officials would commit to developing mass transit, such as light or commuter rail, to further help commuters on the increasingly congested I-35 corridor.
One speaker, Joel Marsh, said he was part of a contracting crew that built roads in the Loop 410/I-35 area. He complimented TxDOT on its plan but added, “It’s important that we have rail and regular traffic flow. So good luck.”
Sidney Smith, past president of the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials and an area resident, said TxDOT must consider how population growth in Austin and the rising costs of living there are causing some Austin workers to move to San Antonio and its northeast suburbs.
“What other project will TxDOT do to make commuting easier, especially between Austin and San Antonio?” Smith asked.
According to Bean, TxDOT will respond to the speakers’ questions and opinions in a post-meeting report. That report and a copy of the project presentation offered Thursday will be available on TxDOT’s website.
TxDOT is accepting written comments on the I-35 plan through Aug. 30 at I-35NEX@GarverUSA.com.