By GRACE GADDY
PALESTINE — The Texas Department of Transportation is alive and well in Anderson County, according to TxDOT representatives who spoke during a Palestine Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon Monday at the Palestine Civic Center.
TxDOT District Engineer Randy Hopmann praised the community for “getting behind” TxDOT efforts and said progress was running smoothly on the $42 million project set to expand and renovate U.S. Highway 79.
“The city of Palestine did it, and Anderson County did it, and without your partnership, without your support, that project would still be unfunded today,” Hopmann told attendants.
The three-phase project will expand the road from two to four travel lanes with a continuous left turn lane in the urban section close to businesses. Outside of town, a dividing median will be added in the road along the Walmart Distribution Center and extending to the Trinity River.
Hopmann explained that the contractor has 880 working days to complete the project, with construction having begun in November 2012. Currently, 26 percent of the project has been completed according to funding paid out, and 30 percent is completed according to the time schedule.
“I'm pleased to report that this project is on schedule and on budget,” Hopmann said.
At the onset, workers began efforts to widen the existing northbound lane through a number of activities: extending existing drainage structures, constructing storm drains and inlands, and constructing walls and embankment to accommodate additional width.
Still in progress, workers are continuing to pour concrete to curbs, open gutters and driveways on the north portion of the project.
Placement of hot mix asphalt is expected to begin in early 2014, at which traffic will be moved to the new constructed northbound lanes and the contractor will “switch operations to do the same thing on the south side of the roadway,” Hopmann said.
Hopmann continued with updates on additional transportation projects for the county, which include the following:
• A $2 million project to widen FM 59 by three feet on either side, which stretches from the Henderson County line into Cayuga. Bids were taken in September, and construction is planned to start in early 2014.
• Adding shoulder rumble strips as safety components for U.S. Highway 79 and FM 322. Bids were taken this month, and construction is expected to begin in “the near future,” Hopmann said.
• A $700,000 project to build bridges on County Road 432 at Lake Creek and County Road 482 at Indian Creek. Bids will be taken in March.
• A $10 million project to add a passing lane and shoulders to State Highway 19, from Montalba to the Anderson County line. Bids will be taken in July 2014.
• Future plans: Four county road bridges to go into construction in approximately a year and a half, costing approximately $1.2 million.
TxDOT Commissioner Jeff Austin, III, also spoke during the luncheon about economic development at the state and federal level.
“There are conflicting needs,” Austin told attendants, explaining that the process of acquiring funding for transportation purposes can prove difficult because it doesn't carry the same “emotional” weight as, say, building a church or a school.
“So it's our responsibility to have the discussion to look at different funding needs,” he said – a point also underscored by Texas State Sen. Robert Nichols.
“Without the dollars, we cannot build the transportation we need,” Nichols said.
Nichols encouraged attendants to support Senate Joint Resolution 1, his proposed constitutional amendment that would put oil and gas revenue toward TxDOT expenses. His legislation would use revenue that would otherwise sit in a rainy day fund to provide TxDOT with more than $1 billion annually for roads.
“You will have the opportunity in November of next year to vote on a constitutional amendment,” Nichols said, “the simplified version is that you will capture about one third of all the oil and gas royalties for the state of Texas constitutionally dedicated to the road systems that we have.”
Also during the luncheon, Austin presented Palestine City Council member Steve Presley with the TxDOT Road Hand Award, a TxDOT honorary tradition dating back to 1973 that acknowledges those who have made improvements to Texas transportation a labor of love.