By MARY RAINWATER
Anderson County and City of Palestine leaders gathered with Texas Department of Transportation officials at the Harvey Women’s Club to celebrate the recent groundbreaking of the U.S. 79 expansion project on Thursday.
Guest speakers, including Texas Transportation Commissioner Jeff Austin III, TxDOT Tyler District Engineer Randy Hopmann, Anderson County Judge Robert Johnston and Palestine City Council member Steve Presley each offered thanks to those involved in the project and boasted of the many economic and safety benefits the expansion would bring to the area.
“When I called (Hopmann) to ask what project was ready to go right away, he immediately answered, ‘Highway 79,’” Austin said. “Thanks to the hard work of members of this community, including that of former Palestine mayor Jackson Hanks, this project has been ready since the early 1990s.
“There have been many trips made up and down the U.S. 79 corridor by many of us in order to garner support for this project among the affected communities,” he added. “I am glad to see this one under way, thanks to the vision of many like Hanks, who reached out to bring us where we are today.”
Johnston spoke to attendees about the direct correlation between highway expansion and economic development and what future growth it would bring to the area.
“When looking at economic development, a lot of what people look at is the transportation system,” the county judge said. “And as a county, we are always looking to bring more jobs and tax base to Anderson County.”
Representing the City of Palestine, Presley spoke about not just the economic impact, but the safety issues that would be relieved by the project.
“We have one school district in the area with one of its main campuses located just off the highway,” Presley said. “This project will certainly benefit them in terms of safety.
“It has been good to see everyone involved working as hard as they can, with TxDOT as a partner, to bring this project about.”
Hopmann reported that he had worked on the U.S. 79 expansion project in its earliest stages, also making many trips along the 79 corridor to build a consensus among the communities.
“I am really proud of this project,” he said. “You in the community were vital in helping us buy right-of-way and stepped up again to get utilities moved in order to get the project ready.
“Now that the time has come to make it happen, all we had to do was dust off the plans, update the specs and get a contractor,” he added. “We had done all that in a matter of months.
“None of this would have happened without the community’s support.”
The $43 million, 8.6-mile project to expand U.S. 79 to four lanes between Tile Factory Road in Palestine and the four-lane section just before the Trinity River bridges began last month and is expected to be completed in 2016.
Thursday’s Master of Ceremonies was 369th Judicial District Court Judge Bascom W. Bentley III.
Mary Rainwater may be reached via e-mail at palestineherald.com