With the recent demise of the Trans-Texas Corridor, the Texas Department of Transportation is exploring options to make the proposed Interstate 69 a reality.
Tom Niskala, transportation planning director with the Corpus Christi Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the death of the controversial TTC project has left U.S. Highway 77 in a prime position to become a vital part of the proposed I-69 project. That is because TxDOT has made it clear it would like to utilize existing infrastructure for I-69, with new roads built being tolled.
What this means for Highway 77 is TxDOT is now in the process of studying how much it would cost to upgrade portions of Highway 77 from Nueces to Cameron County. That would include building new relief routes along small towns along the way, such as the cities of Bishop and Driscoll, Niskala said. Upgrades to Highway 77 along Robstown were completed last year.
The City of Driscoll, with a population of about 830, stands to benefit from proposed upgrades because a new relief route would run through or along its city limits. Mayor Pro Tem John Aguilar said Friday that the city, which has been resistant to change in the past, is fully behind the project.
"People have already accepted that we need to grow," Aguilar said. "We are taking baby steps, trying to familiarize ourselves with the whole project and how we can benefit from it."
But Aguilar said he and some of the residents in Driscoll have been getting mixed messages from TxDOT about the project's proposed route and its future.
"One (proposal) was going to be a tolled bypass, and then, on the second reading, that was still not resolved because there were no funds," Aguilar said. "There wasn't a good reception to that.
"I'm still not sure what stage they're at or what they're deciding; at least, I'm not clear. I don't think anyone in Driscoll is (sure)."
TxDOT has four proposed relief routes under consideration for the city of Driscoll, ranging in cost estimates from $19 million to $43 million. Niskala said the state has run into issues with property owners and historical sites which has led to a necessary reevaluation of the project, since obtaining easements will bear its own costs.
"Obviously, you've got some problems there with the railroad tracks, which cause some issues (with the project)," Niskala said. "You've got some nice historical structures, too, in Driscoll that have to be taken into account.
"One option would be to do some form of elevated structure that would maybe pretty well follow the current alignment."
Niskala said the state is looking at alternatives to the issue of funding the project, including a private/public joint venture that would entail a private company paying for the road improvements. In return, that company would have the rights to some or all of the tolls collected for a set duration of time.
TxDOT has preliminarily accepted a proposal by Zachry Construction from San Antonio to build the first part of I-69 from Corpus Christi to Cameron County in exchange for the rights to the tolls collected for 50 years, Niskala said. The state will make a decision on whether to move forward with a15- to 18-month study on the proposal within the next two weeks, he added.
All of the improvements being proposed, though, offer safety upgrades for drivers and residents in towns along Highway 77, Niskala said. These include overpasses and turnarounds that make getting across the highway safer than it is at the moment, particularly in the Driscoll area, he added.
"You're putting your life into your hands," Niskala said.
Also, upgrading the existing Highway 77 puts it in a prime position to be included as part of the proposed I-69 route or other future projects.
"The Valley is very, very interested in getting interstate access to (their area)," Niskala said. "When it comes to attracting new businesses, when it comes to economic development, having the largest population area in the United States that's not served by an interstate is a detriment.
"By getting interstate access, whether that would be I-69 or I-37 South…the goal would be to build the improvements so that you have interstate-quality access all the way down to Cameron County."
No matter the decision, the project will likely take years to come to fruition, Niskala said. But for leaders in the small towns who stand to benefit from any of TxDOT's proposals, any decision will beat waiting for an answer.
"We're at a standstill, kind of, but we still want to stay positive and move forward and take advantage of that corridor that comes through," Aguilar said. "Hopefully we can benefit from the traffic or (travelers).
"Either way, we're going to stay positive."