FOREST HILL — Behind the busy southeast intersection of Loop 820, Interstate 20 and U.S. 287 lives Carla Hernandez, one of the many residents in the area who navigate the web of highways on a regular basis.
Although Hernandez moved there in June 2022, she has already seen how chaotic this intersection can become and looks forward to the completion of the Southeast Connector project, the Texas Department of Transportation’s largest investment in highway infrastructure in Fort Worth.
“Around five o’clock, it is very hectic,” said Hernandez, 30. “Even sometimes on the weekend, around the split to I-20 and I-820.”
Increased traffic demands and population growth have forced TxDOT to revisit the major highway completed in the 1970s to increase safety and mobility in congested parts of southeast Fort Worth. But the expensive and ambitious project — a $1.6 billion price tag over 11 miles — has been marred with funding hurdles, forcing some parts of the project to be deferred until money is available.
“Because of inflation, supply chain issues, things of that nature, all of the bids came in higher than what TxDOT has allocated,” said Jay Proskovec, public information manager for South-Point Constructors, the engineering firm behind the project.
The project, which broke ground in November 2022, is expected to officially start construction in early March and be completed in 2027.
Not everyone agrees that the connector needs a makeover. One watchdog group calls it a “boondoggle” and Arlington resident Shelley Ames finds it “completely unnecessary.”
“We’ve got four lanes on both sides that are never jammed unless there’s a traffic accident. If there’s an accident, it’s going to be jammed no matter what,” said Ames, a mother of four.
Outdated designs and inadequate features
The Southeast Connector touches four communities — Fort Worth, Arlington, Kennedale and Forest Hill — and includes portions of I-20, Loop 820, U.S. 287 and Spur 303 (Rosedale Street).
Since the completion of southeast Loop 820 in the ‘70s, the highway has remained at four to eight lanes despite a significant increase in traffic. During that time, traffic has increased from less than 10,000 vehicles per day to over 200,000 vehicles per day at some locations of 820, said Michael Peters, public information officer for TxDOT’s Fort Worth office.
“With the increase in population during that time, these roadways can no longer accommodate this area’s growing traffic demand,” he said in an email.
Texas A&M’s Texas Transportation Institute released data in 2022 on the state’s most congested highways and ranked the eastbound I-20 segment between U.S. 287 and Texas 360 among the most congested freeways.
Based on growth projections, redesign for the connector gained traction in 2016, and identified a need for more lanes, from four to five on each side. Some exit ramps will be relocated from left to right and extended to improve safety and allow for more space to brake. Turn lanes will be added along some frontage roads.
“Frankly, the design of the roadway just really no longer stands up to the modern-day standards,” Proskovec said.
South-Point Constructors is also working to identify a location to conduct concrete recycling which will be used in the project, the company confirmed in an email. The facility will be recycling demolished concrete from the project to use as a base for roads, saving space in local landfills and reducing the need for new materials.
“South-Point Constructors is currently working to identify a suitable location to conduct concrete recycling that minimizes impacts to the community, is mindful of safety, both to local communities and the traveling public, and provides local access to the project alignment,” they wrote in an email.
Nearby residents have brought up concerns about noise and dust with the addition of this facility. South-Point said they are working to meet environmental standards to minimize its impact on homes close by. This includes watering stockpiles to prevent dust.
The proposal for the concrete recycling facility at 6288 Salt Road was presented to the zoning commission on Feb.8 as part of a request from the city of Fort Worth to include that facility on site of their Southeast Landfill. The zoning commission unanimously recommended the proposal which will be heard by city council on Feb. 14.
Funding hurdles and opposition
The $1.6 billion Southeast Connector is funded by the Texas Clear Lanes initiative, which uses a combination of federal and state funds to help TxDOT address congestion priorities with local officials. Funding does not include money from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
However, rising costs and inflation have forced TxDOT and South-Point Constructors to prioritize certain aspects of the project. At this time, only 11 of the originally planned 16 miles will be worked on with an estimated completion date of 2027. If the tabled highway segments are added back on the timeline, the completion date could shift, Proskovec said.
To complete all 16 miles as one project, it would require $2.4 million, South-Point Constructors told the Fort Worth Mobility: Infrastructure and Transportation committee on Jan. 10.
Sections of the project that will be paused include I-820 between Ramey Avenue and Brentwood Stair Road, US 287 between Village Creek Road and Bishop Street, and I-20 between Little Road and Park Springs Road.
Ames, whose backyard opens up to I-20 and the exit ramp at Kelley Elliot Road, is also concerned about increased noise pollution and safety.
“There’s been cars in the ditch behind our house,” Ames said. “You get us too much closer to the freeway and we’re gonna start having cars in our backyards. This is a neighborhood with lots of kids. What happens if a car plows through my backyard and my kids are outside?
Report describes project as one of country’s ‘most wasteful’
While the Southeast Connector faces funding setbacks, the project has also come under scrutiny from some watchdog organizations. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Frontier Group designated the project as one of the country’s most wasteful highway proposals in a 2020 annual report.
The report described the project as pointless with the appearance of having value — a “boondoggle.”
The project will also result in 23 residential and 19 commercial displacements and cut down about 15 acres of trees, which has raised concerns from neighbors.
TxDOT had no comment related to the watchdog report and instead noted the transformative impact the Southeast Connector project will have on a growing region in need.
“Traffic volumes on the facilities included within this project continue to increase as a result of this growth. Due to these considerations, the project has had the support of these cities, Tarrant County and the North Central Texas Council of Governments throughout its development,” TxDOT’s Peters said in an email statement.
TxDOT has said in the past it would compensate those forced to move because of the connector.
For opposed residents like Ames, this project is just “a huge waste of taxpayer funds.”
“If we were doing construction in our own house and I was budgeting for a new kitchen but the prices went up and I discovered that I won’t be able to afford half of my cabinets, I wouldn’t just go ahead and start the project anyways,” she said. “That doesn’t seem like an intelligent thing to do.”
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