East Texans who live and work on State Highway 31 expressed excitement and concern about the planned expansion of the roadway at a TxDOT meeting on Tuesday.
The meeting, held at Highland Park Baptist Church in Kilgore, was an opportunity for local residents to provide feedback about the plan to make the highway a four-lane structure. Attendees were given the chance to submit written and verbal comments about the project to representatives from TxDOT and other agencies contracted to work on the expansion.
TxDOT provided aerial maps of the highway with markings to indicate where expansions would be made and lanes would be added.
“This map takes you around from 323 in Tyler all the way to 1639 here in Kilgore,” said Kathi White, public information officer for TxDOT's Tyler district.
White explained a previous TxDOT meeting sought feedback on whether to expand the highway to the north or the south and which style of median property owners preferred. Based on those responses, the choices have been narrowed but the department is still looking for input.
“The last meeting we had several alternatives and now we're down to [one] alternative and asking for more input. It's very important to get input because you see all the property owners. We definitely hope a lot of property owners show up tonight and see how things are looking,” White said.
Throughout the meeting, property owners studied the massive aerial map, two videos showing a rendering of traffic flow on the new highway and maps of environmental impact surveys.
Some property owners were optimistic about the expansion.
“Well, I'm looking forward to it with as much traffic as we get,” said Calvin Taylor, who lives on Hwy. 31.
He attended the meeting with Cecil Taylor, who also lives on the highway and hoped for the expansion option “that takes up the least room.”
“I don't want to move,” he said.
“With the turn lane out there, it would be good,” he said. “This time of day, it gets bad out there.”
He went on to describe his experiences on the highway with speeding cars riding close to his bumper and excessive traffic.
Molly Spear owns a farm with her husband on Hwy. 31. The propety has been in their family for years and, though Spear and her husband don't live there, they still would like to see the highway expanded.
“I'm pleased that it's happening. It needs to happen just for transportation's sake,” Spear said. “I'm just interested in what they're planning to do. I'm pleased that they're going to do the depressed median on our property. I think it will probably provide some safety. I know there's a lot of traffic between Kilgore and Tyler and there have been many accidents over the years.”
Not everyone in attendance was looking forward to the project.
Ken Garrett runs cattle on his Hwy. 31 property. The proposed northward expansion would cut significantly into his property line. This isn't the first time TxDOT has put forward a project eating into his land.
“In 1970, when the state first started talking about this, they came in and they did eminent domain and they moved the property line back. They already moved it once and never built the road. Now they're coming in and taking more,” Garrett said.
Garrett gestured to the aerial map to indicate the significant distance between the first encroachment on his property in 1970 and the new proposed northward expansion line.
“Why didn't they take it on the south side?” Garrett asked. “We just got through with this. They just widened the road in front of my house. The contractor was literally doing the punch work when we got the notification of this.”
Garrett explained the widening of the road in front of his property is already affecting his ability to transport cattle and hay in and out of his property. Further expansion could affect him even more, he said.
Asked if he would prefer a southward expansion of the highway, Garrett replied “Absolutely.”
In addition to proposing a northward expansion, the project currently proposes a grass-filled depressed median on the road, rather than a flush paved asphalt median.
“A paved median will let us get out of traffic,” Garrett said. “They call this 'Bloody 31' for a reason. It would let us get out of traffic and as soon as it's safe, then we could make the turn. But with the grass median, we can't do it.”
Even when an expansion plan is finalized, construction won't begin right away. The project will require extensive environmental clearances before shovels break ground on the expansion.
Jeff Allen, senior ecologist at Cox-McLain Environmental Consulting, explained the process.
“We aren't even settled on what the work would be,” McLain said.
Before construction can begin, McLain said, TxDOT will consult state authorities on wetland delineation. This involves studying maps of the area to identify potentially environmentally sensitive areas and then investigating those areas on foot.
“The Clean Water Act requires mitigation for impacts,” McLain said. “What the Corps of Engineers prefers right now is purchasing credits from a mitigation bank. Essentially, there are these mitigation banks and they buy the credits. The Corps of Engineers makes them meet certain criteria to set these banks up. Generally, what they do is they create wetlands or they preserve wetlands to replace what's being impacted.”
Tuesday's meeting is not the final step in the process before the expansion project moves forward. Jeffrey Harmon, Director of Transportation Planning and Development for TxDOT's Tyler district, explained there will be additional opportunities for public feedback.
“We'll have one more meeting. It's a public hearing. We'll go in front of the public and give them our preferred alignment for the roadwork. There will be a chance for public comments at that public hearing,” Harmon said.
The public hearing is not yet scheduled by White and Harmon said it could take place as early as next spring.
White said the materials presented on Tuesday will soon be available to the public.
“All this will be on our website, TxDOT.gov, on Friday. The goal is to get it all up, including the videos, by Friday,” White said.