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Yes, Denton, I-35E isn't finished

Josh Juve hits the bottleneck on Interstate 35E every morning on his commute from Shady Shores to Denton.

Juve watches drivers jockey for position as the three new, wide, smooth freeway lanes squeeze down to two lanes for about a mile and a half between Mayhill Road and South Loop 288.

“A lot of people take the access road,” Juve said. “I’ve been wondering why they didn’t pave that center section.”

It’s true that AGL Constructors, the contractor that widened I-35E from Dallas to Denton, did not work on the portion between Mayhill Road and South Loop 288. The Texas Department of Transportation had planned to widen that section, but did not plan on other significant improvements to the freeway in southern Denton. Those improvements would have to wait for another five to seven years, or more, during a second phase of work needed to widen I-35E and Interstate 35 between Interstate 635 in Dallas to U.S. Highway 380 in Denton.

That long wait for improvements concerned local and regional transportation officials. They convinced TxDOT to pluck that section out of Phase 1. The city of Denton and the Regional Transportation Council, which is part of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, came up with the money needed. Specifically, the city and regional officials sent $27.5 million to TxDOT for a freeway underpass at Brinker Road and a new interchange for South Loop 288.

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Mark Nelson, the city’s transportation director, calls the work Phase 1-B, and it's the reason the section has gone untouched.

“We [taxpayers] couldn’t pay AGL to add three lanes and then tear them out to lift I-35E up,” Nelson said.

Most taxpayers would consider that a waste of money, he added.

Another construction company, OHL USA, was awarded the contract in September 2016 for the section between Mayhill and Loop 288. OHL started construction in March as AGL's work was winding down, but the handoff hasn't been completely smooth. 

The city had to move a water supply line away from the freeway expansion. Crews dug up the pipeline and discovered that the shut-off valves were too old to be reliable, Nelson said. The city had to order replacement parts, which set back construction for everyone. All the utility work was finished last month. Those delays may set back the completion date to late 2018 or early 2019, Nelson said.

Drivers won’t see much relief in the area until the project is nearly done, Nelson said. Drivers will find themselves shifting lanes from one side to the other of the new bridge over Brinker Road.

Crews plan to build the Brinker Road underpass first. That's about $11.5 million of the project. This will give drivers more alternatives to get around construction when crews rebuild the Loop 288 interchange, Nelson said.

Looking southeast, vehicles travel along Interstate 35E and Brinker Road near the future site of Buc-ee's travel plaza. Phase 1 of the 35Express project is nearly finished, but building the Brinker Road underpass and reconstruction of the Loop 288 interchange is a trailing project and won't be finished until late next year or in early 2019.&nbsp;DRC
Looking southeast, vehicles travel along Interstate 35E and Brinker Road near the future site of Buc-ee's travel plaza. Phase 1 of the 35Express project is nearly finished, but building the Brinker Road underpass and reconstruction of the Loop 288 interchange is a trailing project and won't be finished until late next year or in early 2019. 
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Most of the money for the $27.5 million project comes from regional toll revenue — the money drivers pay to travel toll roads like the President George Bush Turnpike and LBJ TEXpress in northern Dallas. Denton also had to match the regional contribution to make the deal with TxDOT. The city's $2.1 million match came from a controversial deal with Buc-ee’s.

The Lake Jackson company builds Texas-size gas stations and bought land on the south side of I-35E at Brinker Road to build a 96-pump travel plaza. Buc-ee’s agreed to front the city’s match in exchange for a lucrative payout in sales tax rebates. City staff estimated that Denton will repay Buc-ee’s within about two years, but the payout lasts 20 years and could reach $9.4 million.

The project should bring smoother drives to Denton when it's finished, Nelson said. But he also understands there’s a difference between two 30-minute commutes when one of the drives has motorists tapping the brakes a lot.

He lives in Coppell and commutes to Denton, too.

“You’re locked down, and watching the other drivers,” Nelson said. “It’s stressful.”

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881.

FEATURED PHOTO: Looking south, vehicles travel near Interstate 35E and Brinker Road. Travelers wonder why Interstate 35E appears to be nearly done, except for a section in far southern Denton that has been left untouched.
Jeff Woo/DRC