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Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe: Driving the I-35 hot spots

This week, I hopped in the pickup and drove the new freeway lanes from the south end of Denton to the north and back. 

Construction on Interstate 35E is nearly completed as additional lanes opened recently in both directions.DRC
Construction on Interstate 35E is nearly completed as additional lanes opened recently in both directions.
DRC

The new lanes are wide and smooth. The longer ramps ease the transition on and off the freeway. Compared to its prior condition, the trip up and down Interstate 35/35E was almost pleasant. In about a week, the Texas Department of Transportation and its contractor, AGL Constructors, will celebrate the end of the project with a ribbon cutting. 

However, the improvements brought two trouble spots into sharp relief: the interchanges at Loop 288 and U.S. Highway 380.

Denton motorists tell us, and anyone else who will listen, that these spots on I-35 and I-35E need work.

Local and regional transportation officials have cobbled together the money for the Loop 288 interchange at the southern end of town. That work has begun. They remain hopeful that they soon can do the same for U.S. 380 (University Drive) to the north.

The work on the north side may still be two to four years away, a city transportation official says. But that work can’t come too soon for Sunny Hinojos, who says the exit can't accommodate all the cars and trucks that come through each day. 

“The highway backs up because of the traffic waiting on the light to change,” Hinojos said.

Loop 288

The main reason I took the drive was to understand a lane change for drivers coming into Denton from the south. From Post Oak Drive headed north, I merged between a lumbering big rig and a Honda Civic. Soon after the merge, an orange, diamond-shaped sign told the trucker, the Civic driver and me that we had 500 feet before our lane disappeared.

Car wrecks during construction make it difficult for emergency personnel and other drivers alike, such as this wreck that closed the inside southbound lane of Interstate 35E between Mayhill Road and Post Oak Drive in September 2015. Al Key/DRC
Car wrecks during construction make it difficult for emergency personnel and other drivers alike, such as this wreck that closed the inside southbound lane of Interstate 35E between Mayhill Road and Post Oak Drive in September 2015. 
Al Key/DRC

I'd driven the squeeze going down from three full lanes to two narrow construction lanes between Mayhill Road and Loop 288 before.  Previously, the squeeze came from the inside (far left) lane. Drivers in the third passing lane had to merge with drivers in the second lane. Some drivers complained, particularly after wrecks occurred.  About a week ago, crews changed the merge lanes to come from the outside (far right) lanes.

Generally, it's easier to take a lane off from the outside than the inside, says Michelle Releford, a TxDOT spokeswoman. 

"But everything depends on how far entrances and exits are," Releford said. 

The lane change could ease the traffic squeeze during the upcoming transition, said Mark Nelson, the city’s transportation director.

“That [merging from the inside] was something we were concerned about from the beginning,” Nelson said.

Donna Huerta, another spokeswoman for TxDOT, said the shift is also related to the coming demolition of the bridge at Mayhill Road. 

What is the transition? City, county and regional officials came up with the $27.5 million that TxDOT needed to get a new interchange for South Loop 288, plus an underpass at Brinker Road, with the hopes of bringing traffic relief to southern Denton sooner rather than later. Without the local funding, improvements to the Loop 288 interchange would have waited for seven to 10 more years. 

Traffic from Loop 288 doesn't back up just on the freeway ramps. It stacks up at the stoplights in the business district, sometimes as far back as Brinker Road. Traffic can back up into Southridge neighborhoods, too.

Motorists will be limited to two lanes each direction until the work is done, likely in late 2018. And they should remain alert for lane shifts in the area, too, Huerta said.

The main reason for the squeeze is because contractors have to build three new bridges, Huerta and Nelson said. Drivers will find themselves shifting lanes from one side to the other as crews rebuild the underpasses at Mayhill and Brinker Roads first. But the new route will give local drivers more alternatives to get around construction as crews turn their attention to the Loop 288 interchange, Nelson said.

U.S. 380

Because I drove from southern Denton to the north side during midday,  I dodged the traffic backup that many drivers confront daily on the I-35 northbound exit ramp and elsewhere at the interchange that brings I-35E and I-35W together. 

Traffic was backed up along Mesa Drive and Interstate 35 frontage road due to an accident near West University Drive and Marshall Road in September. DRC
Traffic was backed up along Mesa Drive and Interstate 35 frontage road due to an accident near West University Drive and Marshall Road in September. 
DRC

Many cars and trucks travel this hot spot each day. Some of the traffic is local, including workers on shift changes at Denton warehouses and manufacturing companies. Some of the traffic is long-distance travelers. A co-worker who regularly visits Oklahoma said that travel is the most punishing on Friday afternoons, when other northbound motorists are headed to Oklahoma, too. 

Regional and state transportation officials are aware of that hot spot, Nelson said. He remains hopeful that they can cobble together some money for improvements in the area, perhaps in the next two to four years. 

Officials already have most of the right of way they need, which helps, he said.  

“We work where we see safety issues and mobility impacts,” he said. “But it’s like your kitchen table discussions. What do you give up to get something now?”

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

FEATURED PHOTO: Northbound drivers at the junction of Interstate 35E, left, and Interstate 35W, right, slow down and cross paths as the two highways merge into Interstate 35 during afternoon rush-hour traffic Wednesday in Denton. That area quickly becomes congested because many drivers are trying to work their way into the right lane to exit onto West University Drive just to the north of the junction.
Jake King/DRC