Reliever route draws scrutiny

While the focus of Tuesday night’s public meeting hosted by the Texas Department of Transportation was to introduce improvements to the coming U.S. Highway 87 relief route, that didn’t stop local residents from showing their concern for the possible economic impact the route could have on Big Spring.According to Blair Haynie, director of transportation planning and development for TxDOT, the public meeting was necessary because changes were made to the future roadway’s design.“The purpose of this meeting is several-fold,” Haynie told the audience gathered at the Dora Roberts Community Center. “What we wanted to bring to the public is a matter of access, which we are looking to change along the relief route.“The administration that was in place when this route was designed felt the property owners living along the right-of-way should have no access. However, since that time we’ve had a change in administrations, so we went to them and asked them to look at this again. That’s when plans were developed to change the design from a controlled access highway to an uncontrolled access highway, similar to what you see on the northern and southern parts of Highway 87 now.”Haynie said a controlled access highway allows entry to and exit from the relief route only at designated points along the roadway, while open access will give property owners better access to the route.Currently, the route is to run south on U.S Highway 87 to FM 700 and loop to the west, picking up Highway 87 again at RM 33, south of the city. The project will require acquisition of new right-of-way, varying in width from 250 feet to 360 feet, and be 14 miles long.Haynie was joined by TxDOT Big Spring Area Engineer Jesse Mendoza, as well as Right-of-Way Program Specialist Tommy Jones, Abilene District Surveyor Wayne Ekdahl, Environmental Coordinator Bill Leach and Project Manager Jerry Conner during the meeting to discuss a number of issues and how they will effect local residents.Former Howard County commissioner Bill Crooker — who has been involved with the project and its parent project, the Ports to Plains Trade Corridor — was also on hand for the meeting.“I’m very glad to see the financial aspect of the project in place,” Crooker said. “There is a need for a truck bypass in Big Spring, and that need grows with each passing day.”Not everyone sees the reliever route as a boon, however.Conley Powell sees the construction of the relief route west of Big Spring as paving over precious resources.“My family has owned mineral rights in Howard County for many years,” Powell said. “Deep drilling of 10,000-plus feet has been productive in that area. The width of the route is about 250 to 240 feet. With this type of deep drilling, each unit takes between 20 to 40 acres. This route will cause wells not to be drilled, which will ultimately effect mineral values. That means it will effect Howard County and Big Spring Independent School District.”Jones assured the audience TxDOT is working with oil companies to lessen the impact and, in some cases, even relocate oil wells, when necessary.Local businessman Shane Ward said he fears what kind of impact diverting traffic around the city — and its main corridor of commerce, Gregg Street — will do to local businesses.“All you have to do is look at Third Street and Fourth Street,” Ward said. “That’s the effect the Interstate Highway 20 bypass had on that thoroughfare.”Haynie said the economic impact of a reliever route was studied by TxDOT, as well as a local focus group that was formed early on in the project.“I think one of the concerns non-truck traffic is going to have when they come this way is distance,” Haynie said. “The relief route is a longer distance, and for the most part, motorists will find it quicker to go through Big Spring. Only the truck traffic is being diverted.”Haynie didn’t go into further detail, however, as he reminded those in attendance the economic impact of the relief route was a matter that had been handled in public meetings in years past.One local resident was less concerned with the impact to citywide economics and more concerned with what the route — and its placement — will do to property values.“I bought a house in 2008, and that property will be 400 feet from this relief route,” local resident Joe Womack said. “What is this going to do to my property values? I don’t want a four-lane highway 400 feet from my property.”Again, Haynie declined to comment, saying he couldn’t speculate on the effect the route will have on values.“If you look around this room, half the people are saying it’s going to lower your property value and the other half is saying it will raise it,” Haynie said. “There’s no way I can speculate on property values in this situation.”Local resident Cindy Casper said she isn’t comfortable with the idea of what the trucks on the relief route may be carrying, and what kind of impact it could have in the case of an accident.“They could be carrying nuclear waste through this area (where many of these properties) are family-owned,” Casper said.Haynie said one of the main reasons the project was developed — at the behest of local officials — is because of concerns regarding hazardous materials.“It’s definitely a safety issue,” Haynie said. “Especially when you have trucks traveling through town with hazardous cargo. That was one of the things that was looked at in the development of this project. There are several hills and other things that present safety hazards in town. The relief route allows us to move those trucks away from those busy streets and intersections.”Haynie said written comments regarding the route will be accepted by TxDOT for 10 days following the meeting. Comments should be mailed to: Texas Department of Transportation Attn. Blair Haynie, P.E., 4250 N. Clack, Abilene TX 79601-9241.Contact Staff Writer Thomas Jenkins at 263-7331 ext. 232 or by e-mail at