Officials unveil plans for U.S. 87 relief route

Texas Department of Transportation employees hosted a public hearing Tuesday evening at the Dora Roberts Community Center regarding recent changes to the US 87 truck relief route in Howard County.Throughout the course of the evening, information was released regarding recent changes and the community was given the opportunity to view the schematics, environmental assessment and a tentative construction schedule.Original design plans for the relief route proposed a controlled access highway, but after hearing public comments and conducting additional research, TxDOT changed the design to an uncontrolled access highway and added an extra 15 feet of right of way.“Due to the fact that we had originally said no access and now we are allowing some access in places that are safe another meeting wass required,” Jesse Mendoza, P.E., Big Spring Area Engineer, said. “In addition to the allowed access, we added an extra 15 feet of right of way in some areas where it was tight. Those two changes required us to resubmit our environmental document and due to the resubmission we had to hold another meeting.”The route – which would include roadway from FM 700 north of Big Spring around the west side of town to FM 33 on the south side of Big Spring - is divided into three parts; the I-20 interchange, the southern part from I-20 to FM 33 and the final section which extends from I-20 to FM 700.“Our meeting is focusing on the I-20 interchange and the southern portion not only due to recent changes in the project, but for the fact that both portions are funded and scheduled to go to contract in 2013,” Paul Hoelscher, P.E. Director of Construction for TxDOT said.According to Mendoza, the relief route project extends back to the 1980s when interest was originally expressed. Interest for the project was once again raised in 1994 when an I-27 expansion was made a possibility, but it wasn’t until 1998 that the Ports to Plains project spurred movement in the plan. In 2000 a local focus group was formed and the project began to take shape.“The overall plan was to have a focus group of community leaders and a few TxDOT representatives that would all have the same voice,” Mendoza said. “More or less it was looking overall at how to approach the different type of proposals.”The focus group findings were presented in September of that same year and two public meetings were held to gather information from the citizens in August 2001. Since then a proclamation supporting the project was issued and a presentation was made to the district engineer.“The one (proposed plan) we have now wasn’t the final product. It was, again, just a roughly 3,000 foot corridor and they looked at access to the airpark, disruptions to existing homes, existing highway intersections, geometric concerns, quality, safety, environmental concerns and quality of life,” Mendoza said.Wayne Ekdahl, R.P.L.S. District Surveyor, was on hand to give an update on the right of way process. According to his presentation, employees are almost 100 percent completed with all the surveys. “The I-20 corridor has been mapped and the U.S. 87 corridor has all the monuments in the ground, but our consultants are working on the right of way map at this time,” Ekdahl said. “At this point, almost everyone having property impacted by this should be able to see property points that have been set except for a few.”According to Right-of-Way Program Specialist Tommy Jones, the appraisal process or evaluation process of the property will begin once the right of way maps are in and property descriptions are finalized.“We do have appraisers – three of them - assigned and ready to go. They will be performing the evaluations. Once they get started on the ground they will go through and talk with the people; they will kick the dirt with you,” Jones said. “This is the time to share any thoughts, concerns or issues that may not be readily know. They will be able to get a good handle on appraising and placing a value on your piece of property. The more information you can give them the better it will benefit the land owner through the evaluation process.”The release of offers is expected to happen mid-February or mid-March according to Jones, which is when a contractor will be brought in.“This is a large project to wrap our hands around and get accomplished in the time frame that we have been given,” Jones said.Jones also said letters will be sent out to land owners to notify them of the arrival and upcoming contact from these contractors so that there is no question about who they are. The contractors will also send out letters.Once an offer has been extended to the property owner the negotiation process can begin. If an offer is unacceptable to the land owner, there is a process that can be taken until an agreement can be reached. If need be a group of special commissioners will decide the value of property and issue a judgment of court which acts in lieu of a deed.“There are multiple avenues for people who don’t think they were treated fairly, but let me assure you we do everything we can to treat you fairly, but there are some times that we overlook things,” Jones said. “It is those times that we need to talk about it, communicate about it. If we can’t talk about it we can’t resolve it.”Schematics, environmental assessment, tentative construction schedule and other information will be available for review and copying at the Big Spring Area Office, located at 1301 North SH 350 in Big Spring. Those who were unable to attend the meeting can still submit comment for an additional 10 days at the Big Spring location or at the Abilene District Office. All comments will be responded to by TxDOT.