Home to five of the 13 most populous U.S. cities, Texas has grown by more than 15% over the past 10 years and added more people than any other state in the nation. However, while the Texas Dept. of Transportation (TxDOT) maintains more than 197,000 lane-miles of state roadways and supports more than 54,000 bridges—more than any other state—its massive transportation network has struggled to keep pace with demand.
Each day, the Lone Star State gains about 1,100 people on average, with a majority of Texans living in counties along and east of the busy Interstate 35 corridor. The population is expected to grow from nearly 30 million people today to 47 million by 2050, further straining the state’s already bogged-down system of highways and byways.
To address growth-induced traffic gridlock, TxDOT is working through a program of $24 billion in projects “that will help ease congestion, spur economic activity and save lives on our roadways,” says Marc Williams, the agency’s deputy executive director.
This past fiscal year alone, the agency approved more than $7 billion in construction and maintenance contracts—more than 800 projects across the state—and its payments to contractors increased by 26% from 2019 to 2020, with total payments of $6.78 billion.
A major focus has been reducing congestion and improving mobility through non-tolled projects under Texas Clear Lanes and the Congestion Relief Task Force. Some $24 billion in projects tackle the biggest traffic chokepoints in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio—TxDOT’s five metro districts. So far, TxDOT has completed six major projects and has 19 other projects under construction with 18 more in the planning stages.
TxDOT has also planned for more than 8,000 projects under its $74.7-billion Unified Transportation Program. This is TxDOT’s 10-year plan that guides the development of transportation work across the state. The program is updated and adopted by the Texas Transportation Commission annually as it works to bring projects to life in a combination of rural, urban and metro districts.
Construction began in April 2020 on the high-profile project to rebuild and widen Interstate 635 and rebuild the I-635/I-30 interchange in Dallas County. Led by Pegasus Link Constructors, the five-year, $1.74- billion endeavor will improve mobility, operations and safety along 11 miles of I-635 beginning just east of US 75 in North Dallas to I-30 in Mesquite.
“This is a historic time for our state’s transportation system during the COVID-19 pandemic because it’s how vital goods and services are delivered.”
—J. Bruce Bugg Jr., Chairman, Texas Transportation Commission
In addition, the Dragados-Pulice joint venture team broke ground in 2020 on the $303-million I-2/I-69C Interchange Project in Pharr. The project limits on I-2 are from 2nd Street in McAllen to FM 2557 (Stewart Road) in San Juan and on I-69C from Nolana Loop to I-2 in Pharr. The project is on track for completion by the end of 2022.
Completion is expected later this year on the $802.9-million US 181 Harbor Bridge replacement and reconstruction of portions of US 181, I-37 and the Crosstown Expressway, totaling 6.44 miles of bridge and connecting roadway.
Construction could also move forward this year on the controversial North Houston Highway Improvement Project, a $7-billion reconfiguration of I-45 through downtown Houston. TxDOT is currently preparing the final environmental impact statement. The public will have the chance to review the document for 30 days. TxDOT has separated this project into three segments; construction on Segment 3 would start no earlier than late 2021. Construction on Segment 2 would start no earlier than 2023, and Segment 1 would follow that.
Other key projects include the 183 flyover project on I-35 in North Austin, scheduled to be completed in 2021, and the Oakhill Parkway project in Southwest Austin, which is set to break ground this summer.
“This is a historic time for our state’s transportation system during the COVID-19 pandemic because it’s how vital goods and services are delivered,” Texas Transportation Chairman J. Bruce Bugg Jr. said in a statement. “This wouldn’t be possible without the 12,000 women and men at TxDOT who are dedicated to connecting you with Texas in rural, urban and metro areas of our great state. Together, we are committed to executing every day—because that’s what the Texas taxpayers who voted overwhelmingly to fund new roads in Texas expect and deserve.”
Road to Zero
While nearly all these projects are aimed at improving mobility, they are also designed to keep drivers safe and end a 20-year streak of daily deaths on Texas roads. On average, 10 people die every day in motor vehicle crashes in the state. Traffic levels dropped nearly 44% in some parts of Texas during the height of the pandemic, yet even with fewer drivers on the road the death rate in the state was unchanged.
“Safety is TxDOT’s No. 1 priority in all of what we do,” Williams says. “Every project incorporates safety components that could help save lives, and as part of TxDOT’s Road to Zero goal set in 2019, the commission aims to have zero fatalities on the state’s roads by 2050, and to reduce those numbers by half by 2035.”
To accomplish this, the commission allocated an extra $600 million for fiscal year 2020-2021 for immediate roadway safety engineering improvements. That includes 90 safety projects funded in 2020. From 2015-2020, TxDOT invested an additional $1.48 billion for more than 3,200 targeted highway safety improvement projects to further support data-driven safety engineering solutions.
“Through engineering safety features and our educational social media campaign ... we hope we can reach that goal of ending daily deaths on Texas roads,” Williams says.
TxDOT has also coined the phrase, “safety first, then quality, then production” on its construction projects. “By getting input into the concept that production was the third priority, we have started changing the culture of the industry,” he explains.
“Safety is TxDOT’s No. 1 priority in all of what we do.”
—Marc Williams, Deputy Executive Director, TxDOT
TxDOT has also taken steps to keep its employees safe during the pandemic, with safety protocols that include frequent handwashing, wearing masks, social distancing and disinfecting commonly touched surfaces. Office workers work from home if they can.
“In this industry, the difficult times are also some of the most innovative,” says AGC of Texas President Kal Kincaid, president of Gulf Coast, a CRH Company. “Our state leaders gave us an opportunity to prove this point when they designated highway construction as an essential industry last year. Through healthy communication and a long-standing commitment to safety, TxDOT and its contractors protected industry workers while maintaining the state’s infrastructure investments. We’re proud of these efforts, and as we begin to see a return to pre-pandemic levels of travel, we’re confident that our industry is mobilized for the work ahead.”
Williams says another of the state’s priorities is a commitment to the environment and protecting its natural resources. TxDOT reviews all of its construction projects to mitigate effects on the surrounding natural environment, promote the use of sustainable building materials and renewable energy sources, and increase fleet fuel efficiency and the reduction of air emissions, he adds.
“We also work with other industry partners to improve performance in their specialty. One of the biggest examples of this is our ongoing efforts with the Texas Asphalt Pavement Association to improve performance of our asphalt pavements and pavement preservation. We also encourage the use of recycled materials such as asphalt pavements and concrete in the construction of new roads.”
“Looking back on 2020, it’s the perseverance and incredible work by our frontline team that shines the brightest,” Williams says. “Recently, our Transportation Commission awarded thousands of our frontline workers with the Grit Award, which recognizes passion and perseverance toward a goal in difficult circumstances. Through hurricanes, fires, winter weather and a pandemic, they’ve continued our mission of connecting you with Texas.”