Even though the two options for an overpass on Highway 59 as it is expanded into Interstate 69 are less than a half a mile apart, opinions on where it should be located were miles apart Monday at the meeting of the Wharton County Commissioners Court.
After a long discussion with several people commenting, the commissioners opted to reject both options and sent the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) back to the drawing board. The options included placing the overpass at the entrance to the Wharton Regional Airport or to the southwest at CR 423.
Commissioner Doug Mathews made a motion to go with the CR 423 option, but it failed.
“Mr. Mathews is making a motion that my office, on behalf of this court, write a letter to TxDOT stating that the county’s preference is that the overpass be located 423. Is there a second? I ask again is there a second? OK that motion is going to die for lack of a second,” County Judge Phillip Spenrath said. “I don’t think anyone is not supportive of you. I think I’m going to speak for myself, I want to see what TxDOT has to offer before we box ourselves in and I would bet the cities would be on the same page. I don’t like that solution. There needs to be ramps there. I agree that airport is the future. OK, so there’s no action on this one.”
Officials for the City of Wharton and the Wharton Economic Development Corporation spoke in favor of locating the overpass at the airport, while farmers and residents along CR 423 made their case for that location.
“Just because I think from a safety point of view, as you mentioned Commissioner Mathews, there are a lot of heavy equipment combines, tractors, 18-wheelers with the oilfield reworking rigs that are using that road, and they need to have that access, I think, whereas the people who are coming into the airport, are generally riding in cars,” noted Lawrence Armour.
Resident Michael Beard said safety is a big concern, in addition to the 5-6-mile loop farmers would have to drive when hauling a harvest or relocating heavy equipment.
“There’s actually 12 people living in five different homes currently down that road for the record. And there’s a total of 15 different landowners and families that use 423 to access their property. Placing an overpass pass at 423 just make sense, it’s logical sense,” he said.
Resident Rod Smith, who said he is a retired civil engineer with over 43 years as a transportation engineer and planner, didn’t like either option. He wanted to know whey both overpasses couldn’t be created.
Jeffery Vinklarek, TxDOT’s director of transportation planning and development, said it was cost prohibitive.
One of the options that was discussed was the creation of a backage road on the southeast side of the highway and railroad tracks that would connect CR 423 to the airport entrance. Neither side was keen on it and there was a question of who would build and maintain it, the city or county.
City officials argued that the connection to the airport was vital for economic development at the airport.
“At the airport, we’ve got 70-plus airplanes, plus three jets that are stored out here,” Wharton Mayor Tim Barker said. “And I think we get we get taxes on all that stuff.”
He said the airport option was a lot more convenient and it was also in the original proposal when TxDOT first looked at creating I-69.
“I just think it’s to the benefit of the county to keep it there with all the industry we could possibly have coming in here,” he said.
Wharton City Secretary Paula Favors added to what Barker said.
“So what we’re talking about is you’re taking away the city’s ability to possibly, in the future, annex even further and have businesses on the other side of 59 coming into the airport,” she said.
Favors said the city has considered the airport becoming a shipping hub for the area.
“If you move it to the other county roads, you’re really hindering our ability to grow in the future and to be able to have direct access,” she said.
She said it was her understanding that there were three homes on CR 423, but one property owner.
“We’re talking about millions and millions of dollars of jets and tax money that come in there, as well as all the hangars … So having a direct access, having the ability to, in the future, grow on the other side of 59, if that was a possibility, or having businesses that we could possibly tie in and future annex. And all this that we’re talking about is also in our ETJ (extraterritorial jurisdiction),” she said. “So it’s really important to remember that when you make this choice, it may seem that it’s an easy choice just to move it to solve this issue. But you’re also hindering that future growth there at the airport.”
Joshua Owens, executive director of the Wharton EDC, wants to see the overpass at the airport site, but is not happy with either proposal.
“I don’t like either highway exit,” he said. “I’m not a traffic engineer. I’m not here to speak about that. I would like to see a flying exit going over the railroad track because that’s one thing we haven’t talked about. Kansas City Southern and Canadian Pacific are going to be double tracking on all this railroad,” he said, noting the railroad tracks that parallel Highway 59 on the southeast side.
“I would love to see a flying overpass, like we see in Kendleton at the multimodal facility. And we need to realize that this area is key for economic development and key for getting a large manufacturer that will bring in generational jobs,” he said.
Judge Spenrath said the lack of on and off ramps was a problem.
“I think this has to have ramps, commissioners. I think whatever we do, we send a note back to Jeff’s (Vinklarek) bosses that we disagree with,” the proposals, he said.
Currently, the ramps are three miles southwest at Pierce and 1.6 miles northeast near Wharton.
Vinklarek said that for safety reasons access ramps are generally not located at an overpass.
“We can still look at the ramp placements, but the ramps no doubt wouldn’t be directly at either one of these,” Vinklarek said.
He said TxDOT doesn’t want to cause harm to anyone with the location of the overpass and is looking for support from the city and county for the best option.
At the end of the day, we’re not here just to push this off on somebody, we want to get good feedback, we want to meet with the property owners with the county, the city, we are going to look for a solution here. And hopefully together, we can come up with something. But we want to understand everybody’s concerns and get everybody’s input,” Vinklarek said.