West Loop expansion moving forward

Published on Friday, 7 February 2014 00:32 - Written by Kelly Gooch kgooch@tylerpaper.com

Nancy Crawford doesn’t typically use South Southwest Loop 323 when she leaves her office south of West Front Street.

Ms. Crawford, who serves as executive director of the Literacy Council of Tyler, said because of backed-up traffic, she instead travels on Robertson Road, then West 2nd Street and eventually cuts over to South Glenwood Boulevard.

“I stay off the loop as much as I can, but I particularly don’t go that way toward Front Street,” she said. “You just move at a snail’s pace.”

It’s a situation that motorists continually face in that area, and one that will improve once South Southwest Loop 323, south of West Front Street at the railroad overpass, is expanded as part of a $12.1 million project.

Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Larry Krantz said that the Tyler Area Metropolitan Planning Organization identified this as a priority project and, along with TxDOT, is helping with funding. TxDOT’s portion is $6.8 million, while the metropolitan planning organization is paying $5.3 million.

Under the project, Loop 323 will be widened at the overpass, near Bellwood Road, from two lanes in each direction to three lanes in each direction, according to Texas Department of Transportation representatives.

Krantz said via email that Loop 323 was widened to six lanes, from Commerce Street on the northeast Loop to U.S. Highway 69 North, to accommodate growth, but that was one place that has not been expanded.

“It’s the last real bottleneck on the Loop. We’ve been trying for years to get the desire, the funding and the agreement with the railroad to all come together at the same time,” Krantz wrote.

“Expansion has been slower to arrive at this location because of the railroad overpass in that location, the supports of which are only wide enough to accommodate four lanes of traffic. As a result, traffic approaching the overpass — northbound from Shaw Street, southbound from Old Chandler Road — is forced to merge from three lanes to two. This is occasionally a point of confusion for drivers who aren’t familiar with the area. On the southbound side, they find themselves suddenly forced to turn right onto SH 31 and head west toward Chandler. On the northbound side, they find themselves having to merge left starting at the signal at Shaw Street, or be shunted off onto Bellwood Road,” he added.

During the loop expansion, a temporary railroad bridge will be put in on the south side of the existing bridge to accommodate the railroad while the existing bridge is replaced, said Jeffrey Harmon with TxDOT.

Krantz said that once the final overpass is built, the temporary overpass will be removed.

Aside from expanding part of Loop 323, the project will include putting in raised concrete islands at four quadrants of the intersection of West Front Street and South Southwest Loop 323, as well as completing the installation of raised medians from Bellwood Road to West Elm Street, Harmon said.

Krantz said the project also includes adding dual left-turn lanes from Loop 323 onto Front Street, and allowing for free-right turns, meaning “motorists turning right to avoid the signal and yield to traffic.” He said that similar free-right turns are currently found at Troup Highway and Loop 323, Loop 323 and South Broadway Avenue and Loop 323 and Texas Highway 155/Frankston Highway.

“It’s a project that’s long overdue,” Krantz said. “Loop 323 is a vital piece of our transportation infrastructure not just for Tyler, but for East Texas. We’ve been updating the Loop and resurfacing it over the past few years, but this overpass area is the one problem we haven’t been able to address until very recently. We’re looking forward to getting this project started and, more importantly, completed.”

Krantz said “two lanes of traffic will be open in each direction during daylight hours, (and) lane closures are possible, even likely, during nighttime hours when most of the work is going to be done.”

Harmon said the project, which is expected to start later this month or in March, will take about 19 months to complete.

In the meantime, Tom Mullins, president of the Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce and Tyler Economic Development Council, said business community members in the project area generally understand what’s happening and know that a wider Loop will improve traffic, even if there is some short-term disruption during construction.

The project is “important for long-term flow of traffic, especially on the west side of town. … This long-term will relieve that bottleneck and make that area of town flow much better traffic wise,” he said.

Community members agreed.

Dr. Aubrey Sharpe, dean of continuing studies at Tyler Junior College, said he uses the route a lot, and was pleased when he heard about the project.

He said he believes it will help students as they commute to the Tyler Junior College West Campus, and will help open up that side of the Loop more for traffic.

“Our students come from both directions. Our students often come from work or the other campus or another direction,” Sharpe said.

Super Mercado Monterrey manager Mike Inurrigarro said the area can get congested with traffic, and the project will help with that.