City of Palestine, Anderson County, state highway and other leaders celebrated during a luncheon at Harvey Women’s Club recent commencement of work on the $43.6 million construction project.
It is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2016. The Texas Department of Transportation awarded a contract to Longview Bridge and Road Ltd. in September, and work began in November.
The project will widen 8.6 miles of U.S. Highway 79 between Tile Factory Road in Palestine and Texas Highway 294 just before the Trinity River bridges.
TxDOT Commissioner Jeff Austin III recalled that back in the 1990s, many city and county leaders, and through regional cooperation, identified U.S. 79 as an important corridor for economic development and to improve safety.
Austin and former Palestine Mayor Jackson Hanks, who co-chaired the Highway 79 Association, went up and down the corridor from Round Rock to Carthage asking cities, counties and chambers of commerce for resolutions supporting making the highway four lanes all the way.
“This is a very important part of the trunk system, and there has been a lot of progress that has been made as a result of those efforts,” Austin said.
Although TxDOT is under financial pressure, some savings became available last summer, he noted. The U.S. 79 stretch near Palestine was the No.
1 project in the Tyler district ready for construction, TxDOT Tyler District Engineer Randy Hopmann said.
“I’m glad to see this under way and now we’ve got to start filling in the gaps the rest of the way,” Austin said.
Austin praised Hanks for his vision and work on the project from its inception to where it is today.
Hopmann recalled that U.S. 79 was one of the first projects he worked on when he became TxDOT’s Tyler district engineer in the mid-1990s.
It was in the public involvement stage at that time, involving talking to property owners, cities, counties and everybody in trying to figure out what needs to be done, Hopmann said.
Like Austin and Hanks, Hopmann made a lot of trips along the corridor trying to build consensus all the way to Austin and to Carthage for the need to expand the entire corridor.
“That need is still here today, and we are nipping away on it as best we can with the limited funding we have available,” Hopmann said.
“I have to hand it to Anderson County and the City of Palestine,” he said. “We never really had construction funding for this project until recently, but throughout all these years from the 1990s to the present, all I had to do was call the county and call the city and explain the status of the project and what we needed to do to get the project moving forward to make it eligible for construction funding.”
Once transportation officials knew what they were going to do, they needed to buy the right of way, Hopmann said.
“We couldn’t have done that without the support of the county and the city and citizens of the community,” he said. “Y’all stepped up and helped us buy the right of way. The next step was adjusting utilities … y’all stepped up again and helped to get utilities adjusted.”
The widening of U.S. 79 near Palestine wouldn’t have happened without community support, Hopmann said, thanking the city and county.
“This is an important project for the entire state as well as Anderson County,” Hopmann said.
The commissioners court recently passed a resolution to support the widening of U.S. 79 from Buffalo to Carthage, Johnston said.
Indicating importance of highways for economic development, Johnston pointed out that the widening of State Highway 155 North and the new toll road in Tyler put Palestine within about an hour’s drive of Interstate 20.
“The county is seeing the payoff,” Johnston said, revealing that county officials are working on some economic development projects.
“That’s the main thing we are doing is trying to work to bring more jobs and more tax base to Anderson County,” Johnston said.
Palestine City Council Member Steve Pressley thanked TxDOT employees for their work on the U.S. 79 project.
“It (the project) does mean a lot to our community, but more importantly, I think it means a lot area wide on the economic development front. The work you are putting in helps us and helps the whole area grow, and as it grows, then it helps the entire state,” Pressley said.
“The other part of this is the safety issue,” Pressley added, pointing out there are schools along the highway where converting the highway to four lanes will help with safety.
“It’s a great project on the economic development side; it’s a great project on the safety side for our city and our region. We look forward to more projects with you guys in the future,” Pressley told TxDOT officials.
The contractor’s focus in coming months will be shifted to the eastern end of the project closer to town, Hopmann said.