— By JUDY SHERIDAN
The first phase of the $45.7 million Ric Williamson Memorial Highway — arcing south and west from Highway 51 North to FM 920 — was complete and open to traffic in January of 2012. The project, which includes signals at State Highway 51, FM 2421 and FM 920, was finished in two-and-one-half years and was more than $1 million under budget.
The highway is by far the largest project to be funded by the $80 million transportation bond voters approved in 2008.
The RWMH was named for a former chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, who secured the 2004 TxDOT feasibility evaluation that led to its construction. Ric’s widow, Mary Ann Williamson, cut the ribbon that officially opened the highway.
Formerly known as the Western Loop, the 5.6-mile highway will eventually skirt Weatherford’s west side, improving traffic flow, reducing air pollution and spurring economic development. Completion is scheduled for spring of 2014.
The portion now open to traffic is the first of five separate construction projects, including two interchanges.
Construction has moved from north to south; the final phase will end in a diamond interchange at Interstate 20 and includes a new bridge across the highway.
The highway’s second phase, which begins at FM 920 and stops just short of U.S. Highway 180, was also completed in 2012 — in August – but remains unused.
Responding to residents’ concerns that opening the new road — without connecting it to U.S. Highway 180 — would channel heavy traffic onto Old Mineral Wells Highway instead, county commissioners voted to keep it closed until TxDOT finishes the interchange with U.S. Highway 180, which may now slip from January to February, county officials say.
The first part of phase four, construction south of U.S. Highway 180 to Spur 312, should be finished about the same time, officials said. The entire fourth phase will extend from US 180 all the way to IH-20.The highway’s interchange with IH-20, the final construction phase, has required coordination with the Federal Highway Administration and TxDOT for interstate access justification and environmental clearance permits. The involved process threatened to delay the project but was expedited by County Judge Mark Riley, who objected — to legislators and in area newspapers — to the federal interference.
Bids for the interchange should be opened by February, Riley said, then awarded within the next 30 days.