— By CHRIS AGEE | Lone Star News Group
MINERAL WELLS – Parker County Judge Mark Riley gave Mineral Wells residents an update Tuesday on the Ric Williamson Memorial Highway project.
Riley was invited to speak at the The Mineral Wells Area Chamber of Commerce’s first quarterly Power of Business Luncheon at Holiday Hills County Club.
“I’m not going to focus on how we got where we are,” Riley said, briefly detailing the 2004 feasibility study conducted by the Texas Department of Transportation and the citizen-approved bond measure passed four years later.
The project is being completed on an estimated five-year timeline, Riley explained, noting the loop connecting to Interstate 20 will result in a significant reduction in traffic congestion.
“A lot of pass-through traffic will go to the loop,” he said of the bottleneck surrounding the courthouse in Weatherford.
He said a portion of the highway is complete and more work is currently under way.
“We’ve opened up from Highway 51 to Highway 180,” he said. “It should be open from 180 to Ranger Highway by April or so.”
The loop’s connection to I-20 is set to be complete by mid-2014, he added.
Riley explained the importance of the highway to local residents, noting the economy of Mineral Wells will see a benefit from the improved roadway.
“You have a lot of commuters,” he said, indicating those traveling from Palo Pinto County east for work will enjoy an easier drive. “More importantly, it provides opportunity for economic development here.”
He noted Wolters Industrial Park, comprised of property in Parker County and the City of Mineral Wells, represents possibilities for future economic growth.
“I believe there are opportunities there,” he said, indicating the two entities can work together on such projects.
Riley expressed his pleasure with the engineering firm Freese and Nichols Inc. in working to keep the project operating under budget and on time. He said there have been a few delays and setbacks along the way, though.
“Transportation funding is in trouble,” he said. “Not just in Texas but the rest of the country.”
He said he disapproves of proposals to raise the gas tax or automobile registration fees to fund road projects. Instead, he said he would like to see a portion of the auto sales tax diverted to transportation.
“That doesn’t raise the tax,” he said, “it just diverts the tax.”
Since the vast majority of the loop project was funded by local money, Riley said most of the delay has been caused by government procedural red tape.
Riley said he opposed a move to federalize the loop and dictate what the city can do with it based on the fact the highway connects with an interstate.
After significant debate, Riley said TxDOT and federal regulators agreed to allow the project to move forward after trimming an estimated 36-month review policy to just nine months. Environmental concerns and other state regulatory issues have caused some additional delays, he said, though the completed portion indicates what is yet to come.
“It’s really a pretty drive,” he said, noting the aesthetic appeal of the route’s rural setting. “If you haven’t been on it yet, do it. It will save you some time.”