From the front door at Hlavinka Equipment Co., where a small, plastic “open” sign swung for the first time Thursday, employees watched as massive earth movers growled along U.S. Highway 59.
The company’s employees began building and stocking shelves as construction workers outside smoothed concrete and leveled the base layer of what will soon be access to Victoria’s first interstate highway.
The company’s vice president, Terry Hlavinka, is excited to be opening a new location in Victoria, but he worries its grand opening, which is set for June, will be less than grand as the state proceeds on a frontage road construction project on the Interstate-69 Corridor which he says cuts the store’s access in half.
Since the announcement that the frontage road traffic along U.S. Highway 59 would be one way, at least one business has announced it is holding a $2.5 million construction plan, and more business owners are coming forward with Hlavinka who are concerned the change in access could be disastrous.
“We feel like we’re the sacrificial lamb,” Hlavinka said. “The greater benefit of an I-69 designation is greater than messing up a few businesses on the loop.”
Without two-way traffic or an overpass, customers could end up traveling an almost 8-mile loop to get to Hlavinka’s store and others in the area.
“We spent a lot of money choosing a very high-profile location with excellent visibility and excellent access on and off the highway,” Hlavinka said. “I probably wouldn’t have built here if I wasn’t already 90 percent committed and well under construction” when details about the frontage road were released.
The construction of 3.4 miles of frontage road is estimated to cost $15.75 million, funded as part of the $2.9 billion in Proposition 14 bonds issued by the state in 2008.
Hunter Industries began I-69 construction in October and is anticipated to take almost a year to complete the work, according to information from the Texas Department of Transportation. Although the project is about 25 percent complete, business owners want the state to change direction before more progress on the road is made.
Mike Walsh, an engineer with TxDOT, said the funding is “somewhat of a windfall for transportation.”
“These funds were relatively limited to what they could go to,” Walsh said. “We got probably a partial project out of this. The ultimate design likely included the overpass.”
Mark Cross, a TxDOT spokesman, said an overpass was not part of the interstate design for the Victoria area.
If the intent of the road is to become an interstate highway, Cross said, there is not an easy potential way to change the scope to include two-way frontage road traffic. Traffic will be able to turn around at Loop 463 and U.S. Highway 87.
“There are significant safety changes at the ramps and right-of-way that would have to be addressed first,” he said.
While the project received partial funding, Walsh said, TxDOT put forward the portion of work that gives it the highest safety benefit.
“This project is going to save lives,” he said.
The highway is notorious for major crashes caused by truck traffic slowing to 5 mph to turn off the highway while car traffic remains at 70 mph.
Walsh said the design constraints and standards with frontage roads have changed since much of the construction on Interstate 35 through Central Texas was underway.
Frontage roads have to be one-way if the road will ever receive interstate designation, he said.
Anticipating frontage road access, Hlavinka paid for extensive engineering to design the front of his property according to requirements for high-speed access.
Had the Texas Department of Transportation said two years ago that the company was going to have access off a feeder instead of a freeway, Hlavinka said, it would have followed a different set of construction requirements.
The company also has locations in El Campo and Rosenberg along U.S. 59 with two-way feeder access.
“This has a tremendous ability to impact my business,” he said.
Hlavinka said he wants a “serious dialogue” with the Texas Department of Transportation.
“I’m not criticizing TxDOT for their overzealous due diligence but more to indicate how little thoughtful planning went into this expansion,” Hlavinka said. “You think with a major project like that, TxDOT would have known about it, and it would have been on the books for years.”
According to information from the Texas Department of Transportation, the project was designed in May 2012 and put out to bid in February 2013.
An overpass could be part of a solution, said Dale Fowler, Victoria Economic Development Corp. president and CEO.
The lack of an interstate highway creates challenges when attempting to recruit new industry to Victoria, he said, and the new feeder roads are the beginning of Victoria having an interstate.
“We do not want to do anything that would impede the development of I-69 being completed along the current Highway 59 route,” Fowler said in a prepared statement.
Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, said there must be a balance between protecting existing businesses and growing future economic development projects.
“If a transportation project has a negative impact on businesses, my question is always: Can we do something different to where there doesn’t have to be a negative impact or to mitigate that impact?” he said.
If more funds are available, an overpass or two might solve the problem, he said.
“You want transparency and openness where everybody knows what decisions are being made and making sure when a project gets started, everyone was included as much as possible,” Hegar said. “You don’t want a business owner having plans to open a business then not being able to open their doors.”
That may be the case with Gulf International Trucks.
Jeff Kyrish, general manager of Longhorn International Trucks, which is part of Gulf International, said the business is “directly impacted” by directional access to its property.
Kyrish said he would hold a $2.5 million construction project on 24 acres until the access issue is resolved.
“My business will not be building there if we can’t resolve this issue,” he said during a transportation planning meeting April 22.
He wants to see an overpass installed at Hanselman Road but said a cost estimate of $10 million might not be in the budget.
“The roads aren’t striped yet. They have room for two lanes,” he said. “I’m not asking that we change stuff dramatically. I’m just asking that we restripe.”
Existing business owners are concerned the construction will mean a loss of revenue and the lack of access will cost even more.
John New, owner of New Distributing, ran the numbers to calculate what an additional 7-mile loop would cost him at his convenience store and truck stop.
With 1,200 customers daily, if a third of the traffic is southbound, they won’t take the loop around to go to a convenience store, he said.
“It’s pretty obvious what it’ll do to a retail business,” New said. “It’s devastating.”
The Texas Department of Transportation is cutting off his access to retail business, he said.
“It frustrates me so much that this project was allowed to go forward knowing full and well that it wouldn’t go the way it should,” New said. “The future economic development out there is going to be affected greatly.”
May 3, 2014