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'So excited': State targets $282M in Gregg County road projects

Longview-area officials say they’re giddy about a list of road projects recently added to the state’s 10-year outlook.

Eleven projects that are entirely or partly in Gregg County total almost $300 million. Chief among them is a plan to transform the 60-year-old interchange of Interstate 20, U.S. 259 and Texas 31.

“I’ve been so excited about this ever since I heard this news,” Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt said this past week.

Six years ago, Stoudt chaired an I-20 East Texas Corridor Committee study that proposed several enhancements for the interstate between Dallas and the Louisiana state line that was built through Gregg County in 1959.

The I-20/U.S. 259/Texas 31 interchange is among several projects from that proposal included in the 2020 Unified Transportation Program, approved Aug. 29 by the Texas Transportation Commission. The program is a document that guides the development of Texas transportation projects through 2030.

“All of the county judges between Dallas and the state line were involved in this committee, and one of the recommendations was we needed to do some major renovations to I-20 up to Longview,” Stoudt said. “I’m just glad to see that the money is starting to be allocated for those issues that we identified in Gregg County years ago.”

Being included in TxDOT’s recently approved 10-year plan means the projects in Gregg County totaling $281.98 million can move forward, said Tyler District spokeswoman Kathi White.

“It is significant and necessary to address some major needs in Gregg County,” White said. “The total amount is also significant as it includes the I-20/SH 31 interchange project at an estimated cost of $150 million.”

Short-term projects in Gregg County include the I-20 interchange, widening FM 2275 and FM 2206 in western Longview and White Oak from two lanes to four lanes with a flush median and other widening work on U.S. 271 and Loop 485 in the Gladewater area.

Texas 42 widening between I-20 and FM 2206 is among several long-term Tyler District projects projected five or more years into the future, according to the state plan.

Said Stoudt, “You dream about it, you plan for it, you have meetings about it over the years, and you wonder if it will never come to fruition, and it’s coming to fruition, and I’m excited about it for the county.”

Widening Texas 42, FM 2206 and FM 2275 will give motorists more lanes to navigate from north of Longview and U.S. 259 through White Oak to I-20, the judge said.

“Anybody that lives in Gregg County that drives down Highway 42, I don’t care what time of the day it is … it is a very dangerous highway, and the traffic continues to increase,” he said. “The connectivity and the safety that is going to be accomplished with the projects, I am extremely excited about and pleased.”

The state approves funding for the projects based on revenue that TxDOT projects it will generate in the form of gas taxes as well as voter-approved Proposition 1 and Proposition 7 funds.

Being included on the Unified Transportation Plan isn’t a 100% guarantee that construction will begin on every project over the next 10 years, but it does move those projects more into TxDOT’s purview.

“While they are now approved to move forward based on financial projections, cash funding will not be designated for them until closer to the letting date of the projects,” White said.

Harrison County has the largest financial piece of the 10-year pie. All told, the state estimates it will cost about $330 million to complete four projects in that county — build an interstate-standard extension to Loop 390 east of Marshall, plus replace two bridges and also widen a portion of I-20 to six lanes east of Hallsville.

Harrison County is in TxDOT’s Atlanta District, which also includes Panola County, where three projects totaling more than $100 million are planned — U.S. 59 grade separation at FM 1794, Texas 149 widening in southwest Carthage and Texas 315 widening to four lanes between Carthage and Clayton.

Only three (Gregg, Smith and Cherokee) of the Tyler District’s eight counties have projects on the state plan, though two projects on U.S. 175 enter into Anderson County.

The most expensive Tyler District project is a plan to widen I-20 from four lanes to six lanes from Jim Hogg Road in Lindale to the Van Zandt County line at an estimated cost of $225 million.


Local
SAFFE Day in Kilgore draws larger crowd with carnival-like atmosphere

KILGORE — Landon Pierce climbed into the bucket of a West Harrison Volunteer Fire Department ladder truck with his brother, Grayson, and mother, Nicole.

As the bucket rose slowly in the air, 6-year-old Landon peered over its edge, saying he was having fun “watching everybody everywhere.”

Nicole Pierce said Saturday marked the third year she has taken her children to Kilgore’s SAFFE Day, now in its eighth year. SAFFE stands for Special Abilities Family Fun Event and is for children with special needs and their families.

She said Landon, a first-grader at Kilgore Primary School, is highly functioning with autism and has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

She said she likes coming to SAFFE Day because Landon “can be hands-on with everything.”

SAFFE Day, a carnival-like atmosphere that stretched out on several blocks of Commerce Street in downtown Kilgore, drew a larger crowd than a year ago, according to Misty Gee, who oversaw registration and volunteers and has an autistic daughter, Juliann, 17.

Gee said 730 people had registered as of Saturday morning, “and then we have had walk ups. We’ve had a lot of walk ups.”

Registration numbers were at least 200 higher than a year ago, said Johnny Bellows, the city’s fire chief and SAFFE board president.

Bellows said he used the opening ceremony to draw an analogy between the Dolly Parton song “Coat of Many Colors” and families with children who have special needs.

He said the song is about Parton’s mother making a coat from pieces of fabric that otherwise would be discarded, “just like we have so many people who have different abilities and disabilities. We put them together, it makes a beautiful world.”

Families brought children and adults with a diverse range of special needs, some coming in strollers or wheelchairs.

Sally Landrum of Fort Worth said she attended SAFFE Day for the first time because organizers invited her 20-year-old daughter and eldest child, Emily, to perform as a dancer. She said Emily is highly functional with Down syndrome.

Emily is a freshman at Tarrant County College, trains four days a week to become a preschool teacher and works one day a week at a supermarket, Landrum said,

“She can be home alone,” she said. “She sends emails. She downloads assignments from her computer.”

Emily said softly, “I work with kids.”

She waited with others to go for a ride in a firetruck.

“Firetruck” is the only word that Mark Anderson, 24, of Palestine can say, said his mother, Barbara Anderson. Mark is severely autistic.

Anderson and her sister, Linda Hicks of Flint, pushed Mark in a wheelchair. They arrived at SAFFE Day with Hicks’ sister-in-law, Betty Hicks of Henderson. Betty Hicks pushed her 42-year-old daughter, Amanda Durrett, who has Rett syndrome, a rare genetic neurological disorder that occurs almost exclusively in girls.

Barbara Anderson said she was having a “wonderful” time .

Others with no connections to special needs family members appeared to be having a good time as well.

Kilgore welder Bobby Spradlin, who said he is not related to Mayor Ronnie Spradlin, showed up with his wife, Cris, and daughter, Kiara, because his other daughter, Arabella, is a member of the Color Guard at Kilgore High School.

“It’s an event we come to every year,” he said. “It’s just something to do a on a weekend.”

SAFFE Day also featured carnival-style games such as tossing baseballs through the mouth and eyes of a bulldog cutout, a dunk tank and spin the wheel. Attendees also went for a ride in miniature firetrucks courtesy of the Shriner Temple in Tyler, tested remote-control trucks on ramps in a grassy area and posed for photos with members of the Kilgore College Rangerettes.

Nora O’Kennedy of Avalon Faire appeared as Mistress Nora in a long dress called a kirtle to encourage attendance for the coronation of King Arthur.

A native of Limerick, Ireland, she said she was enjoying the “glorious children and the smiling faces.”


Local
Longview-area programs aim to alleviate state nursing shortage

The number of nurses in Texas is declining at rates that cannot keep up with demand, and programs at Longview colleges are trying to change that trend.

The Texas Center for Nursing Workforce Studies’ Nurse Supply and Demand Projections report says the state will face a shortage of all types of nurses by 2030. The number of registered nurses, nurse practitioners, certified registered nurse anesthetists and certified nurse midwives started to fall short of demand in 2015 and has continued to decline each year. However, the report says the opposite is true for licensed vocational nurses, where supply exceeds demand.

Longview has nursing programs at LeTourneau University, Kilgore College and the University of Texas at Tyler Longview University Center.

Kimberly Quiett, dean of nursing at LeTourneau, said what draws people to the university is its faith-based curriculum.

“Throughout the whole curriculum, we teach from a Christian-worldview of nursing practices,” she said. “We take nursing from more of a servant leadership point-of-view.”

LeTourneau’s nursing school started accepting students in 2014 with a class of six. Quiett said this semester, there are 31 new clinical students. The program has grown each year since it started.

Belinda Deal, associate professor of nursing at UT Tyler, said the school’s draw is its Bachelor of Nursing program. The campus also has graduate and doctorate programs.

Barbara Haas, UT Tyler School of Nursing executive director, said the school also allows nursing students to take classes in the summer, and the year-round classes allow students to sometimes graduate early.

The program at UT Tyler has almost 700 students in the Bachelor of Nursing program and about 450 in the graduate program, Haas said.

Kilgore College’s nursing program experienced a drop in enrollment after a curriculum change, said Director of the Registered Nurse program Dayna Davidson.

“At any one time we have about 150 (students) per semester,” she said. “ Historically, we’ve had closer to 200.”

Kilgore College is a two-year program, and it has partnerships with four-year schools so RN students can be accepted unconditionally, Davidson said.

In July, Kilgore College and UT Tyler signed an agreement so students can earn an associate and bachelor’s degree in nursing in just four years.

The college is focusing on the academic progression for its nursing students and making it as seamless as possible, Davidson said.

“We’re really partnering with our own certified nurse aid and (licensed vocational nurse) programs and (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) programs, so academic progression improves for students so they can move from (certified nurse) to (licensed vocational nurse) to (registered nurse) to (bachelor of science in nursing) with the least repetition of courses,” she said. “That is our goal, to move students along that academic pathway.”

NCLEX testing

After graduating, nursing students must take the National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX, to practice.

In 2018, East Texas nursing students performed well on the exam. The 2019 pass rates are expected to be available in October or November.

LeTourneau had 12 students take the test in 2018, and all passed. Quiett said the school has had a 100% pass rate every year since the program began.

At Kilgore College, 45 out of 47 students passed the exam in 2018, which gave the college a 95.7% pass rate.

Davidson said a curriculum change helped improve the college’s pass rates.

At the UT Tyler nursing school, which includes the program at the Longview University Center, 302 out of 320 nursing students passed the exam in 2018, giving the school a 94.3% pass rate.

“I think it’s the commitment of the faculty to help the students succeed and the coursework that they do is applicable,” Deal said. “In addition, it takes that human factor of the faculty and clinical instructors.”

UT Tyler also made recent curriculum changes, Haas said. The program did a two-year evaluation.

“We have changed the (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) curriculum to be more in-depth with population health and not so tightly focused on the acute care of nursing,” she said. “So much of nursing is moving out of the hospital and into the community.We implemented it this fall, and it will be phased in over the next four semesters.

Cost

The cost to earn a four-year nursing degree from UT Tyler for an in-state student is $35,172, according to an online tuition chart from Haas.

Quiett said at LeTourneau, the cost of nursing school is the same as any other major.

According to its website, tuition for a course-load of 12-18 hours at LeTourneau is $30,520 a year. Four years would add up to about $122,000.

Cost-competitiveness is a benefit to Kilgore College, Davidson said. Estimated in-district costs for four semesters is $7,600.


Ukraine, whistleblower issues emerge as flashpoints in presidential race

DES MOINES, Iowa — President Donald Trump, under growing pressure Saturday over his private conversations with Ukraine’s president, lashed out at former Vice President Joe Biden in an attempt to shift the focus of intensifying questions about whether Trump sought help from Ukraine to hurt Biden’s 2020 bid against him.

With Trump seizing on a familiar defense, saying Democrats were undertaking a “witch hunt” against him on Ukraine, Biden called on the House of Representatives to begin a new investigation of whether the president sought the interference of a foreign government to help bolster his reelection campaign.

“This appears to be an overwhelming abuse of power,” Biden said during a campaign swing in Iowa. “We have never seen anything like this from any president.”

The sharp accusations between Trump and Biden, who leads the field for the Democratic presidential nomination, elevated the president’s dealings with Ukraine — and the secret complaint by a whistleblower in the intelligence community against Trump — as potentially significant new issues in the presidential race.

The controversy has focused on whether Trump abused his power by trying to get foreign actors to look into a possible political foe at home. But the president is also trying to deflect attention and refocus it on the past financial dealings abroad of Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, at a time when a new brand of anti-Washington populism is ascendant in both political parties.

As reports that Trump sought help from the Ukrainian government shake the country, Biden and other leading Democrats struggled with the realization that next year’s election could be an even more bitter version of their last presidential contest.

‘Perfectly fine’

Trump on Saturday dismissed news reports that he urged the Ukrainian president to investigate Biden’s son, and defended his own conduct as “perfectly fine” and routine.

“Now that the Democrats and the Fake News Media have gone ‘bust’ on every other of their Witch Hunt schemes, they are trying to start one just as ridiculous as the others, call it Ukraine Witch Hunt,” Trump wrote on Twitter. He said that any effort to investigate him would fail, comparing it to the investigation by Robert Mueller, the special counsel, into his ties to Russia during the 2016 campaign.

The news reports he was referring to have revealed the existence of a secret whistleblower complaint that is believed to have been filed, at least in part, in response to Trump’s dealings with Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The New York Times reported Friday that Trump, in a July call, pressed the Ukrainian president to investigate Biden’s son, according to a person familiar with the conversation.

On Saturday, Trump, intensifying a line of attack he and his allies have stoked for months, said the real problem was Biden and questions about what the president described as “the Joe Biden demand that the Ukrainian Government fire a prosecutor who was investigating his son.” Trump, referring to his conversation with Zelenskiy, said: “Nothing was said that was in any way wrong, but Biden’s demand, on the other hand, was a complete and total disaster.”

No evidence has surfaced to bolster Trump’s claim that the former vice president intentionally tried to help his son by pressing for the prosecutor general’s dismissal.

The issue strikes a particular nerve for Biden, who has long feared putting his family under the harsh spotlight of a presidential campaign. During a two-minute encounter with reporters on Saturday morning, he grew irate, angrily insisting that he had never spoken with his son about any overseas work and assailing the president for an “overwhelming abuse of power.”

“You should be looking at Trump,” Biden said. “Trump is doing this because he knows I’ll beat him like a drum.”

Though he has yet to call for impeachment proceedings against Trump to begin — as have several of his rivals for the 2020 Democratic nomination — Biden on Saturday tiptoed closer to embracing the idea that has been steadily gaining support on Capitol Hill despite opposition from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The revelations offered voters a preview of what is likely to be an extraordinary general election contest if Biden were to win the nomination, one in which attacks by the president and his team could boomerang, transforming Biden into a sympathetic figure under attack with foreign help.

It could just as easily mark a defining moment for Biden, a 76-year-old politician first elected to the Senate in 1972 and long accustomed to playing by the more genteel political rules of a different era.

Questions

While the new report gives Biden the one-on-one showdown with Trump that his campaign has spent months trying to create, it also exposes him and his son to yet another round of probing questions about the younger Biden’s moneymaking activities in Ukraine.

The Biden campaign moved quickly to browbeat the media over the story, underscoring a deep concern about how allegations about the younger Biden’s work will be received by voters. “Any article, segment analysis and commentary that does not demonstrably state at the outset that there is no factual basis for Trump’s claim, and in fact that they are wholly discredited, is misleading reading and viewers,” said deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield, in an email to reporters.

But Biden advisers also seized on the furor to portray the president as fixated on, and worried about, a potential general election race against Biden.

“There is only one candidate the president is trying to get foreign governments to dig up bogus dirt on,” Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Biden, said.

Even as they avoided mentioning Biden, other Democratic presidential candidates moved quickly to capitalize on the new dynamic in the race. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who rarely mentions Trump in her stump speech, opened her remarks at a cattle call on Saturday afternoon by excoriating both the president and congressional Democrats.

“He has solicited another foreign government to attack our election system,” she told a crowd of 1,200 cheering Democratic voters gathered in Des Moines for an afternoon of primary speeches. “It is time to call out this illegal behavior and start impeachment proceedings right now.”

Biden, whose appearances on the campaign trail can be halting and sprinkled with misstatements, has generally delivered his strongest performances when focused on Trump. Speaking about the president allows Biden to discuss foreign policy and national security, issues that his campaign has said differentiate Biden, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, from the rest of the 2020 Democratic field.

So far, Biden’s rivals, nearly all of whom descended on Iowa this weekend, have resisted taking the bait. Several of his competitors were quick to assail Trump on Friday, while avoiding commentary about how Trump’s accusations against the Bidens would affect the Democratic nominating contest.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, whose campaign manager on Friday released a memo stating he would have to drop out of the race if he failed to raise $1.7 million before the end of September, remarked that “this is not a partisan issue,” while Booker and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas reiterated their calls for Trump to be impeached.

Warren, who first called for Trump to be impeached in April after the release of Mueller’s report, also renewed those demands, but went even further, arguing that by failing to act on impeachment in preceding months, Congress had become “complicit in Mr. Trump’s latest attempt to solicit foreign interference to aid him in US elections.”

“Today’s news confirmed he thinks he’s above the law,” she said. “If we do nothing, he’ll be right.”