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Alliances fuel slew of area transportation projects

By Glenn Evans
Dec. 1, 2012 at 10 p.m.

Fueled by voter-approved bonds, direct government investment and sales tax commitments, transportation projects abound in the Longview region despite belt tightening for insfrastructure at the state level.

"Whether it be buses, planes, trains or cars - we've got projects going on on all of those fronts right now," Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt said this past week.

Even the debt-weary feds are putting more than their two cents worth into Gregg County, where preliminary work to renovate the East Texas Regional Airport terminal is set to start Monday.

"They'll probably do some preliminary work in the restaurant and come back after the holidays," interim Airport Manager Gene Bolanowski said. "So, Christmas travel will not be disrupted."

About 18 months after Dallas-based RWC Enterprises begins a $3.3 million renovation of the Henry Atkinson Airport Terminal at the airport, passengers will be boarding plans via an enclosed jet bridge.

Passengers will await flights in a holding area with seating for 150, three times today's accommodations. They'll also have access to rest rooms without leaving the secured area and undergoing a second Transportation Security Administration screening.

New TSA screening equipment also is expected in 2013.

"What, exactly, that is I can't say for security reasons," Bolanowski said.

The renovation, paid for with a $330,000 match from Gregg County, also will include more meeting space and a relocated baggage claim area.

"We're still keeping our two flights a day," Bolanowski added. "We are always in the process of trying to recruit additional flights and airlines."

<strong>Multiple choice</strong>

The airport manager also said he is negotiating with Longview Transit to schedule a shuttle to a city bus department headquarters in the former Union Pacific Depot off Mobberly Avenue.

That Multimodal Transportation Center eventually is envisioned as a transportation hub for several transportation modes, including Amtrak passenger departures. Greyhound recently announced it will transfer its bus terminus from Magrill Street to the new hub.

The city awarded a contract this past month to Mega Contractors of Fort Worth to handle $1.8 million in renovations to the shuttered railroad depot. Another $1 million in work remains to be awarded, city spokesman Shawn Hara said this past week.

Karen Owen, director of the Longview Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the goal of those renovations is to put local transportation under one roof.

"The Multimodal Transportation Center project is an integral link to connect multiple modes of transportation while providing efficient, seamless connections with passenger rail, bus, public transportation and air," Owen said. "Interconnectivity provides transportation choices and viable options to the traveling public."

Consolidating multiple transportation modes soon will extend into cyberspace. Stoudt said Gregg and Smith counties are working on a call system to place information about local ground, air and rail options at travelers' fingertips.

"In time, people will be able to dial 211 and find out where are the closest buses, trains, airplanes, taxis - anything," Stoudt said, adding that regional first-responders will coordinate in a similar, dedicated network. "Not just in the two (Gregg and Smith) counties."

<strong>On the ramp</strong>

Another project on the near horizon, a 1½-mile stretch of U.S. 80 from West Longview to White Oak, is scheduled for contract advertising this month. The $3.1 million job, funded solely with state voter-approved Proposition 12 money, will add a continuous left-turn lane to the highway and replace the ground-level shoulders with curbs and gutters.

"There's going to be potential angst over the fact these people have had a kind of unlimited driveway," predicted Larry Krantz, TxDOT spokesman for the Tyler area, adding that dedicated driveways consistently rate more safe than the country-lawn setting drivers along that stretch are used to.

A $4.5 million widening project on Texas 42, with costs shared by Gregg County, Kilgore and that city's economic development corp., also is scheduled to go out for bids in August, Krantz added.

That highway improvement also will add a dedicated left-turn lane, from Interstate 20 south to Kilgore.

A similar partnership also has agreed to add a left-turn lane on the Kilgore Bypass for access to Synergy business park.

<strong>Done or under way</strong>

Longview and its economic development corporation also have teamed with Gregg County for projects already under way. They include the George Richey Road extension and widening, funded with $6.5 million in Proposition 12 money and $11 million from Longview Economic Development Corp., the county and Longview.

A July update from TxDOT reports those funds will fuel the George Richey work from McCann Road east to U.S. 259. Those segments are slated for contract advertising in August.

Hara, the Longview spokesman, said this past week that the city is awaiting a release from the state highway department to give final OK on rights of way for the extension.

Local money also funded safety upgrades that recently concluded on Texas 149 south of Longview to the Gregg/Rusk county line. Cleanup work remains along that project, which also converted the former V at Estes Parkway and South Eastman Road into a T-intersection.

"You see what it looks like right now, versus four years ago, it's like night and day," Stoudt said. "You're seeing more highway and transportation projects going on in Gregg County than in any area. And the reason for that is we're forming these partnerships with TxDOT and Kilgore and Longview."

That partnership model, which also brought about the Kilgore Bypass decades after it was envisioned, replaced a state policy of evaluating each request from counties and fully funding each in a priority set by exhaustive evaluation of traffic flow and safety needs.

Mark Cross, a TxDOT spokesman in Austin, said lawmakers in 2001 gave the department a toolbox of options to accelerate projects. Those include the standing Texas Mobility Fund and enhanced borrowing and tolling authority.

"Partnering with local area officials and municipalities is another option that continues to power Texas transportation forward, as well," Cross said.

Stoudt sees the new model more pointedly - local partnerships show the state that the locals mean business.

"So, when there's money to spend, they are going to spend it with their good partners," said Stoudt, who in 2011 was tapped for TxDOT's Road Hand Award.

"(TxDOT's Tyler) District Engineer Randy Hopmann has been a great friend to Gregg County. ... Because we're one of the few counties in the state that can be the partner that we have been - it's in the tens of millions of dollars. And everywhere you look, you're seeing the result of that investment and the results of these partnerships that we are making."

<strong>Longview streets</strong>

Longview taxpayers can take their own roadbuilding bow after approving a $52.6 million street project bond in 2011.

Work spawned by those funds is scheduled into 2017 and can most recently be seen in new sidewalks along East Birdsong Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The bonds also are deepening Green Street at the so-called truck-eating railroad underpass in downtown.

Progress on the Longview bond projects includes:

Preliminary design is in progress and rights of way are being purchased on Magnolia Lane in North Central Longview and Fenton Road in Pine Tree;

Preliminary design is under way for Center, Cotton and Methvin streets;

Final design is complete for Hollybrook Drive;

High Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard repaving jobs are completed.

Other city projects, not listed on the bond project list, include extensions of two major thoroughfares in North Longview.

Those will stretch Fourth Street north beyond its dead-end into Hawkins Parkway onward to a connector with U.S. 259 and will extend Hawkins Parkway east beyond the shopping complex at U.S. 259 to Tryon Road, the latter a $565,000 undertaking funded by the city.

<strong>Linking three counties</strong>

Expanding beyond Gregg County, the Northeast Texas Regional Mobility Authority continues work on Tyler's Outer Loop 49. The northern portion of that work has reached Interstate 20, where it eventually will form the western leg of the mobility authority's Northeast Texas Hourglass.

That long-range project will connect the new Tyler loop east to Marshall and U.S. 59 via a new highway kissing Longview's northern edge and the southern tip of Upshur County.

<strong>Space to stop</strong>

Ease in driving from Point A to Point B is critical to economic development. However, Stoudt mentioned one last traffic element that will please anyone who's tried to park at the Gregg County Courthouse on a Monday when jury duty is called.

"The parking garage - that's on the radar," Stoudt said. "We've got money in the budget to go out for (requests for proposals)."



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