Local TxDOT News

SUPER 2 HIGHWAYS SLATED FOR US79


Are you concerned about hazardous spots and increasing traffic on US79 in our area?


In the near term, a turning lane at the Franklin Drive-Thru Safari will likely be built. Shortly after that, turning lanes for the new Robertson County Jail will probably be added. Hopefully, these will stretch from Cook’s Lane all the way to the Wash Depot. 


Starting over a year from now, combined US79/US190’s Little Brazos River Bridge will be replaced with a four-lane, divided bridge with 10 ft. shoulders at a cost of $9.8 million. The highway itself will become four-lanes from just west of GATX’s main entrance to the other side of FM50. Then, some $12 million will likely be spent on an FM50/UPRR overpass near the Mumford School.


To get a glimpse of what the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) might have in store for local sections of highways in the mid- to long-term, I consulted their online Project Tracker for the Bryan District. 


Don’t get your hopes up yet – this is a long-term plan. In 5 – 10 years, this project tracker calls for several local sections of two-lane US79 to be turned into Super 2 Highways. These alternating passing lane highways are slated to be installed from the Leon County line, through Robertson & Milam Counties, to the east side of Rockdale.


Beginning in Buffalo heading west, an $80 million project would widen 8.1 miles of US79 to a 4-lane divided highway. Then, from Buffalo all the way to Rockdale, Super 2 Highways would alternately be placed on various sections of US79. From the Leon to the Milam County lines, $38.5 million would be spent on US79 in Robertson County for 22.24 miles of Super 2 Highways. 


Then, another $13 million would be spent in Milam County for these supped-up highways between Rockdale and the Brazos River. 


According to TxDOT’s website, “A Super 2 Highway is where a periodic passing lane is added to a two-lane rural highway to allow passing of slower vehicles and the dispersal of traffic platoons. The passing lane will alternate from one direction of travel to the other within a section of roadway allowing passing opportunities in both directions. A Super 2 project can be introduced on an existing two-lane roadway where there is a significant amount of slow-moving traffic, limited sight distance for passing, and/or the existing traffic volume has exceeded the two-lane highway capacity, creating the need for vehicles to pass on a more frequent basis.”


The closest existing Super 2 Highway is TX21 between Madisonville and Bryan.


In recent years, TX21 has been greatly improved. TX6 is now four-lanes with a center median from Waco to Hempstead. 8.515 miles of turning lanes will soon be installed along combined TX6/US190 from .27 miles north of Abbott Road (CR226) to .45 miles south of Sadberry Road (CR806). These will cost some $5,426,440.


US79 is now four-lane from Round Rock to Rockdale. In coming years, US79 between Rockdale and I-45 is slated for the above improvements. 

Food for thought as TxDOT plans ahead to handle ever-increasing traffic in our area.

  

IS PROPOSED I-14 INCHING ITS WAY TOWARDS ROBERTSON COUNTY?


In the next ten years, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is planning to build several Super 2 Highways along US79 in our area. One runs east from Milano on combined US190/US79 towards Hearne. The US79 Little Brazos River bridge is also slated to be replaced starting about a year and a half from now.


On combined TX6/US190, two-way turning lanes will start being installed around the first of next year from the railroad overpass south of Hearne to OSR.


These planned improvements are roughly along the US190 route of the proposed new I-14 through this area. So, I thought I’d consult TxDOT’s Project Tracker to see what else might be planned along US190 around us.


In the next ten years, a new 3.525-mile “non-freeway facility loop” is slated for construction around Madisonville. This will be constructed to the tune of $120 million plus some change for an engineering study. Then, at a cost of almost $80 million, most of US190 from Madisonville to the Brazos County line will be turned into a four-lane divided highway.


Near- to mid-term relief routes around Madisonville, Hearne, and Cameron were called-for in the initial study. While Madisonville’s relief route or bypass appears to be moving forward, neither the Hearne now Cameron relief routes have been funded. 


There is no official word from TxDOT about these proposed relief routes or bypasses. Several online commentators on the AARoads.com Forum, however, believe that “I-14 will skirt Hearne to the southwest and merge with combined US190/TX6 just south of town.” 


There is absolutely no mention of a northwestern relief route leg that connects with the TX6/US79 interchange north of town. These commenters also think the current US79 Big Brazos River bridge will ultimately be expanded into twin, one-way, two-lane bridges providing a total of four-lanes of traffic. 


Some ten years ago when TxDOT’s U190 strategic planning feasibility study was done, it reported that potential improvements considered were:


· Providing for additional travel lanes when needed;

· Providing for relief routes around cities/towns;

· Adding passing lanes consistent with a “Super 2” roadway design standard; and

· Roadway design enhancements such as interchange improvements, adding shoulders where needed, and/or elimination of at-grade railroad crossings.


We are starting to get some of these improvements in this area. While it will take years to get an I-14 functioning in Robertson County, incremental improvements that may be part of a grander scheme of things are coming our way.


Economic development prospects always ask about traffic counts on local highways and distances to local interstates as well as major airports. Ponder this. Franklin may soon be one of the most conveniently located towns in Texas by being: 


· 41 miles away from I-45

· 62 miles from I-35; and

· 14 miles away from I-14.


From convenience, traffic congestion-relief, and long-term economic development perspectives, improved Super 2 Highways will reduce travel times. Short distances to interstates will increase Franklin’s marketability to potential businesses as well as make travelling easier and safer for local residents, existing, and prospective businesses. 

CITY OF HEARNE NEEDS TO APPLY FOR USDA FIRE/POLICE STATION GRANT

A City of Hearne official allegedly made a very disturbing comment at a recent clubhouse public forum.  It was that all Hearne monthly utility bills would need to increased by $14 to $16 a month for the next 40 years to pay for the proposed $7.5 million new downtown fire/police station.


The City of Hearne needs to apply for a USDA Community Facilities grant to help pay for the proposed new $7.5 million Public Safety facility to be built in downtown Hearne. It defies logic to pass up this FREE USDA money.


Hearne’s median household income is $21,336 (according to 2010 census statistics). Based on this income level, Hearne would qualify for up to a 75% grant of the total cost of the project. Since USDA has to distribute grant funds around, Hearne’s actual percentage would probably be closer to 40% – 50% of the total cost of the facility.


In its infinite wisdom, the City of Hearne is rumored to be considering NOT applying for a USDA grant. The reason given is “USDA money comes with too many strings.” When speaking about his reluctance to apply for outside monies through grants, the city manager supposedly said, "It's either the John Naron way, or no way."


Whatever these strings might be, they didn’t seem to bother the public safety facilities in Franklin, Calvert, Bremond, Flo, Oakwood, and two Brazos County public safety facilities. All of these got USDA grants for their constructions.


The city manager or the city’s grant writer (for a fee) could wade through and fill-out the needed paperwork. If there are no environmental problems with the site, the only other “strings” would be to comply with state- and federal-imposed competitive contractor estimate and basic job supervision requirements. The city should be complying with these anyway.


The City of Hearne has a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best financial interests of the citizens of Hearne. The city’s preferred funding mechanisms -- hotel/motel, Type A, Type B tax proceeds -- CANNOT BE USED to pay for a police station/fire station/holding cells/council chambers combo. Applying for a USDA Community Facilities grant is the financially prudent choice that furthers the public interest.

THE GOOD LIFE: Franklin Style

Some call it the best little bedroom community just north of B/CS. Lots of folks are discovering much sought-after, down-home living around Franklin, Robertson County’s seat of government.


In recent years, an increasingly vibrant Franklin and its environs have been the epicenter of a major residential building boom in this mostly rural 865-square mile county. Residential subdivisions are being built on bucolic farmlands. Many small-acre parcels on rural roads are getting impressive new homes. Numerous lots on the west side of this thriving town now sport pricey new homes.


Over a half-dozen different home-studded subdivisions include:


  • New one on FM2446;
  • Bishopville Road (on West US79);
  • Camp Creek Lake;
  • Deep Creek Forest (Owensville Cemetery Rd);
  • Hickory Ridge (on FM2446)
  • Indian Creek (on North FM46);
  • Lawson's Creek (behind golf course)
  • Morgan-Woods (off of South FM46).
  • Oak Tree (on North FM46);
  • Wood Forest (on North FM46);
  • Rural Properties; &
  • Lots Around Town.

Building activities continue at nearby Camp Creek Lake. Older cabins are being replaced with splashy new homes.


Why has the area around Franklin become the epitome of the country-style good life in the shadow of Aggieland?


A combination of factors is attracting Franklin area home-building residents:


  • Quality schools (Franklin ISD is the largest in geographic area of Robertson County’s five school districts. This highly desirable district has approximately 1,100 students, over 300 in the high school alone);
  • World-class student facilities. The envy of many, the year-round Franklin ISD Ranch Community Park on FM46 is very impressive. Also consider Hedrick Field, indoor football practice field, performing arts center, tennis and other school complexes;
  • Low city (0.45326 per $100 valuation), school (1.23000), and county (0.48500) tax rates;
  • Reasonable utility rates from Entergy (in-town) or Navasota Valley (rural areas);
  • Relaxed pace;
  • Wide open spaces;
  • Friendly people;
  • Convenient, off-the-beaten path location, Franklin is only 35-miles north of B/CS. It is a pleasant drive to/from B/CS, its jobs and amenities;
  • Easy access to major highways. On US79, Franklin is 15 minutes away from TX6 and US190; 25 minutes to TX21; 40 minutes to I-45; 70 miles to I-35; and
  • Blinn College, Texas A&M’s main campus, Texas A&M’s RELLIS campus, biomedical corridor, University of Texas, Baylor, McLennan Community College, Texas State Technical College, and Sam Houston State University are all within easy commutes.

Part of the College Station-Bryan metropolitan statistical area, Franklin is in the geographic center of Robertson County (first county due north of Brazos County). 


According to 2016 federal census estimates, Franklin has 1,564 residents. Robertson County itself has an estimated 16,751 residents. 


Easily manageable numbers of vehicles (7,718 a day) routinely travel US79 through Franklin. An average of nine daily freight trains remind visitors and residents alike of Franklin’s agricultural roots and UP’s on-going efforts to transport commodities.


Existing economic developments are just a hop, skip, or jump away from Franklin. Many of these longtime businesses are some of our area’s biggest employers. Some are new entrants. Franklin is within easy driving distances of:


  • Luminant’s Oak Grove Power Plant and Kosse Mine; 
  • Optim Energy’s Twin Oaks Power Plant and Kiewit’s Walnut Creek Mining Company;
  • Easterly’s Sanderson Farms’ Feed Mill;
  • Jewett’s Nucor Steel; 
  • Hearne’s ECMD, GATX, FEMA, Enterprise, as well as temporary workers from Enterprise, Magellan, & Valero pipeline extensions; 
  • Agricultural operations (from cotton and grain, to produce, to farms and ranches, to exotic animals); plus
  • Areas closest to Franklin have been a hotbed of oil and gas exploration, production, and distribution activities. 

Pending regional economic developments are also nearby, including:


  • Calvert’s proposed wallboard plant; and
  • Union Pacific’s under-construction Brazos Yard between Hearne and Mumford.

Most people prefer to live comfortable distances away from their jobs. A brief Robertson County commute to/from Franklin is a piece of cake when compared to fighting grueling hours of big-city, rush-hour, across-town, bumper-to-bumper traffic on accident-prone freeways.


Franklin’s hotels, RV Parks, restaurants, and businesses get their shares of highway traffic, sporting event participants, and temporary workers. Some people filling the new full-time, permanent jobs heading our way will likely consider moving to Franklin with their families if they settle in Robertson County.

431 SQUARE MILE FRANKLIN ISD IS LARGEST SCHOOL DISTRICT IN GEOGRAPHIC AREA IN ROBERTSON COUNTY

Did you know that the massive Franklin ISD covers more square miles (431) than ALL of Robertson County's other four school districts (Bremond, Calvert, Hearne, & Mumford) combined?


A White & Associates "for sale" sign marks the beginning of the Franklin school district on Bart Lockhart's property as you travel east on US79 out of Hearne. Franklin ISD is also on the east side of Harless Lane. Take a gander at just all of the area that this massive school district encompasses. People who want to move into Franklin ISD have lots of properties from which to choose.

TEXAS ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE COMMISSION LOCAL OPTION STATUS

People routinely ask me why some areas of Robertson County can sell alcohol and why some can’t.


Prohibition was a national constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. Marked by the roaring twenties, speakeasies, temperance leagues, moonshine, and stills, it began in 1920 shortly after the end of WWI and was repealed thirteen years later in 1933 during the Great Depression and shortly after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office. 


In the interceding years, Texas has become a patchwork of varying permissible drinking legal requirements through local option elections. Determined by county, justice of the peace precinct, or city, the chart below shows the confusing array of wet, partially wet, dry, beer, wine, distilled spirit, mixed beverage, on-premise, off-premise regulations currently in effect in Robertson County.


  • Robertson County PW: B-On, B-Off, W-On, W-Off, DS-Off, MB
  • JP1  W: B-On, B-Off, W-On, W-Off; PW: DS-Off, MB
  • JP2  W: B-On, B-Off, W-Off, DS-Off; PW: W-On, MB
  • JP3   PW: B-On, B-Off
  • JP4  W: B-Off, W-Off, DS-Off; PW: B-On, W-On, MB
  • Bremond  W: B-On, B-Off, W-On, W-Off, DS-Off, MB
  • Calvert  W: B-On, B-Off
  • Franklin   Dry (Louie’s Icehouse has a private club license)
  • Hearne  W: B-On, B-Off, W-On, W-Off, DS-Off, MB

While some jurisdictions still prefer to remain dry, the vast majority of local option elections that have been held in central Texas in recent years have passed. In 2018, Burleson, Brazos, Grimes, Falls, Freestone, Limestone, McLellan, Madison, Milam, and Robertson counties are all listed as totally or partially wet by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. The notable exceptions are the towns and JP precincts around Centerville, Franklin, Gause, part of Golinda, and Mumford. 


Why are local option elections passing? The reasons are varied: to attract full-service restaurants, diversify tax bases, compete for tax dollars with neighboring jurisdictions and business establishments, accommodate local residents, hotel visitors, keep visitors in town, and relax decades old regulations. Except for the notable exceptions above, it is not uncommon to see beer and wine being sold for take-away in grocery stores, dollar stores, convenience stores, restaurants, and clubs. 


In recent years, here is what has happened in Robertson County:


  • Bremond, all alcoholic beverages including mixed beverages, Passed 11/5/2013.
  • JP Pct. 1 (extends from Hearne through Calvert to Lake Limestone), Beer & Wine, Passed 11/6/2012.
  • Hearne, all alcoholic beverages including mixed beverages, Passed 5/9/2009.
  • Calvert, Mixed beverages - restaurants w/ FB only, Failed for procedural reasons (never voted on).

As a result of the above, much of Robertson County is already wet. This includes that part of the Calvert JP precinct that comes within a couple of miles of the Franklin city limits. It also includes big areas of Franklin ISD from just east of Hearne to just west of Franklin. The line then runs from Mudd Creek to Rocken S Saloon, before progressing northeast all the way to Lake Limestone.


Irrespective of whatever a jurisdiction may desire, state law still allows for the existence of private clubs which can sell alcohol. This is the type of license Louie’s Icehouse in Franklin has.


A request filed by 10 or more voters in a jurisdiction is what initially triggers a local option election. Then, a petition seeking to change a jurisdiction’s drinking status must be signed by 35% of the voters within the jurisdiction based on the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election. 


In the Franklin city limits, this number is 238. These signatures of City of Franklin voters must be gathered within 60 days of filing the initial request. With sufficient valid signatures, the Franklin City Council must act in a ministerial fashion to call an election on the next uniform election date. 

RAIL RICH, SPUR POOR

“I’m looking for some property with an existing rail spur.” 


This comment has been repeated on countless occasions by lots of different business prospects. Sadly, Robertson County does not currently have any such rail spur-ready properties. This fact gives rise to the observation that our county is “Rail Rich & Spur Poor.” In recent decades, this has been the single biggest unmet economic development need in our county.


Local rail spurs are few and far between. A long-active spur is at the rear of GATX behind Riverside Cemetery. Both power plants and coal mines have spurs. The newest spur is at Easterly’s Sanderson Farms Feed Mill. Calvert’s proposed wallboard plant plans to build one.


The City of Franklin might investigate the possibility of getting a spur approved for the railroad- and highway-adjacent, in the city limits, 44-acre industrial park. This property is owned by the city and has an average of a scant nine daily (primarily north-bound) freight trains. It also has quadruple tracks (four parallel rails) coming through town (for several miles from before the food pantry to the roadside park).  Such a spur approval would help grease the skids for a potential new business or grants to build this spur. 


Efforts are being made to include this property on Union Pacific’s new web-based property search tool. This website is at up.com, tap on “customers” in the “Section Menu” at the bottom left-hand side, then hit the grey “Industrial Development” box under “Expand Your Reach” (again at the bottom left-hand side). Next hit “Site Selections Tool: finding a suitable location for your rail-served business has never been easier.” 


According to this website, “Union Pacific identifies and promotes greenfield sites and existing Union Pacific rail-served sites and buildings so you can find a suitable location for your rail-based business and/or develop your new rail-based facility.” At present, an industrial park in Hutto is the closest such facility listed in our area on UP’s property search tool.


Some local properties may appear to be rail accessible, but they are NOT. While you might see an old siding or old railroad entrance into a property, these have often not been used in years. They may be in such bad shape that they would have to be totally rebuilt to accommodate today’s transportation standards. Such unused tracks are at ECMD, Wilbur-Ellis, and former Crane Plumbing.


Then, there’s the question of traffic volume. These days, rail customers need to be able to guarantee a push of a minimum of about 100 or so railcars per month. It has to be economically feasible for the railroad to send a crew, an engine, and allocate track space for local activities.


Next, the property has to qualify. A while back, a prime piece of property was located. Upon checking with the railroad, the property was too close to an interlocker. It was also on a track where a train would have just rounded a curve. In addition, the negative incline on the property would not accommodate spur traffic. 


Some properties along highly trafficked main rail routes are unavailable for development. With back-to-back trains on schedules on a main line, no spur-related delays can be tolerated. This is true for some properties surrounding Union Pacific’s Brazos Yard.


Last, but certainly not least, is the question of cost. Rail spur construction and rail switch costs are very hefty.


Occasionally, new rail-dependent businesses will ante-up money to build a spur. Deep-pocketed investors might also acquire significant trackside acreage to build a private industrial park for multiple rail-dependent businesses. Governmental entities also build spurs. The City of Bryan’s/Brazos County Economic Development Corporation’s Texas Triangle Park/Inland Port has its own rail spur.  Axis Pipe & Tube is the primary corporate tenant. Cameron’s Industrial Park has rail frontage. 


The first step is for an owner to identify a highway- and rail-accessible property that is suitable for industrial development. Since a railroad runs past it, Franklin’s Industrial Park already has such highly-sought trackside access.

UNION PACIFIC'S BRAZOS YARD

Union Pacific’s Brazos Yard is a major regional economic development. This fact was underscored at UP’s and the Hearne Chamber’s meeting last week.


Attendees included: one congressional aide; two state representatives and their aides; Robertson County judge and a commissioner; mayors of Bryan, College Station, and Hearne; Mumford ISD superintendent; UP officials as well as City of Hearne, City of Franklin, and Hearne Chamber representatives. 


Brazos, Burleson, Milam, and Robertson counties as well as their cities/communities are all hoping to reap benefits from this development. While Mumford ISD’s and Robertson County’s tax bases will directly benefit, indirect local benefits might include:


  • Increased sales and hotel/motel taxes;
  • Hotel rooms; 
  • RV park slots;
  • Other rental accommodations (houses, apartments, rooms);
  • Temporary construction jobs;
  • Permanent full-time railroad jobs;
  • Familiarizing re-locating railroaders with children with local school districts;
  • Introducing newcomers to local housing markets; 
  • Finding office sites for the primary contractor and several dozen sub-contractors;
  • Leasing or selling properties with or without rail spurs to possible spin-off businesses;
  • Contractor work (electrical, paving, truck drivers, heavy equipment operators);
  • Equipment rentals;
  • Materials hauling;
  • Restaurant customers and caterings;
  • Vehicle maintenance and repair work; 
  • Developing relationships with local merchants; and
  • Creating or expanding trade/technical programs for high schoolers and folks 18+.

Robertson County entities need to try to pull as many of these things as possible toward us.  After all, we are competing with our neighbors in adjoining counties. They too are promoting their own businesses, hotels, schools, trade/technical training facilities, housing markets, contractors, job-seekers, etc.


Hordes of visiting railroaders come to Hearne several times a week. They live/vote elsewhere and stay in a hotel. Familiar faces, these peripatetic workers are almost local residents. After all, they spend parts of 150+ days a year in Hearne.


When the yard was officially announced, railroaders with children started inquiring about our local school districts. While six fairly new housing developments already surround Franklin, TWO more are rumored to be under development along West US79 in Franklin ISD. Individual properties are also for sale in this area. Closer than you might think, the Franklin school district boundary extends towards Hearne along US79 from Elliott for a considerable distance (to Harless Lane).


Homes on the market in Hearne will likely also sell. Several railroaders have indicated an interest in buying a house, sharing it with their railroad buddies, and commuting to/from their existing homes in San Antonio, Longview, Ft. Worth, Spring, or wherever they currently live.


With UP a major corporate sponsor, the new RELLIS campus will likely provide the bulk of railroad-related trade/technical education. Some Robertson County folks will likely benefit from having TSTC-type trade/technical offerings nearby. 


The City of Navasota and Blinn are pioneering a program to train 18+ year-olds in locally-needed vocations. City of Franklin and Franklin ISD officials recently met with Blinn to discuss a similar program that would cater to two totally separate groups: (1) high school students (through the school), plus (2) those 18+ (through the city).


Local students and residents 18+ often wish to find nearby jobs. Many need to be trained in job safety, computer, welding, railroading, diesel mechanics, power plant, truck driving, heavy equipment operating, and whatever other skills may be needed in our local job market. Electricians, plumbers, HVAC, and others are also needed.


Lots of people are interested in applying for local UP jobs. It is too early, however, for Brazos Yard temporary or permanent jobs. To see positions currently available, go to up.com.


Maps have been submitted to UP to determine if Franklin’s 44-acre industrial park on East US79 could accommodate a rail spur. TxDOT guidelines are being reviewed for possible placement of “Franklin Ranch” pointing-arrow signs on US79.