• Agency Gives US 77 Upgrades Final Environmental Clearance

July 13, 2012

Celebration broke out in the Rio Grande Valley and South Texas this week on news that the Federal Highway Administration had issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (otherwise knows as a FONSI) covering all upgrade projects on US 77 from Harlingen to Corpus Christi.

"This is huge for South Texas," David Allex, chairman of the Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority told the Valley Morning Star. Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos called the federal decision "tremendous news."

Judge Cascos said that with passage of the 2-year federal highway bill (MAP-21) last week and progress being made together with TxDOT on US 77, "we are now on a more immediate timeline to eventually upgrade this corridor to I-69."

The first seven-mile section of Interstate 69, located at the western edge of Corpus Christi, was added to the Interstate Highway System in 2011. All of the section covered by the FONSI will become I-69 as individual upgrade projects are designed, funded and completed. The FONSI will means work on planning, right-of-way and funding can move forward on individual projects anywhere in the 122 mile highway section.

The Draft Environmental Assessment (EA) was issued in January and public hearings were held in February. The Selected Alternative in the Final Environmental Assessment document is to upgrade the existing highway, adding to the right-of-way width where necessary. Two short highway sections will be relocated to create relief routes around the Driscoll community in Nueces County and Riviera near the southern boundary of Kleberg County. In both cases the Union Pacific Railroad mainline is immediately adjacent to the existing highway right of way, local businesses line the narrow highway right-of-way and motorists must stop for traffic signals. Relief routes at Bishop, Kingsville and Raymondville were built decades ago.

The assessment process began in 2008. The EA document concludes that engineering, social, economic and environmental investigations conducted thus far on the proposed project indicate that it will not result in significant impacts on the quality of the human environment.

Anticipating this favorable outcome, TxDOT has been at work creating a project development plan to complete the US 77 upgrade program that has already been underway for two decades. In May the Texas Highway Commission started the process of completing a 10-mile section under a design-build contract. The section is between Driscoll and Kingsville.

The US 77 Upgrade Project will provide additional capacity and significantly improve safety. Currently there are dozens of hazardous at-grade crossings and cross-overs along the route.

The EA found that the estimated cost of completing Interstate 69 from Corpus Christi to Harlingen is approximately $1 billion. Several upgrade projects are in various stages of completion and are already being advanced under separate environmental documents.

An interesting element of the schematic plans included in the EA is the way ranch access is to be accomplished in the 42-mile passage through Kenedy County where there are no public roads crossing US 77. This highway passes through sections of the King Ranch, the Kenedy Ranch and the Armstrong Ranch, all of which span the highway and the adjacent Union Pacific Railroad. Brief sections of access road will be built near ranch gates to allow traffic on and off the freeway lanes. Overpasses will be built at intervals of 5 to 10 miles to allow traffic to reverse direction. Below is a simplified drawing of a ranch gate access point. This arrangement will avoid the need to build long stretches of dual frontage roads that have little transportation value.