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Texas 114 transformed into road of prosperity

Texas 114 is a modern freeway that connects many of the Metroplex’s human-made marvels — Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, Southlake Town Square, Texas Motor Speedway.

But the ease of driving the east-west roadway belies the mammoth effort behind making the corridor what it is today.

Nearly $1.43 billion has been spent on 30 miles of Texas 114 from far north Fort Worth to northwest Dallas since 1996, a review of Texas Department of Transportation projects shows. New freeway lanes were added. Bridges and intersections were modernized and frontage roads were made safe so that roadside properties could be developed.

Interactive: Texas 114, through the years

Eighteen years ago, cities and towns including Grapevine, Southlake, Trophy Club and Roanoke were choking in traffic. Texas 114 was just a two-lane country road in some places, and even where it was wider the highway amounted to little more than frontage roads. With a rapidly growing population, leaders in those cities knew that if they didn’t act fast their efforts to grow and prosper would be crushed.

“Highway 114 was part of the regional network but it didn’t function like one,” remembered Frank Bliss, president of Southlake Town Square developer Cooper & Stebbins. “It wasn’t fully engineered. There were stop lights at all the major crossings — Kimball Road, Carroll Avenue, White Chapel Road.”

Officials and business leaders from those and other cities as well as Tarrant and Denton counties formed a group now known as Metroport Cities Partnership, and in 1996 they piled into a caravan of buses and traveled to Austin to ask legislators for help.

“We went to Austin with four or five busloads of people. We took school kids’ pictures — drawings that the first-, second- and third-graders had done showing school buses trying to cross 114,” said Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes, who was Southlake mayor from 1989 to 1996. “They gave us more money than we asked for.”

Several pieces of the highway are still under construction. West of Texas Motor Speedway in north Fort Worth, new main lanes are being built from near Farm Road 156 to the Wise County line, and that work is expected to continue until 2015. Just south of the speedway, new frontage roads that will help handle the routine race-day crowds of 100,000-plus are being built, a project expected to wrap up in October.

In Roanoke, long-awaited improvements to the Texas 114/170 interchange are scheduled for completion in March.

After those jobs are done, a few improvements remain, including a proposal to build new Texas 114 main lanes from Roanoke to the speedway within about 10 years, and another to widen and improve the highway from Las Colinas in Irving to the former Texas Stadium site. Irving officials hope to redevelop the former stadium area with a mix of commercial and residential uses and access to light rail.

Rural roots to city streets

Those who warned about the area’s impending population boom turned out to be right.

In 1995, some 986,000 people lived within a 30-minute drive of Southlake Town Square, Bliss said. By 2013, that number had more than doubled, to 2 million people — nearly a third of North Texas’ metro area.

“This increase has been a function of both area population growth as well as improved access due to regional transportation projects,” Bliss said.

Even those who fondly remember the area’s rural history agree that the changes in Texas 114 had to be made.

Rebecca Utley, a Southlake real estate agent, grew up in Fort Worth and spent many weekends at her family’s ranch along Texas 114 and White Chapel Road. She could swing in the front yard all afternoon, with a view of the lonely highway.

“You could drive out here and you might only pass a car or two,” she said.

Despite her happy memories of the country lifestyle, Utley is glad the highway is wider and safer today. In the late 1980s, she totaled her beloved Buick LeSabre trying to cross the road, when another car struck hers just outside the family’s ranch. She feels lucky she wasn’t seriously hurt.

“It certainly brought more attention to Southlake,” she said of Texas 114 improvements, “because we were in the middle of nowhere and now we’re in the middle of everything.”

‘Grapevine funnel’

Grapevine Mayor William D. Tate remembers when Texas 114 was a mostly sleepy highway — except during Texas-Oklahoma weekend.

“On OU weekend there was a parade down Main Street with the Oklahoma Sooners come to town to the Cotton Bowl,” he said.

As the area evolved and DFW Airport came into the picture in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the old highway was diverted to a new loop on the outskirts of Grapevine in 1963. There was a deadly intersection on the south end of the city where the old highway and the new loop rejoined, and Tate remembered that one year 10 people were killed in many crashes there. The state eventually redesigned the intersection to make it safer, he said.

In the 1980s, the area began to be overrun with traffic. The new Texas 114 merged with a new Texas 121 in south Grapevine, making it much easier to connect with cities such as Bedford and Fort Worth.

But DFW Airport was on its way to becoming the third-busiest airport in the world, and the merged highways couldn’t handle the traffic. By the 1990s, more than 200,000 motorists per day were passing through Grapevine. Traffic broadcasters, police and other municipal employees began referring to the area as the “Grapevine funnel.”

The state Transportation Department began the planning for a massive overhaul of the Texas 114/121 corridor in the late 1990s. But little money was available, so the plans faltered.

In the mid-2000s, the department began searching for a private partner not only to build new freeway lanes, but also to add toll lanes.

By then, the cost of the project had ballooned to more than $1 billion — and still, the state lacked the funds.

It wasn’t until 2009, when the U.S. Transportation Department awarded $250 million in Recovery Act funding to the project —the largest single sum of stimulus funding ever awarded to a transportation project in the nation — that dirt finally turned.

The “Grapevine funnel” got a more positive name: DFW Connector. The work was substantially completed last year, and it’s now possible to travel through Grapevine at 50 mph or more, even during rush hours.

Some city businesses didn’t survive the three years-plus of construction, but those that remained can perhaps enjoy good access to the highway for decades.

“We were just glad they were able to get it done in three years instead of 10,” Tate said. “We felt like they shut down the roads too many times for just small improvements. It really hurt a lot of our businesses and they didn’t get compensated for that. We just hope the days are brighter and the road is complete and the people are happy and can move freely, and they [businesses] will be able to make that up.”

Residents and restaurants

Roanoke was a small town with only about 5,000 residents and few attractions in its old downtown in the mid-1990s. Today, the area has about 9,000 residents, a collection of well-known popular restaurants and a Hawaiian Falls water park. The city will likely reach 12,000 residents in a few years, with the planned opening of two large high-end residential developments, Mayor Scooter Gierisch said.

One is Fairway Ranch, being built on land owned by the late legendary golfer Byron Nelson. It is on the single largest piece of vacant space left in the city center and will include 580 homes.

The city’s tax base has grown to about $1.27 billion, up from about $700 million two decades ago, said Gierisch, who grew up in the area.

One of the biggest quality-of-life improvements was the creation of a Texas 114 bypass around the northeast end of the city. The bypass eliminated the dangerous truck traffic that previously tore through the center of the city on the old two-lane Texas 114, which has been renamed Byron Nelson Boulevard.

“You felt like you were entering a death trap every time you got onto 114,” Gierisch said. “Now we’ve expanded it to a four-lane highway and it has helped.”

The mayor said he is looking forward to the scheduled completion of the Texas 114/170 interchange in March. “That will take out three signal lights people have to stop at to get to their jobs at DFW,” he said.

But Gierisch said some work remains. For example, he said, about three miles of Texas 114 main lanes between Roanoke and the speedway remain to be built. For now, traffic in that area continues to use only the frontage roads that are in place — and those roads are beginning to show serious wear and tear, he said.

Area leaders must continue to press for improvements, he said, because Texas 114 is now an economic backbone of the North Texas region.

“As people move to this area,” he said, “it’s going to continue to be a problem.”

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