After $1.6 billion worth of work, why is I-35W still clogged with traffic?

These days, even $1.6 billion isn't enough to solve a highway's congestion problems.

After years of work to improve traffic on Interstate 35W in north Fort Worth, a bottleneck still occurs on the southbound side of the freeway at Loop 820.

On most days, traffic is backed up for at least 1 mile — and sometimes the line stretches as far as 4 miles, beyond North Tarrant Parkway. The congestion occurs not only during peak travel periods, but even during middays and evenings.


State officials blame a combination of factors.

Mainly, the $1.6 billion spent on the road during the past several years fixed many of the traffic choke points, but not all of them.

"The current $1.6 billion project has made a lot of improvements, but some areas were deferred due to funding constraints," said Michael Peters, Texas Department of Transportation spokesman.

The main problem seems to be a large number of vehicles taking the exit to Loop 820. Once motorists take the exit, they travel on a flyover ramp that gives them the choice of going either east or west on the loop — and many cars decelerate as they climb the ramp, causing the cars behind them to slow down.

Also, the TEXPress toll lanes have an exit that dumps traffic into the left main lane of southbound I-35W, causing traffic already in the fast lane to slow down.

And, to make matters worse, drivers on the southbound TEXPress toll lanes wishing to go westbound on Loop 820 must exit the toll lane and then cut across three main lanes of traffic to get to the 820 exit.

The state transportation department eventually plans to build a special ramp for southbound TEXPress lanes traffic to exit directly onto westbound Loop 820 without cutting across the main lanes, but the $1.6 billion funding wasn't enough to get that ramp built, Peters said.

"This is a temporary exit. A direct connector for the I-35W southbound TEXpress Lanes to I-820 westbound will be included as part of the next phase of work," Peters said. "This direct connector will address that merge."

But it could be years before the funding to build that direct connector is available, although state officials are in discussions with their contractor to expedite the project.

"We are continuing to finalize negotiations for that portion and will know more later this year," he said.

The project was built in a partnership with North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners, a group of companies that provided much of the funding in exchange for the right to collect tolls on the TEXPress lanes to repay themselves, for decades to come.

Although most of the work is done, the final portion of I-35W reconstruction from North Side Drive to I-30 near downtown Fort Worth is still underway, and is scheduled to be complete by September.

That area near downtown is horribly clogged as well. However, transportation officials believe that bottleneck will for the most part disappear when the road work is done in a few months.

As for the bottleneck at the 35W/820 intersection, it likely will remain for years to come.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796; @gdickson
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