Weatherford officials recently got word that the city will receive $11.5 million from the North Central Council of Governments and the Texas Department of Transportation to help construct a northern bypass around downtown.
It will be the initial step toward developing Heritage Square, which the city describes as an authentic livable downtown that would offer entertainment, restaurants and pedestrian-friendly walkways. The project is also designed to bring back Weatherford's historic downtown square by diverting truck traffic on U.S. 180 and Farm Roads 51 and 2552 away from the city's central core.
About 150 residents attended a town hall meeting on Monday, April 30, where city officials explained the options and took written feedback on comment cards. Most of those in attendance appeared to support the project, particularly the solving of the traffic congestion — as long as the surrounding neighborhoods aren't affected.
"I'm excited about the progress Weatherford is making, trying to alleviate the problems we have," said resident Meg Carter. "I commute and go through downtown every day. It's the fastest route ... but it gets crowded downtown.
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"But we want the historic neighborhoods to stay vital and alive. I'm a sixth-generation resident, and I plan on staying here. I love downtown and going through there. I just need to get where I'm going faster."
City Manager Sharon Hayes said the comment cards will be put on file, along with written answers from city officials, who say they share residents' concerns.
"Our goal is to protect neighborhoods and downtown," Hayes said.
Realtor Jim Duncan said that his family has lived in Weatherford since 1948 and that a solution is long overdue. "There's more tires on the road than we have asphalt to carry them," he said.
According to the city's director of capital improvements, Terry Hughes, the congestion is not going to improve without this project moving forward. Even with the opening of Ric Williamson Memorial Highway, a loop around the city, downtown traffic is expected to continue to grow, he said.
"Weatherford provided existing traffic numbers, land use projections and growth trends to NCTCOG, which ran travel forecast modeling to the year 2035," he said. "The 20-year projections indicated traffic numbers could be as high as 24,000 vehicles per day along U.S. Highway 180 near downtown. Even with the outer loop, traffic will continue to be a problem for the downtown Weatherford area, based on the projections."
The proposed northern bypass is the first of what the city hopes will be three phases to solve the traffic problem and rejuvenate downtown, although the bypass is the only one that's funded so far. Hughes said the funding is on an 80/20 basis, meaning the city will still have to come up with around $4 million.
"Before you panic, they have other options for us to get more money, perhaps even eliminate that 20 percent," he told the crowd.
If no more funding is found, Hayes said, it's possible the city could move forward with just the northern bypass, "but the problem is we'd be limited with what we could do downtown. Downtown would stay about like it is now."
Hayes also noted that even if downtown is renovated, it will be up to individual business owners as to what other changes, if any, they'd like to make. She also assured folks that there would be no impact on nearby Cherry Park, adding that the city has committed $1 million for renovation of the city pool at the park.
Weatherford city consultant Trent Petty, former city manager of Grapevine, encouraged the city to move forward regardless of the uncertainty of future funding. He compared the project to when Grapevine was threatened with expansion of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport putting a runway parallel to the city's main street. The runway never materialized, and downtown Grapevine is now one of the area's biggest tourist destinations.
"You can take Grapevine Main Street and substitute it for downtown Weatherford," Petty said. "Imagine what Grapevine would have lost if they had walked away thinking they were defeated."
Engineering plans for the northern bypass are expected to be completed in 2019, with construction and completion taking two or three years.