Honkin' Mad

Why do five lanes shrink to two on this congested part of I-35W, and can it be fixed?

One of the worst traffic bottlenecks in Tarrant County is on Interstate 35W in far north Fort Worth, in one of the city’s most vibrant retail and residential areas.

For drivers traveling northbound on I-35W between the U.S. 287 “Decatur Cutoff” and Heritage Trace Parkway, in the span of about a mile, five highway lanes shrink down to just two lanes — causing massive backups on most days.

“WHY in the world would a city this size and an area this large (1 million plus people) would the city have a highway with only 2 lanes and yet build 2 lanes that are toll?” a reader named Keith wrote in an email to Honkin’ Mad, the Star-Telegram’s ongoing feature in which North Texans are encouraged to submit traffic questions. “Especially when the feeder lanes by (North) Tarrant Parkway by 35w have 3 to 4 lanes on each side of 35w.”

State officials say they’re working on a plan to expand I-35W from U.S. 287 and nearby North Tarrant Parkway about six miles north to Eagle Parkway, near Alliance Airport.

But politics involving the anti-toll road sentiment of statewide elected leaders has played a role in slowing the project.

Here’s a bit more detail about what causes the gridlock and why it may take years to get fixed:

On the northbound side of the highway, there are two brand new TEXPress toll lanes and three toll-free main lanes — including the far right auxiliary lane that is meant to help motorists entering I-35W from the northbound frontage road merge into freeway traffic.

In a very short span of less than a mile, the TEXPress lanes on the left side of the road come to an end and traffic on those toll lanes must merge back into the toll-free main lanes. Also, the auxiliary lane comes to an end on the right side of the road, shrinking the total number of lanes available to two.

Long-term, the Texas Department of Transportation plans to extend the TEXPress toll lanes six miles to the north, from U.S. 287 and North Tarrant Parkway to Eagle Parkway, near Alliance Airport. That project would increase the number of available lanes to four, essentially fixing the problem.

However, the project, which is expected to cost $762 million, has been slowed by a political decision made by Texas’ elected leaders a few years ago to no longer use tax-supported state dollars on projects that involve toll lanes.

Only $18 million in tax-supported state funds is needed for the project. Most of the rest is expected to be covered by federal loans and private equity raised by the private developer that is under contract to build the project, North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners.

But the $520.9 million can’t be spent until the state signs off on the project and provides its $18 million share.

Local leaders, including Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, have asked the Texas Transportation Commission to go ahead and provide the $18 million for the project, which was negotiated beginning in 2009 — years before state leaders enacted their toll ban. Nearly a year ago, the Tarrant County Commissioners Court approved a resolution asking Gov. Greg Abbott and other statewide leaders to approve the funding and get the project going.

On government documents, the project is often known as I-35W Segment 3C. It’s an extension of the $1.6 billion in improvements to the I-35W corridor that have already taken place in recent years between U.S. 287/North Tarrant Parkway and I-30 near downtown Fort Worth.

The Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition, a group of business and elected leaders that meets monthly to advocate for mobility issues in the region, also has asked state leaders for a resolution.

Talks aimed at resolving the issue have been doing on behind the scenes for more than a year.

“We are continuing to finalize negotiations for this next phase and should know more early this year,” said Michael Peters, Texas Department of Transportation spokesman.

Once the state transportation department approves its funding, construction of the new TEXPress lanes is expected to take several years.

So, for motorists, it may be awhile before traffic relief arrives.

Gordon Dickson joined the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997. He is passionate about hard news reporting, and his beats include transportation, growth, urban planning, aviation, real estate, jobs, business trends. He is originally from El Paso, and loves food, soccer and long drives.