by VERONICA GORDON
Hays County officials and representatives from the Texas Department of Transportation gathered in Buda Monday to celebrate the groundbreaking of the FM 1626 safety expansion project, from FM 967 to south of Brodie Lane.
Many deaths and major accidents have happened on the road, and the project will be an important safety improvement for Hays County, said Russell Zapalac, TxDOT chief planning and project officer.
“If there was ever a project that needed to get built, this is the project,” Zapalac said. “We’re looking forward to continuing working with the county to improve mobility and safety for all the citizens of Hays County.”
The project expands the roadway from two lanes to four lanes, with a turn lane and median, reducing the number of dangerous curves and dips. The road work will be completed by fall 2014.
“Those who proceeded us had the vision and optimism to say we can build this,” said Hays County Judge Bert Cobb. “Today is the culmination of a lot of effort, a lot of time, a lot of sweat and tears. And I cannot help but think of the people who have been injured or died in the last 10 years of this road not being good.”
Pct. 2 Commissioner Mark Jones said the project is way overdue.
“We’ve had too many accidents, too many fatal accidents,” Jones said. “It’s a bad road, and it really needs to be done and done right. We need to thank the taxpayers of Hays County that made this project possible. They overwhelmingly supported this project. I also want to thank all the landowners who gave up right-of-way to make this project possible.”
The financing process began more than 10 years ago when Hays County residents approved a bond package. Pct. 3 Commissioner Will Conley, who is also chairman of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), has been part of the project since the beginning.
“I never thought we’d get here,” Conley said Monday. “We have put together one of the best partnerships with TxDOT in our state and I’m very proud of that.”
Conley thanked those who were instrumental in the early planning stages of the project, including Sen. Jeff Wentworth, former State Rep. Patrick Rose, former Hays County Commissioner Jeff Barton and fellow Commissioner Debbie Gonzales-Ingalsbe.
“The work that Commissioner Barton put into this project is significant to say the very least,” Conley added. “Jeff worked with this community on a weekly basis … to develop a roadway that was not only environmentally friendly, but pedestrian friendly and commuter friendly. You’re going to be very proud of what you see over the next few years as we develop this roadway.”
Under the pass-through financing agreement with the state, TxDOT will reimburse Hays County $36.4 million over time, based on usage of the roadway.
“We struggled to find the funding, we struggled to work with the community,” Zapalac said. “But I remember a lot of folks championed this project over the years.”
Zapalac said the road is extremely important to the citizens of Hays County, including himself.
“When I moved here 13 years ago, I used 1626 quite a bit,” he said. “It was the quickest way for me to get into Austin. Over the years, I’ve watched it become more and more congested and it has issues with safety.”
Zapalac said he has found longer routes that he’s more comfortable driving than FM 1626.
Construction updates will be posted regularly at www.improve1626.com. FM 1626 is one of eight projects that the county and state are working on together as pass-through funding appropriations.
“The county has the lead on this project, and that’s a pretty awesome accomplishment,” Zapalac said. “They have our trust, they have our support, and we will be there if and when you need us.”