Tuesday, July 23, 2024

TxDOT proposes plans for new hospital off-ramp


AZLE —After more than a decade, Azle residents can hope to soon drive a quicker route to Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Azle after the Texas Department of Transportation unveiled designs for a new exit ramp from state Highway 199.

TxDOT officials met with the public June 4 at the Azle ISD administration building to discuss the construction of a northbound exit ramp from SH 199 between Denver Trail and Skylark Drive. The goal of the proposed project, according to TxDOT officials, is to provide immediate access to Texas Health Azle from the northbound lanes of SH 199. The nearby entrance ramp from Southeast Parkway near Shoreline Drive will not be affected.

From the time the highway — first called Northwest Highway — was constructed in the 1930s, access to all points was via crossovers. Over time, due to fatal accidents that routinely occurred as vehicles attempted to cross the highway lanes to and from those crossovers, SH 199 gained the reputation of a deadly highway. In the 1970s and ‘80s, bumper stickers stating “Pray for me, I drive Highway 199” appeared on vehicles across the area.

When TxDOT began reconstructing portions of SH 199 around the turn of the millennium, a temporary exit ramp was included from the northbound lanes of SH 199, which were elevated to accommodate an overpass, to Denver Trail. However, TxDOT removed that exit ramp around 2009, according to satellite images from Google Earth, when it reconstructed parts of the highway to the southeast. TxDOT Public Information Officer Val Lopez confirmed the ramp had been removed in a project that was completed by 2011.

Since then, both the public and all emergency services vehicles have had to exit northbound SH 199 near the Castle Hills neighborhood and travel on the Southeast Parkway frontage road at a limit of 40 mph to reach the hospital.

According to past Azle Mayor Pro Tem and former member of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Council Bill Jones, the prior exit ramp had only been temporary because the area it crossed was prone to filling with standing water during periods of heavy rainfall.

“To TxDOT’s point of view, it was just a temporary ramp that they took back out and when they took it out it made everybody upset,” Jones said. “As a member of TRTC I met with TxDOT every month. We had lots of conversations about how to get that bridge back in place with the ramp. Why it was taken out and why it was temporary: apparently there is a creek or a stream or something that runs underneath it. (Also,) when they developed (portions of the highway) they took that bridge out because they had an entrance ramp right there with that bridge. They no longer today build highways with entrance merging exits right there on the highway. They don’t like that combination. Put in the ramp, take this one out was their main thought process and the world got upset.”

Currently, vehicles coming toward the hospital from SH 199 must either take the exit ramp 1.5 miles south onto Southeast Parkway or make a roughly 2-mile detour past Texas Health Azle via East Main Street and the frontage road.

In 2022, the highway saw 30,970 vehicles per day and had a 2% annual growth rate, according to TxDOT. As Azle grows, so will use of the hospital. By having an exit ramp from the highway directly in front of the hospital, utilizing existing rights-of-way, TxDOT officials hope to save emergency services precious minutes and cut down on time spent on lower-speed frontage roads.

Jones sees his time on the TRTC as a small part of a much larger push that has kept the slow wheels of TxDOT moving forward on the new ramp idea. Jones described remaining a constant voice in the ears of TxDOT officials and having to start over every few years after turnover and leadership changes. The biggest advocates for the project, Jones said, were a few key local Texas House representatives and judges who remained steady on pushing the idea to the Chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission and other officials through the years.

“Charlie Geren is the individual that really made most of this happen,” Jones said. “Him and Judge Glen Whitley, who was the Tarrant County judge for many years, they were the two powerhouses that made the funding stuff possible … TxDOT would have moved and went on. TxDOT’s been a good partner, (but) they are difficult, and they have so much on their plate you have to follow up on a regular basis to make sure they don’t overlook it.”

Jones, who was replaced on the council by Derrick Nelson in 2022, plans to attend any future TxDOT meetings about the proposed ramp to voice his thoughts on the issue and other traffic problems throughout the city.

“They need to do the environmental impact study, so they don’t end up building an exit ramp across a stream,” Jones said. “We always wondered why there was always water running across that exit ramp. Well, it makes sense, it was temporarily built over where water runs. I’m happy they’re putting it back; it makes more sense. (Currently) the fire chief, ambulances, have to traverse that big ramp going west bound. During some times of the year, you don’t want to climb that big old ramp when it’s bad weather and it’s a distance too, so (the new ramp) is needed and I’m very pleased to see they’re putting it back.”

Before finalizing the project’s design, TxDOT is looking for input and comments from residents living in the Azle area. Written comments from the public regarding the project may be sent by mail to Matthew Berrones, TxDOT Fort Worth District Office, 2501 SW Loop 820, Fort Worth, TX 76133, or by email to Matthew.Berrones@txdot.gov. All comments must be postmarked or received on or before Thursday, June 20, in order to be a part of official meeting documentation. A pre-recorded and narrated video presentation is available online in English and Spanish by searching “SH 199 Ramp from Denver Trail to Skylark Drive” at www.txdot.gov.

“Project public meetings are an important part of the design process,” Lopez said. “Tuesday’s meeting was well attended, and we received a good amount of feedback from the public. The goal of this project is to increase safety, enhance mobility and improve access in the area, with specific assistance for those accessing the regional hospital. The citizens of Azle and the surrounding area will benefit from this enhanced access.”

After reviewing the public response for the project, TxDOT will begin refining its preliminary schematics and finalize the design by winter 2025. The project is expected to begin construction in 2027 and take about six months to complete by spring 2028, according to transportation manager Kevin Howlett of RPS North America, a Houston-based engineering firm affiliated with the project