By Joe Southern
Someone in the Texas Department of Transportation once told Judge John P. Thompson that there would never be any money or any commitment of resources to build Interstate 69 in Texas.
The Mexico to Canada highway was never supposed to happen. Yet as commuters along the Southwest Freeway in Fort Bend County can attest, construction of the interstate is well under way as Highway 59/I-69 is undergoing a massive expansion and upgrade.
“That red, white and blue shield, which you have running through your community, is so vitally important to economic development,” Thompson said at the Fort Bend Regional Infrastructure Conference, held Sept. 30 in Richmond at the Safari Texas Ranch.
Thompson gave conference attendees a history lesson and preview of the piecemeal effort to build the freight corridor from the southwest corner of Texas across eight states to Port Huron, Mich.
“Today to build an interstate highway it takes a lot of folks and a lot of entities to be involved,” he said.
Thompson is chairman of the Alliance for I-69 for Texas and has been a driving force behind the new interstate highway. He was one of the keynote speakers at the infrastructure conference held jointly by the Fort Bend and Central Fort Bend chambers of commerce. Other keynote speakers included Fort Bend County Judge Bob Herbert and TxDOT Commissioner Laura Ryan. The conference provides a platform for experts in traffic, mobility, sustainability, water, public policy and financing.
Thompson said the designation of I-69 from Rosenberg through Houston to the Liberty County line is the longest existing stretch in Texas. The highway follows Highway 59 along the coast and up toward East Texas where it will move into Louisiana and Arkansas. It branches into three routes in the south with I-69E terminating in Brownsville, I-69C terminating in Pharr, and I-69W terminating in Laredo.
When complete, I-69 will be more than 1,070 miles long. It will connect 10 ports in Texas and serve as a major transportation route across the country. Thompson said he has been working on the project for about 24 years. Five years ago the first formally designated I-69 segment opened in Robstown near Corpus Christi. Sugar Land received its designation in 2013.
Thompson said I-69 is now a reality in nine counties with 110 miles constructed or under construction and 279 miles in the planning stage. There are more than $400 million in highway projects going on in Fort Bend County with a large portion designated to the Highway 59/I-69 corridor.
Since 2010, TxDOT has funded $1.5 billion in projects related to I-69. More recently, $287 million has been allocated to rebuild the exchange with the I-610 Loop.
“Momentum is building in the last few years,” Thompson said.
He said a lot more money will be needed to complete the highway, especially from the federal government.
“We cannot have toll roads. They were done away with to fulfill a campaign promise,” he said.
Thompson said it has been a struggle to promote the highway, but the more pieces that come together the greater the support becomes, especially as the economic benefits of the highway become apparent.
“In Texas we are positioned to become the economic center of the United States … We need to step up and take the responsibility and make it happen,” he said.