By Chris Edwards
TYLER/HARDIN COUNTY – The plan to remove nearly 200 acres of trees along U.S. 69 as part of the expansion project was amended to spare some of those trees.
Last Tuesday, during a public meeting at the Hardin County Courthouse in Kountze, Martin Gonzalez, who works as an engineer with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Beaumont District, shared those plans.
The project had concerned many environmental conservation groups, including the Big Thicket Natural Heritage Trust. The project route runs along the highway from FM 1943, near Warren, down to FM 1003, which is north of Kountze. The iteration of the project announced on Tuesday evening at the meeting is the third plan announced for the 11-mile stretch of road. Gonzalez said the plans call for the thoroughfare to be retooled as a four-lane, divided highway with shoulders and an evacuation lane on the northbound lanes, as well as a median to divide.
The plan calls for 40 feet of clear zone from the edge of the travel lane. Initially, it called for 30 feet of clear zone. The new plan would have a little over 155 acres of trees removed. It was then changed to clear 250 acres of trees.
According to earlier documents regarding the project from TxDOT, the removal of the trees is “in keeping with the revised TxDOT Design Manual to clear obstacles in the right of way, such as landscaping, TxDOT will clear the median and portions of the right of way removing trees and shrubbery. TxDOT recommends a roadside free of unyielding obstacles including landscaping for increased safety and reduce the extent of damage and injury of single vehicle, run-off-the-road crashes.”
Gonzalez cited safety concerns as the rationale for more clear zones, in keeping with the agency’s “Road Zero” safety initiative. That initiative calls for a goal of zero auto fatalities on Texas highways by the year 2050. Gonzalez also spoke about TxDOT’s safety initiatives to the Tyler County Commissioners Court the day before the Kountze meeting, and said that there are, currently, an average of 10 fatalities daily on the road in Texas.
Gonzalez said he believed the amended plan will work toward the goal of safety while also “conserving the beauty of the Big Thicket.” The 40-foot clear zone, he said, will give motorists enough room to correct their driving if they veer off the roadway, and also provide enough side distance for motorists entering U.S. 69 from side roads.
In addition to the road widening and accompanying features of the project, it will also extend the 10-foot hiking and biking trail for the entire length, which is 10.8 miles long and the trail will be 10 feet wide.
Ellen Buchanan, of the Big Thicket Natural Heritage Trust, has been one of the key advocates to save the trees. She said, on behalf of the conservation trust, that they are appreciative of the efforts made to preserve the trees, and said the project would be great for the region.
Work on the project is expected to begin either late this year or early in 2024.