County connections, highway extension to El Paso in the works

County connections, highway extension to El Paso in the works

The counties southeast of El Paso from Socorro to Tornillo are growing at a rapid rate and affecting rural roads that can't handle all the traffic.

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has been monitoring the traffic patterns and congestion in the area for years.

Several major road projects are underway in El Paso and in the county northeast of the Loop 375. Now the southeast areas of I-10 and the Border Highway East are a bigger focus.

Gus Sanchez, a project manager and planner for TxDOT, told KFOX14 that there’s a lack of connectivity in these areas, which leads to major traffic backups.

One major project meant to help smooth the commute into the city was the Americas Interchange. Sanchez said it brought some relief, but not enough.

“We're still behind the curve on this. Even with all of these improvements and all of the construction, we're still behind. We're still behind the growth,” he said.

Ernie Pelletier, who lives east of Loop 375 in El Paso County, works at Douglass Elementary School in central El Paso. He said he recognized the growth and feels the traffic pains as he drives to work every day.

“My morning drive is usually a good 30 to 35 minutes, depending on traffic. All the people that have moved in to the county, there's just too much, so that's the problem, getting out,” said Pelletier.

Sanchez said a 30- to 40-minute drive, while frustrating, is nothing compared to the 60- to 90-minute commute that drivers deal with in other parts of the state. He said TxDOT is trying to alleviate county traffic to avoid longer drive times.

With traffic traveling east from Tornillo, Clint and Fabens into El Paso daily, Socorro Mayor pro tem Rene Rodriguez told KFOX14 that roads are taking a big hit. Thousands are cutting through Socorro on limited routes, making the city a big bottleneck and tearing up streets.

“We have three major streets, which (are) Northloop, Alameda and Socorro. We don't have the infrastructure and there's a lot of traffic issues,” said Rodriguez.

The once-rural towns are becoming more urban every day, and the major problem is that the roads weren’t built for those levels of traffic. The few areas that remain mostly rural need road repairs too.

“Clint -- that's basically urbanized, but unfortunately the roadways are still based on rural conditions, and further south of Clint down to Tornillo, that's still more rural and farm land, but those roadways still need to be improved,” said Sanchez.

Sanchez said TxDOT’s research and projections are guiding them toward two major solutions: the Border Highway East project, which would be an extension of the current border highway before Socorro across all the affected towns, and around Tornillo paired with county connections from the rural state roads to I-10 and the Border Highway extension.

Sanchez said that while they’ve identified some solutions, it's not as easy as drawing a line and creating new routes. The current infrastructure is a roadblock of its own and some of the possible connections at which officials have looked could go through farmlands, homes and businesses.

“Eventually, when you can't build anymore or widen anymore, those direct connections really help to get from one highway to another,” he said.

Some residents, including Enrique Lopez, who has lived in Socorro for over 15 years, said that if one of those connections cut through his land, he’d be willing to sell his land for better roads.

“If it was for progress, then I would have to do it. I would sell my home,” he said.

Until the major construction kicks off, Socorro has its own roadwork underway to try to deal with the traffic issues, but Lopez said current construction is taking too long.

“These big projects would be great, but hopefully they don't run late and aren’t delayed like the roadwork now," he said.

Socorro public works director, Miguel Rosas, disagrees. He told KFOX14 that they’re not delayed and officials are stretching a limited budget to do the most work possible at once.

Rosas pointed to a street rating system that Socorro is using to track its street progress.

“This rating system rates streets between 1-5, one being brand new or a recently paved street, 5 being unpaved or in deplorable conditions. So we went through all the streets in the city with the numbering system,” he said.

A total of 125 streets have been rated. In two years, 85 streets have been repaired and 55 are on schedule through the end of 2017.

“We want to get to the point where we're not repaving streets that are in good condition but just maintaining them. We also do all of our work in house, so that saves us a lot of money,” Rosas said.

Along with working to repair and maintain streets that are used as connections to El Paso by not only their residents but everyone east of Socorro, Rodriguez said the city council is exploring creating new regulations on the sale of land. That would prevent rural or residential areas from transforming into commercial property, which adds to the city’s traffic troubles.

“We're investing in our infrastructure, and yet these trucks are so heavy, they deteriorate our streets faster. There’s parts of Socorro that go from residential to urban to commercial. We also don’t want these semitrucks going through neighborhoods,” said Rodriguez.

TxDOT said connections and repairs on the road map could evolve depending on growth, and the proposed connections could change. Nothing is final until more development and funding are secure.

“What we're saying is going to happen now in 20 years, five, 10 years down the road, plans might change,” said Sanchez.

He said it doesn’t look like the growth will slow down or the rural-to-urban trend will change.

The project as is set for 2040, but Sanchez said TxDOT is breaking it down now into short-, mid- and long-term phases to try to start some of the roadwork sooner.

If grants or funding sources become available ahead of what is expected, those orange barrels could move into this part of the county over the next couple of years.

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