Residents say the politicians of LBJ East have failed them as much as the freeway itself

John Willis spent six years on the political front lines of Interstate 635 in Garland, the stretch of highway deemed in more need of improvement than any other in North Texas.

Willis' wife, Dana, recently spent a harrowing few seconds on the freeway itself. She was going the opposite direction Feb. 28 when an 18-wheeler jackknifed in slick conditions. Concrete flew over the median, taking out a windshield and a couple tires on her 2014 Toyota Corolla.

"That's the reality out there. You get on 635 East, you're taking your life in your hands," said John Willis, who as Garland City Council member from 2008-14 represented parts of the city along the freeway. "Thankfully, she was uninjured."

State and local officials agree the project to widen Interstate 635 and provide it with continuous frontage roads from Central Expressway to Interstate 30 is vital. But they've been stuck for years on how to come up with the $1.8 billion to do it.

State leaders took the project off the Texas Department of Transportation to-do list in December because the plans had tolls. On Thursday, four months later, Regional Transportation Council officials accepted the state's message, tabling plans to include tolled lanes on the 10.8-mile span.

"All the drivers on the road are victimized not just by traffic, but partisan bickering of the governor, lieutenant governor, their directive to the Texas Transportation Commission and TxDOT," Willis said. "And also by the RTC and all the machinations of the people involved in there. That's directly and badly impacting everyday lives of people here in Garland."

More than 200,000 cars travel each day on four free lanes and one tolled/HOV lane in each direction of the unimproved freeway, which in January will mark 50 years of service.

Lake Highlands caught inside LBJ East loop

In Lake Highlands, Brad McCutcheon is a go-to news source at preschool birthday parties and soccer games. He's one of the central figures in the LBJNow social media group that has become residents' arm to push for the freeway improvements.

"The people that live around me, they don't care about state politics at all," McCutcheon said. "This piques people's interest. People want to know about this."

McCutcheon and his wife commute to Plano to work. They use the freeway almost daily and say pileups and delays aren't just an issue during rush hour.

"It's not a gimme on the weekends," he said. "It's at the front of my mind certainly, with two young kids, when you've got the most dangerous section of highway, really, across the North Texas region, out my backyard.

"It's a quality-of-life issue that affects every family in my neighborhood."

As a paramedic, McCutcheon said first-responders will always respond to traffic accidents on the highways but that it's one of the most dangerous things they do.

Michael Rogers, city of Dallas transportation director, also underlined that LBJ Freeway is not safe during his testimony in Austin last month.

He told the Texas Transportation Commission that safety concerns are "not just for the motorists, but for the pedestrians, for the cyclists. For those who choose to take public transportation."

Holt Mitchell, 23, worries about students who have to cross the freeway to get to school.

"Lake Highlands High School boundaries cover both sides," said Mitchell, who has spent his entire driving history checking traffic online before he leaves home. Areas he fears most include some of the merges and the crunch near Greenville Avenue, where the improved part of LBJ Freeway meets the unimproved.

"Also, I take routes through neighborhoods," he said. "We all know we don't like people cutting through a neighborhood. But I'm forced to cut through because there's no access road currently. So what do you do? Be stuck? Or do you find a way to keep moving?"

The Lake Highlands Public Improvement District has also campaigned for the freeway improvements — most notably because the timeline of the funded and approved project to untangle the Skillman Street-Audelia Road interchange is tied directly to LBJ East. That's because TxDOT doesn't want two contractors in the same area at the same time.

Kathy Stewart, executive director of the public improvement district, said the area's economic loss is on top of the $5 million in monthly inflation of the cost of LBJ East upgrades.

"The biggest issue is our state decision-makers won't sit down at the table and work this out for the people they represent who are personally impacted every day," Stewart said.

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