WELLS, TX (KTRE) - Construction in Wells could soon cause headaches for motorists, but officials with the Texas Department of Transportation believe it will be more positive in the long term.
A crowd of several dozen packed into the Rube Sessions Memorial Library for the announcement that construction will soon begin on U.S. Highway 69 that will take the three-mile stretch through Wells from two lanes to four lanes. Mayor CW Williams welcomed the crowd to see the beginning of a project that he thought would have been started three decades ago.
"This project was first given the go ahead 30 years ago during the first run I had a mayor here," Williams said. "It's good to see that it is finally being completed."
The total $17.6 million project is expected to be done by fall of 2018. The highway will be widened at the Angelina County line for nearly three miles north. The lanes will also be divided with a curb, gutter, and continuous left-turn lane.
Stacy McKnight is a local rancher and believes the change is needed.
"I would have never thought it would have come to this," McKnight said. "Wells is a little ole bitty town, but you got a lot of traffic coming from Dallas, Tyler, and Houston through here. I think it is a great thing."
The project was given new life after two major hurricane evacuations in the last 11 years. In the last few years, Cherokee County has worked with Wells, Alto, Rusk, Jacksonville, The East Texas Council of Governments, TxDOT and the USDA to secure the financing for the project mainly through grant money.
"Although Wells is the center of the project, the whole region will benefit," said Texas Transportation Commissioner Jeff Austin III. "People going north and south will be able to travel at a safer speed without having to brake at a bottleneck with four lanes going down to two. Sometimes it takes a crisis to realize the improvements we need to make."
Cherokee County Judge Chris Davis said the memories of vehicles stalled on the highway running through his county are still fresh.
"They knew harm was coming in, and they couldn't get any further north," Davis said. "The communities of Jacksonville, Rusk, Alto, and Wells took in these people and took care of these people until the storm had passed. Not only that, they took care of them until they could return to the damaged areas. it was a scary time here. We felt the cries of those people and thought something like this shouldn't have happened."
Williams also agreed with Davis about the seriousness of the two evacuations and agreed it is time to make the change.
"Traffic count is up so much higher now that it really is more important now than it was 11 years ago," Williams said.
In the middle of all the construction sits Wells ISD. The district will be one of the places that has the largest impact from the construction.
"When you turn off of any road onto 69, and you look behind you and here comes a semi barreling down on you and you don't know if they are going to make the shoulder or not, it is a huge impact on the safety of our kids," said Superintendent Jim Moore.
Tillie Young runs the library in Wells. She helped feed the evacuees at the town's Methodist church. She also had a business that was in the evacuation zone. Young decided to retire. She is hopeful the construction will one day have an end point.
"It looks very ugly right now with all the construction, but it's going to be gorgeous when it is finished," Young said.
TxDOT Spokesperson Kathi White is urging all drivers to be cautious and patient during the construction process.