Love it or hate it, Interstate 35 is a presence that is difficult to ignore. As part of America's major interstate highway system, I-35 has left an indelible impact on the city of Waco, prompting dramatic shifts in Waco's economy, neighborhoods, and aesthetic landscape.
While construction on I-35 did not start until 1957, the beginnings of this interstate system trace back to 1919 when Dwight D. Eisenhower, then a young lieutenant colonel, took part in a cross-country military convoy. The sixty-two-day haul covered 3,242 miles of dirt roads, ditches, and all-but-impassable terrain and convinced Eisenhower of the need for federal investment in building and maintaining adequate roads. The future politician's plan for a national highway system crystalized after he observed the German Autobahn system while stationed in Europe during World War II. In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act. The proposed interstate highway system, he argued, would create thousands of jobs, make roads safer and routes more efficient, and allow for quick transport of people and resources in the wake of a nuclear attack. The act allowed for the construction of a 41,000-mile system of highways and earmarked $26 billion in federal aid to cover 90 percent of construction costs, to which individual states were expected to contribute the remaining amount.
One such stretch of highway was the proposed Interstate 35, which would run from Texas to Minnesota, passing through Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Iowa along the way. The commission appointed to oversee construction through Waco aimed to take into consideration the effect that highway placement would have on the city's future growth and prosperity. While some lobbied for the building up of the pre-existing route on La Salle Avenue, the commission settled on a mid-city route for the interstate. Many believed that this mid-city route would rejuvenate property values along the thoroughfare, an appealing idea as downtown Waco still reeled from the destructive tornado that tore through the area in May 1953. Planners hoped the $17 million mid-city expressway would alleviate traffic congestion as the straightest route from Potts Interchange-now the intersection of Waco Drive and Highway 77-to Waco's traffic circle. One local newspaper hailed the "graceful expanse" as "a sight to the eyes of every traffic-harried motorist who journeys north to Dallas or South to San Antonio."
The mid-city route, however, would displace many homes and businesses along the proposed path. The Texas Highway Commission began informing residents and business owners in the interstate's path of the upcoming construction plans. Not all were pleased. While the city provided affected residents and businesses with the funds to relocate, the new highway veritably erased several historic neighborhoods and disrupted deep-rooted communities.
Construction of I-35 officially began in South Waco in 1962, when building crews began the first of eight sections. The work of planning, staging, and construction, however, stretched on for several years. The subsequent seven sections were offered to independent contractors and were completed incrementally until construction finally ceased in 1972. Together, the eight contracts totaled a sum of $24,906,000. Initially, experts predicted that the new I-35 would see 68,000 vehicles a day by 1975. While the number of cars per day would later rise, the number hovered around 60,000 during the interstate's first decade, in part due to rising gas prices during the 1970s. Today, the portion of I-35 just north of Waco's traffic circle carries 138,689 cars per day.
New plans to widen the eight-mile stretch of I-35 within Loop 340 are currently slated to begin in 2019. Although the interstate has brought significant change to the communities along its path, I-35's perennial construction has proven to be a constant for Central Texas drivers since the highway's inception.