It’s been nine months since Killeen school district voters approved a $426 million bond issue and agreed to fund a fifth traditional high school in south Killeen.
Not much has been done in that time to improve the road that will lead to it.
That’s a problem, since the rebuilt road won’t come cheaply — and it will take some time to design and construct it.
In a way, this problem was created by the Killeen Independent School District, which announced plans for the new high school as part of its proposed bond package about this time last year. At the time, there was no plan in place regarding improvement of the nearby roadway.
It was kind of like the famous line from “Field of Dreams” in reverse — If you come, they will build it.
In the aftermath of a presentation on the bond issue by Killeen ISD Superintendent John Craft, the Killeen City Council discussed the possibility of floating its own bond election last spring to help pay for the improvements to Chaparral and East Trimmier roads — both two-lane thoroughfares that are expected to see an increase in traffic.
However, the council decided to “strategically defer” a $30 million bond election to build the roadway, but move ahead with preliminary design and engineering work on the two projects.
At the time, it was unknown whether the school bond issue would pass, so deferring the projects was a sound decision. It was also unknown whether tacking a $30 million bond issue on top of the district’s $426 million proposal would cause pushback from voters.
Well, the KISD bond issue passed and the new school is set to open in 2022 — so a funding solution can’t wait much longer.
In December, a three-phase project to rebuild and widen Chaparral Road from two lanes to four with a center turn lane, plus bicycle and pedestrian accommodations, was submitted to the Killeen-Temple Metropolitan Planning Organization. The project, which is still in the design stage from the city of Killeen, would extend from State Highway 195 to Farm-to-Market 3481 (Stillhouse Lake Road). It was submitted as part of KTMPO’s 2045 project call.
A KTMPO spokesman said the estimated cost of the project is $23 million, and $18 million has been temporarily allocated to the first two phases of the Chaparral overhaul, with an anticipated let date of 2028, though that date could change depending on project priority and funding availability.
That’s a start, but KTMPO’s anticipated let date is six years after the projected opening of the new high school, which will accommodate 2,500 students. Also, the opening of the new school is likely to stimulate residential and commercial growth in the area, further taxing the existing roadways.
Something must be done sooner rather than later.
Fortunately, discussions have begun among the four parties involved — city of Killeen, city of Harker Heights, KISD and Bell County — about how to make the Chaparral neighborhood safer until project funding comes through.
Craft said the district would be willing to provide right of way to the portion of Chaparral that passes through the high school property.
That’s a start, but Bell County Judge David Blackburn said talks are still at a “conceptual level” and to date there have been no commitments by any of the entities regarding participation in the Chaparral project.
Sure, there’s a lot of money on the line here, but too many leaders seem to be saying “not it.”
Certainly, Killeen should take a lead role in jump-starting the road project. When the city opened its police headquarters building at Chaparral and Featherline over a decade ago, officials promised to widen Chaparral to accommodate traffic in the area. To date, it hasn’t happened.
Bell County also must play a part in the funding solution, as all but a small portion of Chaparral is owned by the county.
And Harker Heights should play a role as well, as the eastern end of Chaparral empties into some Heights subdivisions, and improving traffic flow is in the city’s best interests.
But most of all, KISD bears some financial responsibility here, since the placement of the district’s new school — plus the opening of a nearby middle school in recent years — is the reason the project is needed so urgently. Craft acknowledged this last year, when he said, “Working with both Killeen and Harker Heights on the county road is a continuous conversation.”
No doubt, the Chaparral Road traffic issue is more than just a Killeen problem; it’s a regional problem, and with four entities working together to secure funding, KTMPO apparently sees it that way.
At the time the Killeen council deferred action on a bond last year, the city said it would pursue a funding agreement with Harker Heights, Bell County and the Bell County Municipal Utility District No. 2, which has an existing agreement to pay for improvements to Chaparral.
The city needs to be aggressive in following through on those plans.
It’s time to turn conceptual agreements into concrete commitments and get this project started.
In the short term, the four local entities should push KTMPO for pass-through funding, which would allow these entities to reimburse KTMPO over time for funding allocated up front.
Short of that, each entity should dedicate a small portion of the overall project cost to completing the engineering work and beginning improvements on the portion of Chaparral closest to the new high school. That would ensure the road leading into and out of the campus is ready for use when the school opens its doors.
The year 2022 may seem like a long way off, but it’s not. The new high school will open in just over three years, and complex infrastructure projects are labor and time intensive.
As such, our local elected leaders can’t afford to be tentative in pursuing a solution to the Chaparral funding question.
This is an urgent concern that shouldn’t be kicked down the road.