An end is in sight for two construction projects on FM 1774 in Magnolia that began as long as about
32 months ago, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.

TxDOT crews are working to build an FM 1774 overpass in the city of Magnolia as well as to widen part of FM 1774 to four lanes near FM 149, projects which officials said are expected to improve mobility and safety.

“Mobility … has been one of the linchpins for what’s going to help trigger the growth and prosperity for this end of the county,” Magnolia ISD Superintendent Todd Stephens said.

Construction has lasted for more than two years as groundwork began on the projects in 2016. The widening project was set for completion in the third quarter of 2018 but hit a series of delays. Both projects are now slated to wrap up in the second quarter of 2019, TxDOT officials said.

The long-awaited overpass will be located just south of Magnolia West High School. Upon its opening later this year, the overpass is anticipated to relieve traffic gridlock throughout the city of Magnolia, particularly during the Texas Renaissance Festival season and peak hours during the school day, local officials said.

“We’re really excited about [the overpass],” said Tana Ross, economic development coordinator and planning technician for the city. “I think what it will do most of all is stop the frustration of drivers, and we’re all for that.”

Overpass construction

The intersection of FM 1774 and FM 1488 in Magnolia is divided by Union Pacific Corp. tracks. On the existing road, the pieces of FM 1774 north and south of FM 1488 are not aligned.

As a result, northbound vehicles on FM 1774 must travel through three traffic lights and over railroad tracks to cross FM 1488 and continue heading north. Southbound vehicles on FM 1774 follow a similar pattern.

“That’s about a three-point intersection you do just to go in one direction,” Montgomery County Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley said.

To lessen the number of vehicles crossing the railroad tracks at ground level, TxDOT is constructing a $23.2 million railroad overpass, Public Information Officer Emily Black said in an email.

The project extends FM 1774 to north of 10th Street on the west side of the railroad tracks and creates a flyover across the tracks, tying traffic into the existing FM 1774 lanes just south of FM 1486, according to TxDOT information.

The overpass will feature two lanes divided in each direction with the existing FM 1774 lanes serving as frontage roads to carry traffic to and from FM 1488, TxDOT information shows.

Nearly 13,000 vehicles traveled daily on FM 1774 in 2017 just south of FM 1488—a 30 percent increase from 2013, TxDOT data shows. Additionally, more than 21,000 vehicles traveled daily on FM 1488 in 2017 between the two intersecting points of FM 1774.

The thousands of vehicles passing through are paired with trains crossing 10-15 times each day, according to Union Pacific Corp. officials.

“That intersection is horrendous,” said Sharon Haecker, Magnolia resident and parent of a Magnolia West student. “Sometimes it takes three light [cycles] to get through that [intersection].”

According to TxDOT data, vehicle crashes totaled 75 incidents from 2010-18 at the two intersections of FM 1774 and FM 1488. The location of the approaches to the overpass has some residents concerned.

“The way the overpass is coming up and down, it’s going to be right there in front of the school where people are going to be getting on and off, and that is a little bit of a concern for me as a parent,” Haecker said.

Stephens said the district worked with TxDOT in designing the overpass.

“We had a few reservations about an overpass coming down in proximity to a school drive, and [TxDOT was] sensitive to that ... and did some revisions to give us enough distance between that to where I think it [added] to the safety factor,” Stephens said.

He said MISD will continue to work with Montgomery County Precinct 5’s constable office to control peak traffic.

“We’ll continue to be out there directing traffic as long as we’re needed,” Constable Chris Jones said.

A traffic signal at the entrance of Magnolia West is not in the scope of the project, but Black said a signal could be added at a later time, pending a 10-12 week traffic study.

“As construction will end in August of 2019, we will have to do the study after school starts in the fall in order to get the proper traffic counts,” she said.

Widening projects

In addition to overpass construction, TxDOT has two projects ongoing to widen portions of FM 1774.

Crews are widening FM 1774 between FM 149 and West Lost Creek Boulevard north of Pinehurst from two lanes to four lanes with a center turn lane. Black said the $18 million project—which has been under construction since July 2016—is estimated to finish in the second quarter of 2019 after utility conflicts and design revisions delayed a previous timetable.

“TxDOT has also added some work to the project that was not in the original scope: a [traffic] signal at Tudor [Way] and modifications to the traffic control plans to keep left-turn lanes at major intersections,” she said.

Daily traffic counts increased nearly 8.5 percent from 2013-17 on FM 1774 just north of FM 149, where the widening is ongoing, TxDOT data shows, while the number of daily vehicles grew 14 percent on FM 1774 just north of FM 1486.

This portion of FM 1774—from FM 1486 to the Grimes County line—is also being widened from two lanes to four lanes, according to TxDOT information. The project—which began in July 2018—is slated for completion in the third quarter of 2020, Black said.

“This area has seen and is seeing growth and mobility through the area,” Black said. “To keep up with that, [these projects] will increase capacity on the roadway so it can handle more vehicles and increase mobility.”

Mitigating school, festival traffic

The finished FM 1774 overpass is projected to alleviate traffic during peak school times and the renaissance festival this fall, Riley said.

“It’s going to be like night and day,” he said. “I don’t see how this can do anything but help tremendously.”

Currently, the divided intersection creates a domino effect of traffic holdups across the city, Ross said. With drivers more free to move about, the FM 1774 projects position Magnolia as a more desirable place to live, she said.

“It’s all about mobility; it’s all about moving people. If you don’t have that, then you don’t have a desirable area to live,” she said.

Each school day, 800 vehicles as well as buses and visitors pass through the high school campus, Stephens said.

“When we finally get the whole project opened up, it’s going to be a real blessing, and it should add to our ability to be in and out of that building in a safe and effective manner,” he said.

State law mandates buses stop to check railroad crossings, exacerbating the already cluttered intersection of FM 1488 and FM 1774, Riley said.

“If we can get [buses] going straight across [FM] 1488 over the overpass … to the school, I don’t even know how to start to explain how much better I think traffic is going to be,” he said.

However, as traffic signals at the FM 1488 and FM 1774 intersections will remain, some residents question whether the overpass will have such drastic traffic improvements as hoped.

“The red light, the railroad tracks, all that is still going to be a nightmare,” said Jarrod Murphy, Magnolia resident and parent of a Magnolia West student. “I understand it flows better once you get past, but unless they do something with the red light, the traffic’s never going to flow there. The majority of the businesses are on the opposite side of the tracks from [FM 1774 coming from Pinehurst].”

Still, the overpass could alleviate gridlock from the renaissance festival, said Travis Bryant, marketing and communications director of the festival. He said he believes a smoother crossing at FM 1488 will make it easier, not only for festivalgoers, but for residents to get around.

Last year, the festival welcomed 640,000 attendees, according to festival information. When road projects are complete, Bryant said he expects to see even more attendees, as the majority of festivalgoers travel north on FM 1774 from the Houston area.

“Obviously, as the festival has grown … traffic infrastructure has been one of the biggest challenges that we face,” he said. “We know that there are people that [do not come] because they don’t want to be stuck in all that traffic.”

With fewer traffic challenges to avoid, Larry Leggett, Magnolia resident and Realtor with EXP Realty, said he believes residents will frequent Magnolia businesses more during the festival season and see additional development begin around town, he said.

“[The FM 1774 projects are] going to improve the traffic flow for people trying to get outside of Magnolia proper,” he said. “I’m excited about it because the more road infrastructure that’s here is going to enable our town to grow.”