Next round of US 67 public meetings to feature interactive technology

MARFA – There’s an old-school binder as thick as a brick of each and every comment written, scribbled on a map, on a post-it note, or emailed about the US 67 master corridor project since the long-range planning procedure began in 2017, to reimagine the area highway that connects Mexico to Presidio and runs through Marfa and Alpine, finally joining Interstate 10 west of Fort Stockton.

And there’s the HoloLens, a mixed reality pair of goggles that lets you imagine how the road might look with passing lanes and a roadside park or two between Presidio and Marfa, and at some key points, like the four-way intersection in downtown Marfa or reopening the old 67 route as it used to enter Presidio as an alternate road into town.

The Texas Department of Transportation’s area district office, along with their consultants working with them on the project, will unveil these goggles and how they may help in the planning process when the next round of public hearings begins this summer.

The Big Bend Sentinel / Presidio International, along with the mayors and city administrators of Marfa and Alpine and the Presidio economic development director, got a sneak peek at the technology at a meeting in Marfa on Tuesday.

The idea is to keep the public engaged through one more round of public hearings in the area, likely this summer.

The idea is also to make transportation personal, said Chris Weber, the TxDoT area and district engineer spearheading the project.

More than 400 area residents took part in the first public meetings in the spring of 2018. Attendance dropped to about half that by the second round of meetings in the fall of last year, which shows “fewer and fewer” residents are getting involved, he said.

The meetings haven’t exactly attracted many residents younger than 40 years old, Weber noted, and the hope is the mixed reality platform will attract a broader audience, namely, young people. “It’s a generational thing,” said Weber.

It’s actually for everybody, said Scott Aldridge, the manager of disruptive innovation for CDM Smith, which has developed the software for the highway planning application. Visual learning accounts for 65 percent of a person’s absorption of knowledge. The HoloLens experience “turns on a different part of the brain,” he said.

Mixed reality, sometimes referred to as hybrid reality, is the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments and visualizations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time. It’s a Microsoft Windows 10 technology.

Want to see what a bike and walking bridge looks like adjacent to the Alamito Creek vehicle bridge on FM 1112 in Marfa? Should the span be on the north or south side of the bridge? What about roundabouts at the Presidio Y or in front of the Presidio County Courthouse? The application can let the viewer experience those ideas.

In the past, “you read blueprints,” said Brad Newton, the Presidio economic development director. “Here, you see the blueprints.”

Safety is still the emphasis of this study, Weber said, noting that the highway is over the rural crash rate. For example, from 2010 to 2016, there were more than 600 crashes along the 142-mile corridor, including 100 injury crashes and 11 fatal accidents. In addition, the area has experienced significant growth in recent years, and TxDoT is undertaking the study to help determine the current and future transportation needs to best serve the communities along US 67.

Travelers between Presidio and Marfa now encounter trailer houses manufactured by Solitaire Homes in Presidio and Ojinaga as they make their way to market.

The US 67 Corridor has experienced increasing traffic driven by many factors, including population growth, additional tourism and special events, and international commerce.

The plan will identify current and future needs along US 67, and provide a set of recommended projects for short-, medium-, and long-term implementation. The process has yet to address funding. But when you stick your hand out to the government, you better have a plan, Weber said. First you identify the needs, develop the comprehensive master plan, seek the funding, and create solutions, said Vicky Carrasco, the chief operating officer and planner for Kleinman Consultants, a minority-owned civil and environmental engineering firm based in Presidio that is a plan participant.

The plan is scheduled for completion by year’s end.

As the officials tried the goggles, they made suggestions.

Some of the images could use labels and directions, said Marfa city administrator Terry Brechtel. Aldridge made a note of that.

“That was cool,” Brechtel said after taking a virtual tour of some of Marfa’s intersections.

The idea is to be as transparent and proactive in planning for a safe and efficient corridor and that will take as much public input as possible, Weber said.

Newton said he’s seen his share of planning studies as a longtime public administrator, and “this is the best, from the bottom up, process I’ve seen.”