Area plans to improve U.S. Highway 75 to interstate standards have been years — if not decades — in the making, local leaders and transportation officials said this week. The project, which has come to be known as “the gap,” will see the one section of U.S. 75 in Texas not at interstate standards improved to standards.

The project is set to begin in early 2020 with a price tag of about $163 million.

Noel Paramantham, engineer for the Paris District of the Texas Department of Transportation, said previous talks were always stalled by funding, and these conversations date back about 25 years, when the highway was entering the end of its life span.

“The gap, as it was aptly named does not meet the design schematics for a modern freeway,” Paramanantham said.

While modern highway traffic travels at speeds of 70 mph or greater, U.S. 75 was designed for the much slower traffic of the 1960s with vehicles going around 55 mph. The improvements to the highway will correct this with improved and lengthened ramps, and six lanes for a four-mile stretch of roadway from FM 1417 to State Highway 91.

“That is why the ramps are so short,” said Clay Barnett, executive director of the Sherman-Denison Metropolitan Planning Organization. “It works really great at 45 mph, but people today drive about 75.”

Efforts to improve the highway saw new life following changes to TxDOT funding in 2014-2015 amid a $5 billion budget shortfall. State Propositions 1 and 7 added additional funds for roadway projects by diverting funds from the oil and gas tax and sales tax revenues to TxDOT projects.

At its price tag, the improvements to U.S. 75 will be the most expensive project in the history of the TxDOT Paris District. By comparison, the ongoing widening of U.S. Hwy. 82 in Fannin County comes in as the second most expensive project at $70 million.

“I think that the Paris District has had a desire to fix (Hwy.) 75 ever since Noel took over as district engineer,” Barnett said.

Part of what helped the project gain traction statewide was nicknaming it “the gap” — a decision that Barnett attributed to Paramanantham. This description helped capture the problem that the project was looking to solve — the one section of Hwy.75 that isn’t at interstate standards in Texas.

“It was pretty common across the state, but was new for the area,” Barnett said. “It was pretty well accepted. There were those that said that funds were tight, especially transportation funds, and this was a way to get needed funds into the area for (Hwy.) 75.”

In order to increase the odds of TxDOT participating in the project, the MPO approached Grayson County and partner cities about contributing to the project. This led Grayson County to issue $10 million in bonds — its first debt in nearly 20 years — in September 2018 for transportation projects. These funds helped finance not only improvements to U.S. Hwy. 75 but also ramp reversals at the Spur 503 intersection.

“It has been a decade of conversations and probably about four years of serious looking at how to make this work,” Grayson County Judge Bill Magers said.

Sherman also contributed to the project earlier this year when it issued $8 million of bonds for the improvements. Mayor David Plyler described the project as vital for the future of Sherman and something he has pursued since stepping into office.

“This project is critical for the city of Sherman on so many levels,” Plyler said Monday. “I am excited that we are preparing to kick off this important project next year.”

Through these conversations and early plans, the project was ultimately expanded in scope to also include another improvement along the U.S. 75 corridor.

Improvements to the intersection of U.S. Hwy. 82 and Hwy. 75 were added to the project to help alleviate congestion issues at one of the busiest intersections in the county. The project will see the access roads along the intersection expanded to three lanes with ramps adjusted to give drivers more space to maneuver while approaching the intersection. The crown at the intersection will also be adjusted on the east side of the intersection to even out the roadway.

U-turn lanes are also proposed for both sides of U.S. 82’s ramps, Barnett said.

“We took all tools available to us to alleviate congestion save for a flyover, which would cost a quarter-billion dollars,” Barnett said.

Barnett attributed the success of the project being funded and supported by TxDOT to the contributions of many groups including the cities and local and regional leadership, including Magers and former State Representative Larry Phillips. Through these efforts, and a combination of resources the region was able to get a project that will likely impact the entire region.