Hiring an engineering firm for utility relocations Monday marked the first progress on a North Wharton Street expansion project since February.

El Campo City Council secured Pape-Dawson Engineers, Inc. of Houston to do the design work in a unanimous vote with District 4 Councilman John Hancock Jr. absent from the session.

The Texas Department of Transportation has a $13 million plan to completely rebuild and improve North Wharton Street, creating a curb and guttered street with turn lanes, eliminating the open ditches and adding sidewalks on each side of the roadway.

A right-hand turn lane at East Jackson, made possible by a January 2015 land swap with Fesco, would be included. In exchange for one block of East Hillje Street, an alleyway and enough of Pierce Street to even up the parcel, the city got a 20-foot wide strip of land bordering the western side of North Wharton from East Jackson to Calhoun.

For North Wharton Street road and drainage work to be done, the City of El Campo will have to move water and sewer lines, some of which are currently under the roadway. With modernization and upgrading for future growth, the  estimated cost is $4 - $5 million.

Once all work was complete, that portion of the roadway would then become city property. For now, North Wharton Street is actually FM 653, a state-owned and maintained thoroughfare plagued with ruts and potholes in the pavement.

“We all know North Wharton is a big problem for the City of El Campo, and now El Campo Middle School is there,” District 2 Councilwoman Gloria Harris said, noting that children are currently trying to walk the often shoulderless roadway making their way to and from school.

That will change if this renovation, currently set for state work in 2023, goes forward, City Public Works Director Kevin Thompson told council.

“This gives sidewalks for children and it takes out antiquated (utility) crossings,” he said.

Utility relocations would have to happen in 2022 before the state roadway and drainage efforts got underway.

If the city takes possession of North Wharton Street, El Campo could control and/or eliminate heavy truck traffic on the roadway, City Manager Courtney Sladek said.

Pape-Dawson is drawing the state’s drainage and roadway designs on the North Wharton Street project as well.

The company has already done some preliminary work on the project, Thompson said, adding that equals a cost savings for the city. The company was the only one to respond to the Request For Qualifications on the project.

District 3 Councilman David Hodges expressed concern over creating more city debt.

A state zero-interest loan could be used to fund the city’s utility relocation costs, Sladek told council. That debt would be handled through the utility fund. “We would avoid rate shock and try to mitigate as much as we can,” she said.

Hiring the engineer does not obligate the city to move forward with the utility relocations. It creates plans allowing work to immediately start if council approves the next steps.

Pape-Dawnson’s fee would be determined based on the city’s debt issuance.

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