A major reconstruction of Bayside Wildlife Drive inside the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge has stalled, with much work still to be done.
Refuge Manager Boyd Blihovde said the Federal Highway Administration, the lead agency on the project, will re-advertise the project and select a new contractor, though that process takes time and FHA estimates construction won’t start again until late 2020.
Laguna Atascosa is roughly 24 miles north-northeast of Brownsville.
Blihovde said the purpose of the $4 million project is to reopen Bayside Drive to private vehicles. The 15-mile loop, most of which follows the western shoreline of Laguna Madre, was closed to private vehicles in 2013 after two endangered ocelots were struck and killed on the road, and a third on Buena Vista Boulevard near the refuge.
Visitation plummeted, despite the fact that the loop remained open to pedestrians, bicyclists and tram tours. Bayside Drive was closed completely when construction began less than a year and a half ago.
“The construction was supposed to be six months to get it done,” Blihovde said. “Maybe it was not realistic they could get it done that fast.”
As soon as the contractor, H2O Construction, cleans up and clears out, the loop will be reopened to pedestrians, bicycles and trams, he said.
“We will be able to start up our tram tours again this winter … as long as no areas are partially under construction,” Blihovde said. “(The trams) are real popular with the public.”
It’s likely that the road will be closed again once construction resumes a year or so from now, he said.
The Bayside Drive project entails widening 8.2 miles of the loop and converting it to two-way traffic, and adding a turnaround and expanded parking at Redhead Ridge. The rest of the loop, through prime ocelot habitat, will be kept as it is aside from repaving and will stay closed to private vehicles, though it will be open to pedestrians, bicycles and trams.
Bayside Drive’s existing north entrance, which also runs through prime ocelot habitat, will be closed and a new southwest entrance built off Buena Vista Boulevard. Two wildlife crossings will be installed in locations where ocelots are known to cross frequently.
Blihovde said disagreements between FHA and H2O over engineering and design led to FHA “de-scoping” the contractor’s portion of the project, though the wildlife crossings will be completed before H2O pulls out, he said.
“Actually they’re making pretty good progress,” Blihovde said. “It will be a bit longer for that, otherwise it’s almost done.”
That will leave roughly half of the eight miles still to be widened. Once that’s done, the entire loop will receive a new coating of chip seal, which involves spraying a thin layer of asphalt liquid and then laying fine aggregate on top.
A potential silver lining to the delay is the possibility that FHA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the refuge, will be able to find more money for things like real asphalt paving and interpretative signage, Blihovde said.
“That wasn’t part of this project,” he said. “In a nutshell the whole problem was that we, as the government, we were trying to get the project done under the budget that we have. We didn’t have the money to do it the way we’d like to do it, which was asphalt and all these different things.”