Wise County’s new TxDOT area engineer got a cold welcome earlier this month.
David Neeley, P.E., officially took over his new job March 1. March 2, a snow-and-ice storm blew in through Oklahoma, bringing single-digit temperatures, freezing rain and sleet that packed highways in some areas with a 3- to 4-inch layer of ice.
“It’s been different, right off the bat,” said Neeley, a 25-year TxDOT veteran. “Denton was really hit hard. This was the only area office in the Fort Worth district that really got hit.”
The icepack thawed after a day or so, and damage to roadways was not extraordinary. But Neeley is sure he will see more of that sort of thing here than he did in the south Tarrant County area office, where he had served as assistant area engineer since 2010.
There, he helped oversee $200 million in new construction, including the Interstate 30 Three-Bridges project in Arlington and the Texas 121 interchange at Interstate 20 and Texas 183.
Here, he inherits a $16 million project for an interchange at U.S. 81/287 and Business 287 (see separate story) – but most of the focus will be on smaller things like bridges, repair, resurfacing – and putting shoulders on rural farm-to-market roads.
“That’s the kind of projects I really like,” he said. “In the whole scope of TxDOT, no, it’s not one of these huge interchanges or a major freeway – but it’s a need. I get more satisfaction out of that, making a road safer.”
Neeley earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1988, then started full time with TxDOT as an engineering assistant. In 1993, after becoming a licensed professional civil engineer, he worked as a project inspector, chief inspector and project engineer.
In 1998, he was promoted to construction project engineer in the Hillsboro area office of TxDOT’s Waco District, where he led the $45 million main lane reconstruction of Interstate 35 from Abbott to Hillsboro. He returned to the Fort Worth District to serve as Johnson County assistant area engineer from 1998 until 2006.
There, Neeley helped manage and implement comprehensive development agreements that advanced the $2.5 billion North Tarrant Express and $1.1 billion DFW Connector. As a TxDOT project manager, he also worked with the city of Fort Worth and the North Texas Tollway Authority to negotiate a successful partnership to deliver the $1.4 billion Chisholm Trail Parkway.
Regardless of the size of the projects, Neeley said his focus is to leave an area’s roadways in better condition.
“My goal has always been, when I leave, to be able to look back and say I improved it – that I had a hand in improving transportation,” he said. “To say the least, I hope to be able to do that.”
Neeley replaces Bill Nelson, who recently retired after 31 years with the Texas Department of Transportation.
“I feel extremely privileged to be in this position, leading such a dedicated group of employees,” he said. “Maintaining a safe system, addressing congestion, connecting motorists around our community and being the best-in-class agency are my goals as the new area engineer.”
Safety – for TxDOT employees, contractors and the general public – is a particular emphasis for TxDOT right now, he said.
He used area Farm-to-Market roads as examples.
“You’re taking a 20-foot wide road, essentially two, 10-foot lanes, and we’re tacking on 5 1/2 or 6 feet on either side,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but when we are finished, they’re going to have 12-foot lanes and a 3-foot shoulder.”
That’s not a big deal until a truck is coming at you and you need the extra room, he said.
Neeley hopes to continue to make the most of federal funding for projects like that.
“In Johnson County, we were very proactive about trying to get the federal funding,” he said. “We were able to get quite a bit down there, and I’m glad to say it’s active up here. They’ve done a very good job of proposing projects and actually getting them – proposing projects that do a lot of good for the safety of the traveling public.”
He said he’s more accustomed to being on the receiving end of Wise County’s infamous rock haulers.
“The mix of traffic up here is something I really haven’t worked with before,” he said. “I looked out my window the other day and saw the trucks, one after the other. It makes for a lot of different types of issues.”
Right now he has a roster of overlays and “off-system” bridges – bridges on county roads or city streets – scheduled to go in over the next three years.
“That’s a prioritized list, basically, essentially based on need and the condition of the roads,” he said. “It’s a federally-funded program, funded with 80 percent federal money and 20 percent state, with other local entities sometimes sharing in the cost also.”
TxDOT’s normal role is to handle the bid-letting for those projects, then inspect them as they go in.
The U.S. 81/287 project just south of Decatur is one Neeley feels very good about.
“That ought to be a really smooth project,” he said. “They’ve done some really good projects along there, some seriously smart projects. That, and the expansion of 380, show some real proactive thinking. It ought to be a lot better than blinking yellow lights at you.”
Currently the Decatur office, which serves Wise and Jack counties, has 15 employees. Neeley hopes to hire an assistant soon, but for now he’s the only engineer on staff here. But maintenance supervisor Ricky Tompkins and a veteran crew “make things easy,” he said.
Despite a few severe cold spells over the winter, he said ice damage is “not above and beyond what we would normally expect.”