POINT COMFORT – The chaotic crush of commuter traffic just outside of town has earned a scornful nickname from Point Comfort’s mayor.
“The Formosa 500,” said Point Comfort Mayor Leslie Machicek, who added residents have their own “less endearing terms” for the gridlock.
Nicknamed after the neighboring 2,500-acre petrochemical processing plant owned by Formosa Plastics Corp., the heavy rush-hour traffic that besieges the Point Comfort community every weekday morning and evening has become hated by many residents, Machicek said.
While it’s hard to trace the traffic’s exact causes, the mayor said she suspects increased activity at the plant and already narrow roadways limited by construction are the main culprits.
From about 5 to 8:30 a.m. and then 3 to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, the two-lane Farm-to-Market Road 1593 and SH 35 have all the chaos of a NASCAR racetrack, she said.
“The cars keep coming and coming,” Machicek said.
Point Comfort residents aren’t the only ones affected.
Port Lavaca mother Kristi Furr, 31, said her estimated 15-mile commute to her job at the Inteplast Group plant took only about 20 minutes a few years ago. These days, the drive can take up to an hour and a half. Every drive, she passes the time with a satellite radio comedy station.
“That’s what keeps me sane,” she said.
For Scott Horne, a Formosa contractor who also lives in Port Lavaca, it’s sometimes faster to take a 43-mile northern detour through three counties to get home, he said.
“I can do 43 miles in 45 minutes, and … I would rather drive than sit in traffic,” he said.
But routine delays are not the only part of the problem, the mayor, Furr and Horne agreed.
“The biggest problem is that they are texting and driving or just not paying attention,” Machicek said.
Impatience, distracting mobile devices, the occasional bout of road rage and plain old bad driving have made traveling near Point Comfort hazardous and frustrating, they said. Often, drivers cut in turning-lane lines and drive illegally on shoulders among other rude behavior.
And the number of crashes is on the rise, too, according to Texas Department of Transportation data – so much so that tow trucks are a common sight in the area even when a crash is yet to happen, Furr said.
“They are just sitting there, waiting for a wreck to happen,” she said.
In 2017, 41 crashes were reported along portions of SH 35 and FM 1593 that border Point Comfort and the Formosa plant. From 2010 to 2015, an average of about 14 crashes occurred each year. So far in 2018, 34 crashes have been reported.
As early as 2016, Formosa began a $5 billion expansion project that aimed to add about 340 permanent jobs – not including the various contractors required to complete the expansion.
“Since they have started the expansion, the traffic is out of control,” Machicek said.
Point Comfort Formosa spokesman Steve Marwitz admitted the project has contributed to the traffic but also pointed to several nearby Texas Department of Transportation projects as contributing to the problem.
Construction continues on the Lavaca Bay Causeway and at the intersection of FM 1593 and SH 35.
“Poor planning by TxDOT is another cause of the problem,” Horne said.
Crossroads officials representing the Texas Department of Transportation did not respond to questions for this story.
In an effort to ease the congestion, Formosa officials provided a $1.6 million donation to the Texas Department of Transportation in 2016 for more turning lanes and upgraded traffic signals at FM 1593 and SH 35. They have also staggered plant shift times, coordinated busing and offsite parking and started construction of parking lots to move expansion workers to less congested locations, Marwitz said. The parking lot projects are slated to finish in September and October, he said.
“Although traffic congestion is magnified by many factors, the increase in jobs in our area, which go hand in hand with it, is very positive,” the Formosa spokesman said.
Nevertheless, the problem persists, leaving Point Comfort officials to make efforts to fix a problem that Machicek’s constituents now claim as their biggest headache, the mayor said.
Community members worry passing drivers, who often speed, endanger children, pedestrians and other vulnerable residents, Machicek said.
It’s not unusual to see vehicles driving in excess of 50 mph on roadways where the speed limit is 20 mph, she said.
In July, the City Council unanimously passed an ordinance allowing authorities to write tickets up to $500 for those who cut through town as a detour.
They have also started blocking a roadway connecting the community to FM 1593 with a backhoe to prevent detours, Machicek said. Previously placed traffic barricades were pushed aside, and at least one driver has attempted to move the backhoe, which fortunately did not have keys in the ignition, she said.
Council members also hope to have two additional police officers on their force, which currently only employs a chief, by early October. And more stop signs in town are on the way, she said.
But as Point Comfort council members, plant representatives and other officials work to relieve the seemingly never-ending traffic, local residents and commuters are left to suffer.
Despite a slated 2019 completion date for Formosa’s expansion and promises that the issue will soon be solved, some, like Furr, have their doubts.
“Businesses don’t get smaller by nature,” she said. “They get larger.”