Commissioners add 3 more public meetings for Toll 49 issue

Published on Tuesday, 3 December 2013 23:36 - Written by Staff Reports

Smith County commissioners scheduled three additional public meetings regarding a proposed Transportation Reinvestment Zone along the Toll 49 corridor.

Meetings are scheduled for Monday at Gander Mountain, 151 Market Square Blvd.; Tuesday at the R.B. Hubbard Center, 304 E. Ferguson St. and Dec. 12 at the First Baptist Church Whitehouse, 801 E. Main St. in Whitehouse. All meetings are at 6 p.m.

About 100 residents and officials filled an initial public hearing regarding the Transportation Reinvestment Zone in mid-November. The meeting marked the beginning of a 30-day public comment period about the zone.

Under the plan, revenues would be collected for 25 years on new construction within one mile on either side of the center of the two-lane Toll 49 rather than go into the Smith County general fund.

The zone would not raise taxes but rather funnel revenues created by new construction within the corridor.

Half of the tax revenue would go to Smith County for county road maintenance and improvements, while the other half would go to the North East Texas Regional Mobility Authority to expedite completion of future expansions of Toll 49.

The zone would generate an estimated $31 million to $41 million in revenue during its 25-year lifespan, based on the county’s current tax rate.

Proponents say the investment zone would expedite completion of Toll 49, which they believe will relieve traffic congestion in surrounding communities and generate commercial and residential growth. They also believe diversions now would provide revenue sources and return the investment decades into the future.

Opponents say the zone would allow the state to duck obligations to fund road construction and maintenance sufficiently.

They say the reinvestment zone taps local taxpayers to fund a toll road, and is a gamble that depends on commercialization of the corridor. There is also concern about giving money to the mobility authority, which is governed by an unelected board.

Commissioner Jeff Warr, a vocal proponent among court members, said he believes expediting expansion of Toll 49 and putting investment zone dollars into county roads would be a long-term benefit to residents. He said officials should address available capacity, traffic volumes and expected growth now because it takes decades to complete major road projects.

“I’m still convinced it’s a deal,” he said. “But it’s great to have these meetings because it brings out questions we wouldn’t think of otherwise. I think it’s a great deal, but we want to make sure it’s a fit for us.”

For example, Warr said he would want to contractually ensure Smith County tax dollars are not spent or leveraged for Toll 49 projects in other counties.

Resident Larry Terry, who owns land along Toll 49, said he’s pleased more meetings have been scheduled. He hopes residents who have dealt with the Texas Department of Transportation attend to share their experience with the agency.

Terry said Smith County tax money shouldn’t go toward a project that benefits select interests, including banks and developers, when county infrastructure is in need. He also said the zone may not raise the property tax rate but that it would raise valuations for many landowners.

“The more light that’s shed on it the better,” he said. “To me it’s a sham and a shell game.”

Terry said he hopes the court listens to public opinion.

A majority of court commissioners have voiced mixed opinions on the investment zone. The 30-day comment period is expected to end Dec. 16. Commissioners can make a decision regarding the investment zone anytime after that date.