Nearly two dozen residents and officials gathered at a Whitehouse public hearing Thursday evening to discuss the pros and cons of a proposal to create a Transportation Reinvestment Zone (TRZ) to fund the expansion of Toll 49 to Lindale.
The group directed questions to Everett Owens, executive director of the North East Texas Regional Mobility Authority (NETRMA), at the meeting at First Baptist Church Whitehouse, 801 Main St. NETRMA is a quasi-governmental agency, which controls the maintenance and operation of the current tollway.
Under the proposed plan, revenues would be collected for 25 years on new construction within 1 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 NETRMA to expedite completion of future expansions of Toll 49.
The TRZ is anticipated to generate between $12.9 million and $16.9 million for Toll 49 improvements, according to NETRMA.
Owens said the funds would be used to complete Segment 4 of the road, which is a 6-mile track from Interstate 20 to U.S. Highway 69 in Lindale. The route is commonly referred to as the Lindale Relief Route.
Officials said if the TRZ is not created, the project will be funded solely through toll funds, which could take 10 years to gather. If the TRZ is approved, construction could begin in two years.
Biologist Kate Lindekugel, of Gresham, said in her mind, the project was aimed at helping traffic problems in Lindale, where large trucks carry hazardous materials through town and in front of schools, and where traffic problems have prompted motorists to cut through neighborhoods where children play.
“The Lindale Relief Route is called the relief route because it is supposed to help our neighbors to the north ...” she said. “People in Lindale could really use the help. They partnered with us to bring the Target distribution center in, and that was a big help for us.”
Precinct 3 Smith County Commissioner Terry Phillips said he was not opposed to the project, only how to fund it.
“I’m there in budget times, I know the sheriff needs cars he can’t get, we have animal control issues that are enormous that we have to look at it …” he said. “The only thing we have lived on is our growth and we are giving a major portion of our growth (to the project). I’m looking (at if) we are going to have to raise taxes to pay for these things.”
Tom Mullins, president and CEO of the Tyler Economic Development Council, said the county would only give away half of the new ad valorem tax income, and would keep additional forms of tax dollars, such as sales tax. He said the added traffic through the area and accessibility to I-20 would be a good incentive for new businesses to come in.
“(The county has) an obligation to support the growth of the economy,” Mullins said. “New revenue has come because we have a strong economy and growth, and you bring growth when you put in infrastructure and that is what we are talking about here.”
Tyler’s Sharon Emmert, a former Smith County Commissioner from 1997 to 2004, said the residents of Smith County should not have to pay for budget shortfalls in Austin.
“This is going on all over the state and it is enabling our elected officials in Austin to continue their bad habits (of) not spending our tax money the way it was intended,” she said. “They come to the local officials with their hand out to make up for the mistakes they made in Austin.”
Ms. Emmert also expressed concerns that the NETRMA is controlled by a board of appointed, not elected, officials.
Owens said if TxDOT was in control of the tollway, the funds would be dispersed through the state, whereas with the NETRMA they stay local.
“With a (Regional Mobility Authority), that money stays in the local community,” he said. “It is only used for projects in this area, so if there is going to be excess revenue, I think you are better off, even if it’s an unelected board, that has a vested interest in projects in this area instead of the entire state.”
She said she and others are concerned with giving up funds that could be used for existing county roads.
“Our road and bridge has taken a terrible hit for the last decade, and our county roads are in horrible shape,” she said. “It doesn’t seem right to lock us in a 25-year contract. … It’s a great concern to me and other people in locking ourselves in for 25 years where we have great needs in the county that might have to be put aside for a while.”
Ms. Lindekugel said she pored through 11 years of the county’s budgets. She said the average yearly budget for the Road and Bridge fund is $8.1 million, and the same amount is projected for 2014.
“Even if we have them the 50 percent, it wouldn’t be ideal, but it’s still more than what they have gotten over the past 11 years,” she said. “It’s been, on average, $8.1 million, and they still have $8.1 million.”
County officials said there is not a timeline to make a decision on whether to enter into the TRZ agreement.
The county and the NETRMA will hold one final public hearing on the Transportation Reinvestment Zone proposal at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Lindale City Hall, 105 Ballard Drive.