Committees show support for Toll 49 transport zone creation

Published on Tuesday, 7 January 2014 19:33 - Written by ADAM RUSSELL

Members of two Tyler Chamber of Commerce committees overwhelmingly approved publicly supporting creation of a Transportation Reinvestment Zone under consideration by Smith County.

Members voted after presentations by county commissioner Jeff Warr and former county commissioner JoAnn Fleming, who is the executive director of Grassroots America — We the People.

All but one of about 30 members of the Governmental Affairs and Surface Transportation Committees supported a resolution to support the reinvestment zone.

The resolution will now go before the chamber’s executive committee and then the chamber’s full membership. The lone opposing vote came from Jim Snow, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, who is also acts as treasurer for Grassroots America.

Commissioners have held several public meetings regarding the Transportation Reinvestment Zone and recently voted to indefinitely suspend action on the matter to study the options and implications of creating it.

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 and increased valuations within the corridor to the county.

Under the early proposal being considered by commissioners, a significant percentage, possibly 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. Toll 49 is managed and bonded by the mobility authority.

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 help speed up completion of Toll 49, which they believe will relieve traffic congestion in surrounding communities and generate commercial and residential growth. They 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 its obligation to fund road construction and maintenance sufficiently. They say the reinvestment zone taps local taxpayers to fund a toll road, and depending on commercialization of the corridor is a gamble.

Mrs. Fleming continued to question county commissioners’ long-term infrastructure planning. The county has not produced a long-term road plan to identify how many millions of dollars it would take to improve conditions on almost 1,200 miles of county roads since 2008.

In 2008, 61 percent of county roads were rated “bad to poor,” she said, and would have cost the county $17 million to improve.

“They have no idea how much it would cost. There’s been no engineering study for six years and the cost is a real blind spot.”

Warr agreed the county had not done a good job maintaining its long-term road plan but was in the process of hiring a civil engineer and had almost completed traffic counts that would be part of a long-term transportation strategy.

In the meantime, he said the court is seeking alternative options to address funding needs. He said the Texas Department of Transportation sends around 75 percent of its money to metropolitan areas, leaving rural counties fighting over the remaining 25 percent.

“We’re trying to find innovative ways to move Smith County projects forward,” he said. “TxDOT has made it clear projects score better (and therefore have higher priority) if we put skin in the game.”

Warr said transactions on Toll 49 are ahead of 2020 projections and that creating the investment zone would push the next leg of the toll road, the Lindale Relief route, which connects Interstate 20 to U.S. 69 north of Lindale, up eight to 12 years compared to inaction.

Mrs. Fleming said Toll 49 is a good project for the region but that it would be irresponsible to leverage taxpayer dollars against North East Texas Regional Mobility debt for the project while diverting needed funding from county coffers.

Warr said he still has questions regarding the zone’s details but considers it the best option for completing the toll road sooner than later.

Officials will hold a public meeting at Lindale High School regarding the proposed route of the Lindale Relief Route at 5:30 p.m. Thursday. The presentation is expected to begin at 6:30 p.m. followed by a public comment period.