Toll 49 funds, homeowners wait for study completion to be finished

Published on Sunday, 26 January 2014 23:33 - Written by BY FAITH HARPER fharper@tylerpaper.com

LINDALE — Donna and Bill Liebbe have been in limbo on what to do with their home for 10 years.

They face the eventual loss of it to eminent domain as part of the construction of Segment 4 of Toll 49. But officials still are crunching numbers on funding for the project.

The couple lives in a 5,000-square-foot home atop a hill on their 140-acre ranch off Farm-to-Market Road 849.

The recent preferred route of the “Lindale Relief Route” road would require 30 acres of their land, including the hill their house sits on, Mrs. Liebbe said.

The route is a 6-mile segment running from Interstate 20 to U.S. Highway 69 north of Lindale.

Mrs. Liebbe said that in 2004, Texas Department of Transportation representatives discussed the acquisition. Her family was told at the time that the state would start purchasing land in 2005. But the date was extended to 2008, then to 2011 and most recently to 2015.

When the project moves forward, it hinges on two factors, said Everett Owen, interim director of Northeast Texas Regional Mobility Authority, the entity charged with road construction.

Owen said nothing can legally be purchased until the environmental paperwork is complete and adequate funding is secured. He said TxDOT is working on the environmental impact study, but it should take a year for the process to be complete, roughly by the end of 2015.

Funding could hinge on a decision from the Smith County Commissioners Court on the creation of a controversial transportation reinvestment zone.

Under the plan, revenues would be collected for 25 years on new construction within a 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 property valuations within the corridor to the county.

Half the tax revenue would go to Smith County for county road maintenance and improvements, while the other half would go to NET RMA to expedite completion of future expansions of Toll 49.

The zone is anticipated to generate between $12.9 million and $16.9 million for Toll 49 improvements, according to the toll road authority.

In December, commissioners put off the decision until at least summertime, citing the need for an updated study on toll way revenues for the court to study.

Owen said the study should be complete in February. NETRMA’s board of directors approved to go ahead and seek financing for its portion of the construction bill, but does not have enough in the coffers to do the whole segment, he said.

“They really are not holding us up,” Owen said. “If we had environmental clearance, they would be holding us up, but I can’t imagine that issue won’t be put to bed long before we get environmental clearance.”

If the county decided against the zone, the project would still be completed with toll funds. Owen said it could be 10 years before there would be enough funding to move forward if that happens.

“I’m sure (homeowners) are very frustrated, and we share their frustrations because (we) would like to move forward …” Owens said. “We are pushing as hard as we can. That’s the whole purpose of the (reinvestment zone). Without (it), the poor woman could be sitting there for another 10 years.”

While officials discuss how to fund the project, the Liebbe family is discussing how to address finances.

“We needed to retile our pool (and) new carpet, but (we) keep putting things off,” Mrs. Liebbe said. “If they are going to tear your house down next year, why spend $5,000 fixing something.”

She said the situation would be much easier to make future plans if there was a set timeline.

They intend to build a new large home on another part of the property, which would take about a year to complete. If their property isn’t acquired after the home is complete, then the family would end up with a tax bill with two homes on it and two insurance premiums.

Other small things that need to be taken care of include moving wells and barns and relocating fences and electric gates for their horses.

“I understand progress,” she said. “I understand these things have to occur. I just think it’s a shame that everyone’s life has to be in turmoil. I wish they would give you more of a commitment. I understand you have to wait for the funding to come through — it’s politics, I get that — but unfortunately it makes those who affected suffer.”

TRAFFIC PROBLEM

While the residents hope the project moves forward, local businesses are leery about the route, which will take traffic around the city rather than through it.

John Clary, president of the Lindale Economic Development Corp. said when he took the job in 2007, he was told the major needs for the city was road and utility infrastructure, and over his tenure traffic has grown worse as more families relocate to the town.

He said about 20,000 people travel from U.S. Highway 69 to the interstate daily and about 60,000 cars go through the intersection of the highway and interstate.

“We can’t say we have the highest traffic count in the area, but we have the highest traffic count on Interstate 20 between Terrell and Louisiana,” Clary said.

That added traffic is good news to businesses in the area and used as a marketing tool to bring more businesses to the town.

Clary said the EDC has no official position on the proposed toll road expansion, but he can see two sides of the story.

He said that on one hand, businesses are worried the bypass will reduce visibility to potential customers. On the other, the city is growing and the traffic problem not going away.

“In a few years it may end out being a wash, but time will tell,” he said. “The city is going to need to address alternate routes for people to get around town other than 69 eventually.”