Funding could push next leg of Toll 49

Published on Wednesday, 2 July 2014 22:18 - Written by Adam Russell, arussell@tylerpaper.com

An influx of state funding could push the next leg of Toll 49 to begin sometime next summer.

The Texas Transportation Commission approved a North East Texas Regional Mobility request to forgive a $55 million loan, which was used to connect completed segments of Toll 49 to Interstate 20. Final action to make the grant official is expected later this month.

Officials have said the reduced debt obligation coupled with higher-than-expected traffic volumes would expedite construction of future toll segments.

Forgiveness of the debt could allow the mobility authority to start development of the Lindale Relief Route sooner than later.

Toll 49 is managed and bonded by the mobility authority.

Everett Owen, the authority’s interim executive director, said the relief route could be under construction as early as next summer. Approval of the environmental impact study is expected soon and would allow officials to select a route and begin right-of-way purchase, he said.

Owen said the performance of the toll road is giving the project momentum.

“It’s exceeding the original revenue and transaction projections,” he said.

The mobility authority would owe about $57 million after the grant is finalized, Owen said.

Texas Transportation Commissioner Jeff Austin III said the transition from loan to grant frees up cash for the mobility authority to which is “huge” for the overall project.

Austin said the $55 million was available after other projects realized significant savings. He said Toll 49 is self-sufficient and is creating opportunity to expand via bonds.

“It’s a natural progression,” he said. “So far, it’s ahead of projections, and each leg we complete only helps with congestion and mobility in East Texas.”

Smith County Commissioner Jeff Warr said he hopes the project maintains momentum.

Warr believes county commissioners should create a Transportation Reinvestment Zone around the outer loop. County commissioners have been considering options to capture revenue for projects within Smith County, including the reinvestment zone.

Under a proposed plan, revenues created by new construction up to one mile on either side of Toll 49 would be collected and go into the county general fund for 25 years.

The zone would not raise taxes but rather funnel revenues created by development, including the Village at Cumberland Park Shopping Center, and increased valuations within the corridor, to the county.

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 said the investment zone would speed up construction of future segments of Toll 49 by a decade. They believe additional capacity would 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 said the zone would allow the state to duck its obligation to fund road construction and maintenance sufficiently. They believe the reinvestment zone further taps local taxpayers to fund a toll project and that the zone’s success depends on development, which is a gamble.

Commissioners have voiced concerns about a 25-year commitment of property tax growth from a major development corridor and what it would mean to future budgets.

Court members have not discussed the Transportation Reinvestment Zone in months.

Warr said he’s convinced the reward outweighs any perceived risk. He said growth, including expanded freight traffic is coming to East Texas and that expediting infrastructure projects, whether highways or county roads, would ease Smith County’s rural-to-urban growing pains.

“Commissioners are pleased we’ve gotten this far,” he said. “It took people taking every opportunity to get it to this point and the Transportation Reinvestment Zone speeds everything up.”

The commission also approved a $3.5 million grant to help pay for upgrading older tolling equipment on previously completed segments.