Mobility board revokes Toll 49 agreement with cyclists

Published on Wednesday, 10 July 2013 00:14 - Written by By Adam Russell arussell@tylerpaper.com

The North East Texas Regional Mobility Authority board voted 7-6 to rescind an agreement with cyclists and banned bicycles from Toll 49 Tuesday.

The ban is effective immediately but will not be official until signage indicating the prohibition is in place.

The vote effectively revoked the board’s March agreement with the “bicycling community,” which would have given cycling enthusiasts access to Toll 49 between Texas Highway 155 near Noonday and Texas Highway 110 near Whitehouse.

The March agreement was contingent upon cyclists raising $60,000 by Tuesday’s meeting to pay for striping bicycle lanes and signage along Toll 49’s shoulder.

The Tyler Bicycle Club raised $65,376.

Representatives from the Tyler Bicycle Club told board members Toll 49 represents the safest route available and an important connector for local cyclists.

Board members opposed to bicycles said safety was the key concern regarding cyclists comingling with vehicles traveling 70 mph.

Interim NETRMA Director Everett Owen told the board internal conversations with Texas Department of Transportation officials implied “that if (the board) didn’t change its position (and ban bicycles), that future financial considerations would be in jeopardy.” However, board members read portions of a letter from TxDOT chairman Ted Houghton saying the board was independent and that the Texas Transportation Commission’s June decision to ban bicycles from all TxDOT controlled toll roads did not apply to Toll 49.

The NETRMA board is made up of 17 representatives in 12 East Texas counties, whose mission is to create and implement transportation solutions for the region, from rail, airports and roads.

The vote followed much discussion among board members and an “alternative plan,” which would have given cyclists access to the agreed upon segments of Toll 49 from 6-10 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays until a separate dedicated bike path between U.S. Highway 69 and Mud Creek, roughly one mile, was constructed.

The alternative drew criticisms from board members from outside Smith County because approval would have meant spending $32,000 on an environmental study and estimates for building the bicycle path were $500,000 to $1 million per mile.

“The fact that we’re talking about bike paths in Smith County rather than continuing this project into Gregg County and Harrison County is a concern,” board member Keith Honey, of Longview, said.

Board member Robert Murray, of Texarkana, echoed Honey’s sentiment.

“I’m here to represent residents in Bowie County for transportation of vehicles,” he said. “We need to be cautious not to set a precedent that every time we build a toll road we have to build a bike path.”

It also drew criticism from cyclists, who said the alternative would effectively ban 90 percent of bicycle activity on Toll 49.

Before the vote, board member Barham Fullmer, of Lindale, said a dedicated bike path would be a long-term solution but that it offered no guaranteed timeline or financial backing from the NETRMA or TxDOT. Fullmer asked members to stick with their March agreement because cyclists raised the money by the deadline.

“I have a reputation for doing what I say,” he told the boards. “I think we move forward with striping the existing roadway and when an alternative comes through we revisit the issue.”

Tyler Bicycle Club members appeared shocked after the vote. Member Tyler Simpson said Transportation Commissioner Jeff Austin III met with him last week and promised to support creation of a dedicated path within Toll 49 right-of-way, which would tie in to existing city paths and parks. He said Austin’s support for a long-term solution is positive, and Simpson believes it will get done.

“Jeff Austin told me we could hold his feet to the fire on this and that he’s going to be behind the first section being built,” Simpson said. “I think there’s a good chance we’ll get that but beyond that it’s anybody’s guess.”

An attempt to reach Austin by phone Tuesday night was unsuccessful, but in a recent interview he said he has worked with cyclists’ groups to find a permanent dedicated solution along Toll 49 right-of-way since the NETRMA’s inception.

“We have an opportunity to turn passion into permanent solutions for the safety of drivers and cyclists,” he said in June. “I will continue to seek those solutions as I always have. There is one.”

John Adair, a cyclist who rode his bicycle 10 hours to attend the meeting, said the board had taken away an important route for cyclists. He said the ban would push cyclists to Farm-to-Market roads, county roads and state and U.S. highways, which he believes are more hazardous than the limited access toll road.

Adair said TxDOT and NETRMA officials have cited safety as its chief concern but have not produced any data supporting that position. Prior to the transportation commission’s decision to ban bicycles from TxDOT toll roads, the Tyler Morning Telegraph requested safety data from the Department of Public Safety regarding bicycle versus vehicle accidents on toll roads across the state and DPS found no incidents.

“What just happened is (the board) went back on its word,” Adair said.