County commissioners hope an ongoing traffic study will steer a transition toward a pro-active, long-term program for county roads. But members said questions remain about funding future infrastructure needs.
Road and Bridge Administrator Doug Nicholson said the county is nearing completion of its first traffic count study since 2003. The county is also in the process of evaluating its roads for the first time since 2005, he said.
With more than 1,200 miles of county roads, Smith County is responsible for one of the largest mileage inventories in the state. Smith County has enough roads to stretch to Richmond, Va. from Tyler.
The county began a pro-active rebuilding program in 2006, which called for improving 100 miles per year, including major overlay projects, treatments to extend road-life and oil/dirt construction. The county addressed 97 miles in 2009, before the economy’s downward turn began to impact the county.
Roads were rated throughout out the county and prioritized according to the scoring system.
In late 2009, 61 percent of county roads were rated “C” or “D,” according to the department’s rating system, which is based on points received due to road condition, traffic counts, school bus routes and daily use. Around 450 miles were rated “A” or “B.”
Nicholson said the traffic count study, which began in March, is almost complete.
Any action by the court to address what the study identifies will take major capital investment by the court.
Costs for road construction are high. A single mile of overlay costs about $128,000 for material alone.
In 2010, the Road and Bridge Department’s budget was cut 37 percent to $6.8 million from more than $10 million. The county entered a “maintenance only” program, which focused on repairing roads and extending road life but commissioners are hoping to find more funding for major road improvements sooner than later.
Commissioners are considering all options to address road conditions. They hope to hire a civil engineer to lead a long-term plan based on the traffic count study and determine the most cost-effective way to implement a county road program.
County commissioner Jeff Warr recommends creating a Transportation Reinvestment Zone, which would collect new construction revenues along the Toll 49 corridor, as a long-term funding option. Early proposals would funnel 50 percent of the tax revenue toward Toll 49 and 50 percent to county road improvements.
North East Texas Regional Mobility Authority estimates suggest the corridor would capture $30 million to $40 million in revenues during the 25-year life of the zone. The zone’s funding would start slow and grow with time according to new construction within the corridor. Warr considers the early estimates “conservative” because they do not include an 80-acre commercial development near Toll 49 and south Broadway Avenue.
Warr believes the zone will create a dedicated funding source for local transportation improvements. He said the county is dealing with the growing pains of transitioning to a more urbanized county and that money for infrastructure will be important for the local economy and quality of life.
“We’ve got to look at projects that are going to impact the county and this region well beyond this court,” he said. “The (transportation) decisions we make today will have impact for decades because transportation projects take so long to complete.”
Warr said completion of Toll 49 and addressing county roads, especially major arterial routes, would be critical to Tyler and Smith County’s economic future.
Opponents said 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. There is also concern about giving money to the mobility authority, which is appointed and not subject to voters.
Former county commissioner JoAnn Fleming has been grilling the court for not having a long-term transportation plan for county roads, bridges and drainage systems. She suggests they are planning projects outside the scope of basic road needs and are not prepared to pro-actively address county roads.
Mrs. Fleming said many county roads are experiencing traffic volumes they were not designed to handle. Without a report card regarding overall road conditions, there is no way to calculate costs, she said. She is against diverting county tax funding toward Toll 49 while county roads remain in disrepair.
“Without a plan, they’re wandering in the darkness,” she said. “They don’t have any idea how many miles need upgrading to handle higher traffic volumes, how many miles of road need widening for safety, and how many miles need major construction.”
Nicholson said the county was implementing a road plan, but the lack of funding prevented its continuation.
“We’ve had a plan,” he said. “But a plan doesn’t amount to much if you can’t or don’t fund it.”
Commissioner Terry Phillips agreed. He said commissioners added money, around $600,000, to Road and Bridge during the budget process, but it will take much more money to catch up with needs.
“We’re not where we need to be (with regard to county roads),” he said. “Right now we don’t know what it would take to get them to where they need to be but it’s safe to say we haven’t improved anything since entering maintenance mode.”
Phillips said the court would have to make roads a funding priority. He said he supports more funding, either from its “Rainy Day” or capital improvement funds, or finding money from cuts elsewhere.
The county has around $22 million in its reserve, according to the county auditor. However, around $4 million has been budgeted to pay for capital improvements in 2014, including a major overhaul of the countywide judicial software program. The expenditures would bring the county’s reserve balance in line with its policy to maintain 18 percent of approved annual spending for emergencies.
Most commissioners have gone on record saying they would not support a property tax increase to pay for infrastructure.
Warr said the traffic counts would help identify priorities. He hopes they will identify patterns and locations that will allow the civil engineer to determine the best solution. He said some congestion solutions may be as easy as adding a left turn lane for traffic entering a state highway or Farm-to-Market road, which would take cooperation with the Texas Department of Transportation. Others may require widening and right-of-way purchases, he said.
Public discussions about the Transportation Reinvestment Zone will continue during a 30-day “public comment” period through mid-December. An initial public hearing drew more than 100 residents. Residents are encouraged to contact the Smith County Commissioners Court for more information or to voice support or opposition.
A majority of commissioners remain on the fence regarding creating the reinvestment zone. They see potential positives of designating road funding but also question the long-term impact of diverting revenues from the general fund.