Watchdog group director tells court to watch priorities
Smith County commissioners approved changes to local transportation grant initiatives agreements Tuesday but not before a local watchdog group told them to focus on local priorities first.
Grassroots America - We the People Executive Director JoAnn Fleming told the court the group would vocally oppose any financial efforts to bring a "multi-modal" facility to downtown or siphon tax dollars for regional projects.
A multi-modal facility conceptually would house multiple rural, urban, private and public transportation operators, such as taxi and bus services, possibly light rail, as well as provide parking space. The idea is to make the facility a regional hub for all modes of public transportation.
Smith County, Texas Department of Transportation and North East Texas Regional Mobility and a private Tyler transportation company, NDMJ, had been working to secure grants for a feasibility study and other preparations to make the project shovel ready.
The court approved accepting a $25,000 donation in October 2009 that would be used as local match funds as officials attempt to bring local transportation infrastructure improvements. There were expectations at the time that the county could be eligible for $300,000 to $500,000 in federal and state grants that would go toward studies related to the project.
Auditor Ann Wilson said the county has not incurred any expenses related to the possible multi-modal project.
The change to the memorandum of understanding shifted the regional partnership from the East Texas Council of Governments, which coordinates efforts for 14 counties, to Gregg County. Baker said the relationship with the second most populated and neighboring county makes better sense because ETCOG administrative costs are too high and might not serve counties effectively because they have interests in other counties.
Mrs. Fleming said commissioners should focus money and efforts on Smith County roads before considering work on a possible project. She also said court members should consider the debt that federal and state grants represent for an already debt-strapped government.
She also said the group would not support creation of a Transportation Reinvestment Zone, which would put local dollars toward regional projects. She mentioned the Toll 49 project. A previous court approved paying about $500,000 as part of a 10 percent local match to pay for easements along the proposed route in the early 1990s.
Baker said he understood the point Mrs. Fleming made regarding grants and federal and state debt. He said the multi-modal project will remain a consideration within the county's long-range plan, but that the court does not intend to pursue any project to the detriment of taxpayers.
"We do need to prioritize county roads but efforts to find funding options for long-range plans are worthy of the effort," he said.