A public hearing on Friday will kick off a 30-day public comment period regarding the county's consideration of creating a Transportation Reinvestment Zone along the Toll 49 corridor.
The hearing begins at 9:30 a.m. Friday inside the Courthouse Annex Building, 200 E. Ferguson St. in Tyler.
It would be the second such zone in the state since the revenue tool was created to allow counties and cities to capture and divert new construction tax dollars toward infrastructure projects.
Under the plan, revenues would be collected for 25 years on new construction within one mile on either side of the center of the two-lane Toll 49 rather than go into the Smith County general fund.
Half the tax revenue would go to Smith County for county road maintenance and improvements, while the other half would go to the North East Texas Regional Mobility Authority to expedite completion of future expansions of Toll 49.
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 say the investment zone would help speed up completion of Toll 49, which they believe will generate commercial and residential growth. They believe diversions will now provide revenue sources that will return the investment decades in the future.
Opponents say the state has an obligation to fund road construction and maintenance sufficiently. They say the reinvestment zone taps local taxpayers to fund a toll road, and that depending on commercialization of the corridor is a gamble.
Commissioner Jeff Warr compared it to the city of Tyler's half-cent sales tax, designated to fund projects such as Earl Campbell Parkway, Grande Boulevard and Fire Station No. 5. He called the zone's revenue estimates "conservative" because the preliminary numbers did not include an 80-acre retail development near Toll 49.
Warr said Toll 49 was once a free-road project that became a toll road because anti-growth, anti-outer loop groups led protracted campaigns against it. He said Toll 49 will be a key to regional growth and that the reinvestment zone would help complete the toll road and address county infrastructure needs.
"There will always be people who are opposed to anything related to Toll 49," he said. "But I think it's a slam dunk that will pay dividends for Tyler and Smith County for decades."
Grassroots America – We the People Executive Director JoAnn Fleming said her group began a petition drive opposing the zone. She said creating the zone would allow the state to take funding from county coffers and local property taxpayers to pay for state transportation responsibilities.
She believes funneling millions of dollars in local tax money to the toll project is wrong and that Smith County taxpayers would be surprised at the local tab for Toll 49.
According to the county auditor's office, the county dedicated $2.5 million toward the project between 2004 and 2009. Around $1 million for right-of-way acquisition was mandated by the state. The rest was part of an initial payment agreement between the Texas Department of Transportation and the county to begin early segments of the project. The state paid 90 percent of construction costs if the county provided 10 percent.
Terri Hall started Texans United for Reform and Freedom to raise awareness about toll roads and private-public partnerships used to finance projects.
Ms. Hall said Transportation Reinvestment Zones subsidize toll projects with taxpayer dollars.
Ms. Hall said the zones are speculative and dependent on projected growth coming to fruition. If commercialization along the corridor doesn't pan out, she said, neither does the investment zone.
"There are really questions about how much development a toll road can generate compared to free roads," she said.
Ms. Hall said a Transportation Reinvestment Zone's success depends heavily on the availability of undeveloped land with commercial appeal.
Warr said traffic along Toll 49 is already above expectations since segments were opened connecting it to Interstate 20. Economic analysts expect commercialization along the crossroads of Toll 49 and other roads, including Broadway Avenue and Texas Highway 64.
County Judge Joel Baker said he is open to any ideas to create revenue for county roads. He said Gregg County has matched funds with the state, and mobility authorities to expedite transportation projects successfully.
Baker said competition for state road funding requires regional and local collaborations to begin and complete new road projects.
"It comes down to taking care of our problems," he said. "I'm open to the idea, but I won't reach a decision until the comment period plays out."
The hearing is open to the public where comments "for" or "against" creation of the Transportation Reinvestment Zone can be made. People interested in the reinvestment zone can view the North East Texas Regional Mobility Authority's Transportation Reinvestment Zone Analysis at www.smith-county.com or by visiting the Commissioner's Court offices inside the Courthouse Annex Building.