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Toll 49: Should the county use property tax revenue to expedite construction?

SMITH COUNTY, TX (KLTV) - As the population in Smith County continues to grow, some residents are eager to see the next phase of Toll Road 49 get underway. However, what's missing, is the money to pay for it.

The next step, would be funding and building what's known as the Lindale Relief Route. That route would stretch from the intersection of Interstate 20 and Toll 49 to Highway 69 north of Lindale. In order to get this project started without waiting for state funding, Smith County has the option of creating what's called a transportation reinvestment zone. That means future construction of Toll 49 in Smith County would be funded with some of the property taxes collected from the 11,600 Smith County properties near the toll road.

Twenty-six miles of Toll 49 are already complete in Smith County. Since the expansion to Interstate 20 opened last March, its daily traffic has far exceeded the county's expectations, but the project isn't complete. Expansions north of Lindale and east toward Gregg County are on the books, but what's not is the state funding to start construction.

To expedite the process, the county can create a special fund and pay for Toll 49 without the state's help. These special funds are called Transportation Reinvestment Zones, but many residents say the county's property tax revenues should be spent elsewhere.

"I don't know how you county commissioners can sit here and give funding to a highway project when the roads that you're responsible for are not in very good shape," Smith County resident Ernie Clark said to commissioners.

"Let us keep our local tax dollars for our infrastructure within the county where there are so many needs," said Smith County resident Sharon Emmert.

"I'm sorry if I get a little angry, but I'm really upset about this," said Smith County resident Bob Brewer.

However, not all of the public comments were negative. Residents in Lindale say the toll road expansion is necessary to relieve congestion on Highway 69.

"As the traffic pattern continues to grow, we need alternate routes," explains Lindale Mayor Robert Nelson. Former Lindale Mayor Jim Mallory echoed those concerns.

The next phases of Toll 49 aren't expected to get state funding anytime soon.

"For years, we've been going to Austin trying to get projects built, but we've been told, 'Not today,' or 'You've got a worthy project but other projects are better,'" said Smith County resident and Former NET RMA board member Tab Beall.

The project would be an opportunity to take control at the local level, but now commissioners are faced with deciding how desperately Toll 49's expansion is needed at at what cost.

"The commissioner's court is interested, certainly, in this opportunity, but nobody has made up their minds," said County Judge Joel Baker.

If Smith County decides to create a Transportation Reinvestment Zone, that does not mean property taxes will increase. It means some of the money collected from property taxes would go into a special fund. The county has to make their decision by late December. The money that could go into the special fund would only be used on infrastructure in Smith County.

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