Bicycles on Toll 49 to be discussed Tuesday


Bicycles on Toll 49 to be discussed Tuesday

The debate regarding bicycles sharing Toll 49 with vehicles traveling 70 mph will continue Tuesday as the roadway's governing body weighs concerns as the connection to Interstate 20 looms.

Bicycle enthusiast Mike Butler said there is a growing trend among residents across the country to use bicycles rather than cars to get between Points A and B.

Whether based on economics, health or novelty, bicycle usage is growing, and Butler, along with others he refers to as "the biking community," wants Tyler to lead the state in co-habitation between motorists and bicyclists.

Bicyclists are using thoroughfares in and across Tyler for short trips to grocery stores, daily commutes several miles to and from work and 50-plus mile endurance rides more and more each year, he said.

Butler said better, safer access for bicyclists is a "quality of life issue," which can be tied to higher property values and healthier, happier residents.

To bicyclists, Butler said, Toll 49 is the safest connection route available because it has limited access, wide shoulders and open stretches with good visibility for motorists and bicyclists.

"It may be that in the future riding on Toll 49 isn't necessary because of traffic or having other alternatives. It won't be the only option," he said. "But right now it's the only option for that type of riding."

On Tuesday in Canton, North East Texas Regional Mobility Authority board members will discuss and possibly make a decision regarding bicyclists' future access to Toll 49. The Texas Department of Transportation handed over operation of Toll 49 to NETRMA on March 2.

Gary Halbrooks, vice chairman of the NETRMA's 12-member board, said safety is the No. 1 concern for the board. Halbrooks said Toll 49's original concept was to move cars and commercial trucks from I-20 to southern Smith County and connections along the way, at a high rate of speed.

Traffic on completed portions of the toll road has increased as each segment opened, but the connection to I-20 has been dubbed a "game changer" for regional mobility.

Halbrooks said officials expect traffic on the road to increase 60 percent when it opens to I-20.

Daily transactions hit almost 11,000 after Segment 3A, between Texas Highway 155 and TH 31, in December 2012. The projection for daily transactions after Segment 3B connects to I-20 is 16,270. By 2020, the number is expected to exceed 26,000 daily transactions. If a vehicle travels from I-20 to Texas 110 near Whitehouse, it would pass four gantries and count as four transactions.

"The biggest question out there is the life safety issue, not only for bicyclist but also passenger vehicles and trucks," Halbrooks said.

If safety is the No. 1 priority for the board, Butler said bikers should have access. Research shows most vehicle-bicycle accidents occur at intersections. Therefore, busy roads with dozens of intersections and entry/exit access points, such as Broadway Avenue or Old Jacksonville pose the greatest risk, Butler said.

"There hasn't been a bicycle (versus vehicle) wreck on Toll 49 and I think it's safe to say when you push cyclists off of Toll 49 it raises the statistical chance of more accidents (on other local roads)," he said.


Everett Owen, NETRMA's interim executive director, said the issue of bicycles on Toll 49 has no easy answers. He said it's a topic that hinges on perspective.

Bicyclists, he said, view Toll 49 as safer than other routes, including state highways, which might have hundreds of access points, and Farm-to-Market roads, which might not have shoulders. But, he added, the NETRMA board is not responsible for safety on those routes.

"(Board members) are just everyday volunteer citizens who are trying to do the right thing," he said. "

Owen has been involved in toll authorities around the state since the concept's infancy. He said he knows of three toll roads in the state that allow bicyclists. Two of them, Toll 183A and Toll 290 (now under construction) are multi-lane, high volume roads built with a multi-use lane for bikes and pedestrians.

The volume of traffic on the roads made a 12-foot-wide, multi-use lane financially viable, he said. On a rural, two-lane toll road, however, it's not feasible, Owen said.

The other, Toll 130, doesn't have a bike lane, and despite its 80 mph speed limit, it allows riders brave enough to cycle there, Owen said.

TxDOT spokesman Mark Cross said there is no state law prohibiting bicyclists or pedestrians on state highways. However, he said the agency does discourage bicycle use on roads such as Toll 130.

"We discourage it because of safety," he said. "You have bicycles competing with vehicles that travel at a much higher rate of speed."

Since Jan. 1, 2008, TxDOT records show one vehicle versus bicycle incident, which resulted in non-incapacitating injuries, on the 90-mile route east of Austin.

During the same time there were 251 fatalities and more than 6,700 injuries from vehicle versus bicycle crashes statewide, according to the data. The data did not specify if injuries or fatalities were sustained by bicyclists or motorists.

Countries such as Norway and cities such as Austin have experienced decreases in all vehicle accidents because bicycles make drivers more attentive, said longtime cyclist John Adair.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data shows bicyclist fatalities dropped 25 percent between 1995 and 2010. Bicyclist injuries have declined by 16 percent.

Adair and his wife make frequent trips from Jacksonville to stores around Tyler each week. He said East Texas needs to position itself as a leader in transportation via bicycle, especially as gas prices continue to rise.

"We use our cycles for transportation," he said. "We don't use them for financial reasons, though there are huge financial benefits, but it is something we do."

More routes and more alternatives are needed, he said, as bike-pedestrian trails, such as Rose Rudman, become more popular, pushing cyclist elsewhere.

Owen said he expects the bicycle community to present "alternatives" but did not want to discuss them prior to the public meeting.

Butler said he would like to see a compromise that includes bicyclists collecting private funds to pay for striping, signage and other modifications to make bicyclists and motorists aware of the "rules of the road" and everyone safe.


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