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'Game-changer' Toll 49 reaches I-20

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FROM THE TYLER MORNING TELEGRAPH:

'Game-changer' Toll 49 reaches I-20
By ADAM RUSSELL
arussell@tylerpaper.com

More than 30 years of planning and work to connect southern Smith County to Interstate 20 will come to fruition Saturday in the form of Toll 49.

The long-awaited "outer loop" project has seen its ups and downs during the past three decades — enduring funding shortages and opposition of proposed routes — but was considered by local officials and the public at large as a needed infrastructure project to relieve congestion and spur economic growth.
On Thursday, the Texas Department of Transportation officially will hand over the operation of Toll 49 to the North East Texas Regional Mobility Authority. 

"It's a game-changer for the region," said Texas Transportation Commissioner Jeff Austin III, a longtime proponent of the project.

Austin said Toll 49's connection to I-20 will change mobility in East Texas for decades to come.

Austin said the connection marks the culmination of community leaders' long-term vision. 

The project moved past the talking stage in November 1984 when the state allocated $27 million to several Smith County road projects.

Texas Department of Highway and Public Transportation spokesman B.L. Black said at the time that the project was still in the "exploratory stage," but the money made the project a "reality after all the talking."

Construction costs for the first three sections, to connect Texas Highway 110 with Texas Highway 155, and purchasing the 1,000-foot-wide corridor and right-of-way, were estimated at $6 million and $6.4 million, respectively, in 1984. It was estimated the completed 36.5-mile outer loop, connecting I-20 west of Tyler east to U.S. Highway 271, would take 20 years and cost $200 million to $300 million. 

Federal funding guidelines changed in 1991 and stalled the project until an influx of capital from the state made possible the first segments of the multi-segment project. 

The vision for Toll 49 was to create a controlled access route without cross traffic or traffic signals to allow quick movement to and from I-20, bypassing Tyler and connecting with state highways along the route.

There was little opposition to a new thoroughfare, but homeowners along four route options vocally challenged the road's course through their respective homes or back yards.

Proponents touted the need for a bypass and traffic relief for U.S. 69 and Loop 323, which opened in the mid-1950s and was considered over capacity by the mid-1990s.

The questions and controversy arose regarding how to fund a major highway project and choosing a route. 

Opposition groups, mainly made up of homeowners along four proposed routes, formed in the mid-1990s after the project stalled.

Opponents contended the project was being pushed not out of necessity to relieve congestion on Loop 323, but rather for economic development. 

Former County Commissioner Sharon Emmert actively opposed the project in 1993 when its future was in question. She maintains the project was a foregone conclusion and that Toll 49 has not provided relief for area motorists.

"The bottom line is the traffic on (Toll 49) clearly proves what we knew to be the case, that the project would not be able to relieve traffic on Loop 323," Ms. Emmert said in December 2009. "Furthermore, it proves what we were trying to explain, that the Grande Boulevard project and other east-west projects were far more important to relieving traffic."

In the end, 25 homes were affected by the chosen route. 

Paying for the project was the question that pushed its completion date. 

Lindale Economic Development Corp. President Barham Fulmer has been involved in the Loop 49/Toll 49 project for 27 years and said the competition for state and federal road dollars was and remains stiff.

"It's an unbelievably competitive process to get your section of highway approved before others, because TxDOT funding is so tight," he said. "It's hard for a non-urban area to compete with Houston and Dallas and Austin and San Antonio when it comes to traffic numbers."

Transitioning the project into a toll road moved the construction up the state's priority list significantly, Fulmer said.

In January 2006, Loop 49 effectively became Toll 49 after the Texas Transportation Commission approved tolling for the project. The move was considered by state officials as a local match and gave the project new life. 

Following completion of the first two segments in 2006 and 2008, respectively, the mobility authority sought funding to complete the prized connection to I-20. A poor economy put the project in jeopardy as transportation funding for projects statewide slowed.

Because there were no major connections, tolls trickled in, and opponents dubbed the completed segments "the road to nowhere." 

A $90 million loan from TxDOT bolstered construction efforts and put the project back on schedule.

On Saturday, NETRMA will begin overseeing the maintenance and operation of the toll road. TxDOT investment in the five segments to connect Texas Highway 110 and I-20 is $162.7 million for the 26.3 mile toll road.
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