A proposed extension of the Toll 49 corridor is projected to be built in about 15 years to provide another connection to Longview and Tyler, a North East Texas Regional Mobility Authority official said.
The East Texas Hourglass project will encompass Harrison County and U.S. 59 in Marshall, Chris Miller, executive director of the NET RMA, told the Marshall-Harrison County Citizens Advisory Committee at a Monday meeting.
Giving a background of NET RMA, Miller noted that the organization represents 12 counties, which includes Harrison, Gregg and Smith. The state currently boasts eight regional mobility authorities. They were implemented under Governor Rick Perry’s administration to help fund transportation projects through toll funds.
Toll 49 is the proposed corridor in North East Texas connecting Tyler, Longview and Marshall — comprised of three previously unrelated projects: Toll 49, a TxDOT project that’s the proposed outer loop around Tyler and has been in the planning stages for over 30 years; the Longview Outer Loop, which is the proposed East Texas Hourglass with connection to Marshall and the U.S. 59/Interstate 69 corridor; and the Lindale Relief Route, an extension of Toll 49 from Interstate 20 west of Tyler to U.S. 69 north of Lindale.
Miller said the ability for traffic to move is critical, which is why the proposed Toll 49 extensions are necessary as Interstate 20 continues to be overextended and overused.
“We know that transportation is so important — not just for our individual driving need — but with the corridors and the various needs of the economic development, the commercial trucking and things like that, we feel that that’s one of the primary reasons this was developed that way,” he said.
The East Texas Hourglass extension consists of five Toll 49 segments coming out of Gregg County and going through Harrison County, touching the future Interstate 369, Miller said.
The project is currently in the conceptual planning phase, Miller explained, meaning corridor studies and environmental studies must be completed before the alignment of the proposed roadways can be accurately established.
“It’s a conceptual deal, and it’s a pretty good amount of miles,” he said.
Miller said NET RMA is aware that commercial truck traffic is going to continue to grow as fleets travel between nearby metropolitan areas like Dallas and Shreveport.
“It means you’re going to have more and more transportation corridors,” Miller said. “And the establishment of something through Harrison County one day, tying into the interstate ... (or) the ability to create another corridor just adds that much more, and opens so much up to areas that right now have to get to I-20 or they have to get to I-30, so we see that opportunity as something that we can help be a part of... “There may be a day when you don’t even have to get on the interstates, and that is the concept.”
Responding to a question on whether or not the extensions will require an actual toll fee, Miller said Segment 8, which includes the connection to Marshall, probably has a better chance of being what is considered as “toll viable,” meaning it has to have the ability to pay for itself depending on how much it’s used.
“That’s where you do a study… and so we think that that one will probably, because the back of I-69 is going to be there,” he said. “And essentially they’ll be some kind of a loop around Tyler at some point here within six years or seven years... And then you’ll come up 271, and then you can catch (Segment) 7 across and then ultimately through (Segment) 8.”
EXISTING TOLL EXTENSION
The most recent segment of the project is the Lindale Relief Route, Miller said. The two-lane undivided toll is 6.7 miles and runs from Interstate 20 north, just above Lindale.
“It’s now open. It’s been open since November 2018,” Miller said, noting construction on it started in 2016 at a cost of $126.2 million.
Giving updates on the progress of existing Toll 49 extensions, Miller said they’ve been pleased with the success of the November 2018 opening of the Segment 4 extension so far. It currently averages about 4,200 transactions a day, which is the number of vehicles that run through the toll reader.
“Next year it’s going to climb to about 6,100 (transactions),” Miller said.
He said it’s been a real boost for the NET RMA organization.
“It also has really opened up 33 miles that you can take from Whitehouse all the way up and be in Mineola that much quicker than going through downtown Tyler or all the roads that are in that area,” Miller SAID. “Tyler is a very congested city. It’s not unlike a lot of larger metropolitan areas, and so we think that Toll 49, our project, has been a godsend in a lot of ways because it does give you the ability to get to different places. Once the eastern segment, Segment 6, opens up, it’s going to really be something that can add even more.”
Overall, transaction numbers for the July daily average for Toll 49 totaled 39,495.
“About this time last year, we were about 32,000, so opening the Lindale relief route in 2018 has helped out tremendously,” said Miller.
Responding to questions regarding efforts to reduce the number of accidents on the roads, Miller SAID that they have put in passing lanes in all five segment extensions that are currently open.
“There are five segments right now, and so every segment that’s out there has a passing lane, and we have signs,” he said. “We also did some things with the center medians so that it’s pretty much understandable if you’re in the middle of that road, you need to get back over into that lane.”
“We are trying to slowly make those kinds of improvements as we go along, but what we have to encourage people to do also though is get off the cell phone and if it’s raining slow down. We are looking at those kinds of situations,” he said.
Giving an update on other future extensions, Miller said the NET RMA board is currently working on the logistics for Segment 6, which starts around Whitehouse southeast of Tyler before going up the east side and coming into Interstate 20.
“The other factor that has to weigh in to this is the ability to finance this,” Miller said. “It crosses (Texas) 31 and then it goes up to I-20, essentially.”
Regarding a timeline, NET RMA is about a year and a half into the environmental phase of Segment 6, Miller said. The design phase of Segment 6 is a two-year process — in addition to the building phase.
“So you’re looking at another five years on the whole project,” he said of Segment 6, noting it will extend about 13.5 miles and will cost approximately $274 million. There are currently six proposed route options for Segment 6.
“The goal is, obviously, it will be a toll-viable facility and it will generate its own revenue instead of pulling off of the existing road,” he said.
A proposed extension out of Gilmer is about 11.8 miles and costs approximately $263 million.
“That’s in today’s dollars, so unfortunately it could grow,” Miller said of the estimated cost of construction.
Miller said NET RMA has hired an engineering firm to look at the six proposed routes in the environmental review and expects to go down to three proposed routes in the next few months.
“This is where it gets interesting because obviously people are figuring out where things are in relation to their house or their property or their business, and so people are seeing this,” Miller said. “People are on the board from Smith (County) and maybe even Gregg, they’re hearing it right now. And it is a process. What we try to tell people is at this point, we don’t have any idea which of these will be the final selection. It is very scientific. We’re not even involved in it.”