A state-sponsored public scoping meeting drew approximately 200 people to Jacksonville's Norman Activity Center on Thursday, many who were primarily concerned about the impact of a proposed U.S. Highway 69 relief route west of the city.
Those concerns focused on environmental and economic impacts, and alternatives to TxDOT's proposed Gold Loop – which is the northernmost route that merges in northern Cherokee County – and the Blue Loop, which merges with the highway just south of Love's Lookout.
According to the state's website, https://us69jacksonvillereliefroute.com, U.S. 69 serves as a conduit for intra- and interstate traffic, and also is a designated hurricane evacuation route for the Gulf Coast region.
“The concept for a U.S. 69 Relief Route dates back to the late 1970s. Over the years, a number of studies were done to determine its need and potential configuration. The most recent feasibility study determined a new-location facility on the city’s west side best meets the project’s purpose and need. The study’s traffic analysis indicated a relief route would reduce congestion, increase safety, provide for greater freight mobility and enhance the roadway network during hurricane evacuation events,” the site noted.
More recently, TxDOT began a project study in May 2017 in Cherokee County for the proposal, beginning a three- to five-year schematic design and environmental study.
Attendees at Thursday's meeting were invited to watch a short film explaining the history of the proposal and timeline of events, should the project receive support. TxDOT representatives and its consultants also were on hand to field questions.
However, residents like Keith Gumney, a retiree from Houston, remain adamantly opposed to the project, citing its environmental impact.
“The Gold Route will come within a few hundred yards of our land, and the noise and increased traffic would be our biggest issue,” he said, adding that “having a highway running through some of the prettiest land in East Texas just seems like a bad idea, because it is a big draw for people, and it will negatively impact the wildlife.”
From an economic perspective, the route will cause travelers to “bypass our city, causing a loss of revenue for all the businesses here – businesses that make our town interesting and unique, and put money back into the town to support our schools and other things,” Gumney said.
“I’ve seen this pitched as a project to ease congestion in Jacksonville, and as a hurricane evacuation route. I’m not sure which it is, but there are less expensive and less invasive ways to solve both of those issues that will not negatively effect our city and its residents,” he said.
Tamra Bolton, whose family has owned property for several generations which is located in the general area of the proposed project, expressed concern for friends and family who will be directly impacted by the project.
“What people don't understand – TxDOT, all these people working on the project – the biggest concern is the human element,” Bolton said. “How many people will be displaced? How much farm land, grazing land, timberland, is going to be taken out of production?”
According to the TxDOT website, 24 structures are impacted and approximately 736 acres of new right-of-way are needed to create the Gold Route, while the Blue Route impacts 25 structures and requires approximately 611 acres of new right-of-way.
Still, Bolton said, she hopes that the state revisits plans to widen Highway 69 through town or utilize Bolton Street, because in her opinion, they are the more feasible solutions.
“It would impact businesses, sure, but you can always build another building to put a business in,” she said. “They're not making more farmland. They're not making more timberland. They're not making more grazing land. Land is a limited commodity and when you take that much land out of commission, in other words, render it useless by putting concrete, asphalt on it and huge right-of-ways … a family has lost that land and the ability to produce (from it). It's lost forever.”
In her vast travels, “I've seen solutions that work – I've seen this kind of this thing destroy communities, but I've also seen communities and the highway department and other entities work together to find a creative solution,” Bolton said.
Larissa-area resident Jim Pearson said his three-acre tract falls between the two proposed routes.
When he purchased the land six years ago, the real estate agent “notified us of the possibility of road construction around Jacksonville, that it had been in the works for a long time, and she provided us with an old, old proposed route that didn't show (any) impact to us at all, but I knew (the current proposal) was a possibility,” he said.
He isn't concerned so much about pollution and run-off from the road – “TxDOT does a pretty good job of engineering their drainage and controlling it, judging what I've seen on Toll Road 49 (around Tyler). They have to address the erosion from time to time, but they generally follow up on it really well” – as he is about the state creating the safest travel environment.
“If there are any areas where there's not going to be a median in the middle ... I cannot remember what section would include concrete barriers,” he said.
According to the website, this segment of the proposal – the schematic and environmental process – is expected to take three to five years, with a more detailed, rigorous evaluation of an environmental impact study, as per the National Environmental Policy Act, and no other public meetings have been scheduled.
Meanwhile, Gumney – who with his wife created the “Stop the Jacksonville 69 Bypass” Facebook page “in the hopes of having a place for people to share information regarding the project and details of events and how to get involved” – are hoping to get the word out to residents to consider all options, particularly one labeled “No Build.”
“Finding out about the No Build option made us feel hopeful that our efforts can make a difference, but also a bit upset that it has been so poorly promoted,” he said. “It does mean that we can put forth a very direct call to action for people that oppose the bypass, which is great. Now, we just have to figure out how to get people to act, and to act quickly to show their support for this option.”
Jacksonville-area residents may visit the US 69 Jacksonville relief route website to contact TxDOT about the proposal. Or they may write to TxDOT Tyler District, Attn: Advanced Project Development Office, 2709 W. Front St., Tyler, TX 75702; call (903) 510-9100; or email JacksonvilleReliefRoute@txdot.gov.
Individuals opposing a proposed relief route around Jacksonville may sign petitions located at Ruffles, 114 E. Commerce St.; Sylvia Mae Soul Food 564 N. Main St.; and Commerce Street Drafthouse, 401 E. Commerce St.