Sunday, November 21, 2004

Costello: "This whole thing is a scam."

Resident challenges toll plan

Austin case is part of state debate over funding new road projects


Associated Press
Copyright 2004

AUSTIN - Sal Costello plans his appointments to avoid rush-hour traffic leading from his Circle C neighborhood south of Austin into downtown.

The marketing consultant would rather start and finish his days late than sit with other cars backed up at red lights and choke on exhaust fumes during peak traffic times.

That's why he and thousands of others in his neighborhood anxiously awaited completion of a new bridge that would avoid the lights and keep traffic moving. Then came the stunning announcement: To use the bridge, drivers would have to pay a toll as high as 70 cents.

"Uh, no," Costello said. "That bridge has been promised for many, many years as a freeway. We've already paid for it."

The bridge turned into the flash point of a contentious debate over the state's ambitious new plan to use tollways and bonds to help pay for new transportation projects in Texas .

The Texas Transportation Commission on Thursday adopted the 2005 Statewide Mobility Program, with about $15.4 billion going to the state's eight largest metropolitan areas over the next decade.

"This whole thing is a scam," said Costello, whose organized opposition helped sink plans to make the bridge near his house a tollway. "It stinks and it reeks and people know it."

State leaders say toll roads can keep traffic moving.

"Traffic congestion in Texas cities is getting so bad it's affecting their ability to attract jobs and deteriorating the quality of life," said state Rep. Mike Krusee, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

Krusee sponsored the law in 2003 that opened the door for the tollway road expansion.

Supporters say toll roads speed up road building because they require less state and federal money. And, given political reluctance to raise gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees, Texas has few other options.

"It's like you're building an economic engine," said Krusee, R-Round Rock. "By providing the seed money to get roads started, cities in Texas are going to have more options than any in the United States."

Critics such as Costello say they support toll roads if they are planned and paid for with tax dollars. Drivers should also have viable options to avoid toll roads, they say.

But the Austin plan would place tolls on most of the highways running through the city, except for Interstate 35. It would put collection booths on some roads Costello says were already paid for with tax money.

"That's a double tax," Costello said. "In the past, when they did toll roads they were whole new roads, whole new options that complemented the daily highways. ... They have hijacked all the highways."

About 600 people packed a July public hearing but failed to stop the Austin toll plan.

Angered by the vote of approval, Costello started a recall petition drive against Austin Mayor Will Wynn and the City Council members who supported the toll road plan. He said he has more than 21,000 of the 40,000 signatures he needs.

Toll roads are a central part of Republican Gov. Rick Perry's $175 billion Trans -Texas Corridor transportation initiative that he proposed in 2002.

A spokesman has said that, although Perry does not support tolls on existing roads, he believes the issue should be left to local governments.

The Associated Press: