Friday, November 12, 2004

"The only thing missing is the gun and the mask."

Public gets testy at toll hearing

Chance for people to comment on rules quickly becomes a critique of tollways' very existence

November 11, 2004

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2004

Trying to set guidelines for an Austin public hearing can be like enforcing rules for a knife fight. As the fictionalized Butch Cassidy once reminded us, it can't be done, especially when the subject is toll roads.

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority board, taking public comment Wednesday on its proposed toll road policies, nonetheless tried to confine people's remarks to those policies. But there's a fine and faint line between toll road policies and the policy of having toll roads at all, and most of the two dozen or so people who spoke Wednesday had no trouble skipping over it.

The hearing was sometimes nasty, occasionally brutish and certainly short by Austin standards, just an hour, but it must have seemed like an unregulated lifetime to the six appointed members of the authority board listening.

"Congratulations for coming around and lending a deaf ear to our pleas," Larry Garrett told the board. Christine Shaw called the authority's toll road plan "a means of control and a means of oppression." P.D. Leonard compared the plan to theft, saying that "the only thing missing is the gun and the mask." And singer-songwriter Janet Patrice hauled out her guitar and favored the board with an original tune trashing toll roads.

And at times, it threatened to get worse.

Sal Costello, a Circle C Ranch resident who has orchestrated a recall effort against three Austin City Council members for their July vote for toll roads on another local transportation board, took advantage of the convocation for a news conference in the lobby about his petition drive for the recall. He produced a large box of folders that he said contained the signatures of 21,000 Austinites.

Austin has 452,593 registered voters, and under city law, petition signatures must amount to 10 percent of that count to force a recall election. But Travis County officials will "purge" a still-undetermined number of longtime inactive and inaccessible voters in December, and Costello doesn't plan to turn in his signatures until February. So the drive is probably about halfway to its goal.

Costello unearthed a corruption theme familiar from his earlier visits to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the board of mostly elected officials who voted this summer to authorize the mobility authority's multiroad toll plan.

Costello asked board Chair- man Robert Tesch, a Cedar Park businessman, whether he stood to gain off property he owns in Williamson County in the vicinity of the authority's proposed U.S. 183-A toll road.

Tesch, citing the rules, said the board was there to listen, not answer questions. Costello, more than once, said he would spend the remainder of his three-minute comment period waiting for an answer. Catcalls rained down. Tesch finally gave in.

"I own property in Williamson County, none along any toll road," Tesch said. "Do you?"

A few people did address the proposed toll policies, set for final approval by the authority board Dec. 8. Among other things, the policies would offer a 10 percent discount for those with an electronic toll tag, require people to maintain a minimum balance in their toll account, lay out enforcement procedures for toll scofflaws and allow an introductory period of free rides and reduced tolls lasting up to six months for toll tag users.

Recent events, however, mean the authority won't be using those policies for at least a couple of years. The board has reached a deal to refrain from tolls on MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) at William Cannon Drive, a project where toll charges could have begun as soon as March. Now it is unlikely any toll road will open in Austin before late 2006.

Authority Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein said the agency nonetheless needs to pass policies in December. It will sell about $200 million in bonds in February, and investors will want to know what those policies are, he said.

© 2004 Austin American-Statesman: