Saturday, November 20, 2004

Toll Road Opposition in Austin

Opposition to toll roads rises

In Austin, one group got plans changed for fee-based bridge

November 20, 2004
Associated Press
Copyright 2004

AUSTIN – Sal Costello schedules his appointments to avoid rush-hour traffic leading from his Circle C neighborhood in South Austin into downtown.

Associated Press
Associated Press
Sal Costello shows a copy of the transportation plan that includes area toll roads.

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

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

"Uh, no," Mr. 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 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 during the next decade. The plan was developed from regional plans, nearly all of which include toll roads, and includes $3 billion in bond proceeds – a first for Texas transportation planning.

Transportation Commissioner Hope Andrade of San Antonio called the statewide plan "visionary and creative."

But Mr. Costello described it differently when talking about the $2.2 billion plan for the Austin area, which includes six new toll roads.

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

But state leaders say toll roads offer a way to 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, R-Round Rock, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee. He 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 reluctance to raise gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees, Texas has few other options.

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

A Perry spokesman has said the governor does not support tolls on existing roads, although it's something the governor believes should be left to local governments.

Mr. Krusee said the Legislature will probably address the toll plan again in 2005 to more clearly define how freeways can be converted to tollways and how revenues raised from tolls can be spent, which should help resolve disputes like the one in Austin.

He contends tollways and bonds take Texas in the right direction and predicts they will be an option for most major road projects.

"This will enable us to build major new road projects literally decades in advance," Mr. Krusee said.

The Associated Press: