Monday, December 27, 2004

"Toll road rage."

Tolls, rails, repairs topped news in 2004

Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2004

Toll road rage, and rail peace.

Oh, and the pleasantly shocking construction blitzkrieg on Lamar Boulevard.

This past year in transportation, both in Central Texas and statewide, was at once a year of milestone events and a year of a still-unresolved policy war about how to pay for highways.

At the end of 2004, it looks like both Central Texas and the state as a whole are heading toward having many more toll roads than could have been predicted in January. But that situation, with Austin's mayor under attack because of his support of tolls and the governor's GOP opponents pondering how much hay to make of the issue, remains fluid.

Passenger rail in Austin and its environs, on the other hand, became a reality in 2004 after almost two decades of false starts and sometimes nasty debate. The big news, of course, is that Capital Metro as of Nov. 2 has permission -- with 62 percent of the vote -- to build a 32-mile passenger rail line from Leander to downtown Austin.

If all goes as expected, that $60 million line, with nine stations and sleek diesel-powered cars, should open by 2008.

The City of Austin had performed with particular lack of distinction on an overhaul of Barton Springs Road a couple of years ago. So when the time came in March for a 16-month rehabilitation of Lamar Boulevard downtown, everyone predicted traffic hysteria and ruin for the businesses along the road.

The city turned all that on its head, finishing the project a mind-bending 10 months early. Austin completed troublesome projects on South First Street and Enfield Road this year as well, and wrapped up work on Cesar Chavez Street in East Austin about five months early. Not bad, not bad at all.

But the big story, worth recounting, was "The Great Turnpike War of 2004."

It all started gently enough in January.

State officials had backed off a plan to open as a toll road the expansion of U.S. 183 in Northwest Austin. Local officials were preparing a toll road plan for Austin, but it seemed likely to be incremental.

The Texas Transportation Commission was talking tough on tolls, but it seemed mostly just that: talk. And Gov. Rick Perry's Trans Texas Corridor plan for 4,000 miles of toll roads, rail and utility lines still could be regarded merely as a 2002 campaign splash slowly evaporating under the heat of fiscal reality.

And nobody had heard of Sal Costello.

Then, in April, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority and Bob Daigh, the Austin district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, unveiled a toll road plan of eye-popping scope: $2.2 billion of spending on nine roads, six of them existing roads with periodic stoplights, that would be turned into expressways.

Actually, two of those roads, with more than $400 million of the total cost, were already scheduled to be toll roads, so it was actually a $1.8 billion, seven-road plan. But it was still a lot to take in.

The plan, Daigh and others said, pretty much had to go forward as introduced, or those toll-happy state transportation commissioners would punish Austin by sending much of that money to Dallas or Houston. The reaction locally was subdued at first, and even a well-attended public hearing in May was relatively low-key.

But then state Rep. Terry Keel of Austin and Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, Republicans with a history of supporting roads, unexpectedly came out against parts of the plan, especially levying tolls on a short stretch of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) at William Cannon Drive.

"Double taxation," they called it, because the project, already under construction, was being built with gasoline tax dollars (just like that stretch of U.S. 183 where toll plans had been dropped) and would have no debt to be paid back with tolls.

Then Costello, a marketing consultant who lives at Circle C, got involved. He created Web sites, ran anti-toll ads and facilitated an avalanche of e-mails to the decision-makers on the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board.

The July 12 hearing where the CAMPO board voted 16-7 to approve the plan (with Keel leading the opposition) was a memorable one, with spectators overflowing into four other rooms at the University of Texas meeting site. One of those rooms was directly above the main meeting room, and the folks sequestered there watching on closed-circuit television unleashed a foot-stomping rumble each time someone on the dais spoke in favor of tolls. But the plan passed. End of story, right?

No, more like the end of the beginning. Costello began a recall petition campaign against Austin Mayor Will Wynn and two other council members who voted for the plan and expanded his e-mail blitz to Perry, the Transportation Commission and every member of the Legislature. The governor's chief of staff got involved, and, behind the scenes, talks continued about how to change the plan and quell the uproar.

Meanwhile, plans to put tolls on roads near Dallas and Houston, true conversions where no improvements were planned on the roads in question, generated their own firestorms. And El Paso was in open revolt about the pressure from the commission to create toll roads.

When CAMPO next met, in September, a new set of particularly ugly memories was created. The losing side from the July vote suggested changes, and the board and audience traded charges of illegal conflict of interest and racism.

Eventually, in November, Wynn and others announced plans to take the MoPac stretch out of the plan (a vote is likely in January); tolls on two other roads will be delayed by about two years, and Capital of Texas Highway (Loop 360) is unlikely to become a turnpike for a very long time.

But what remained in the plan was enough for state officials, who rewarded Central Texas with a healthy share of state transportation dollars for other projects and promised more. Toll opponents, deep into the recall campaign, promised to keep fighting, and the issue may play a big role in this coming May's council election.

Oh, and that pie-in-the-sky corridor plan of Perry's? In mid-December, the governor and the commission unveiled tentative agreement with a private consortium led by a Spanish company to build a 300-plus-mile toll road parallel to Interstate 35. The consortium, if it all works out, would build $6 billion worth of road with its own money and give the state an additional $1.2 billion.

The Legislature, facilitator of this toll road push via a 2003 law, will take a second look in the new year. If Democrats align with anti-Perry Republicans on the toll issue, then some significant changes might occur. But don't bet the House, or the Senate, on it.

In war, generally the folks with the most guns and bigger bombs win. And Perry and his pro-toll troops enter 2005 with all the weapons.

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