Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Anti-toll insurgency has had considerable political success.

For politicians, it's now cool to hate tolls

Ben Wear
Austin American Statesman
Copyright 2005

At one point, May 7 was going to be all about tolls.

A sitting Austin mayor and two City Council members facing recall over their votes to make toll roads out of existing highways. Three other council slots up for grabs. Toll opponents sitting on a database of 40,000 people who signed recall petitions. The balance of power of Austin government resting on the fulcrum of public resentment over toll roads.

Didn't happen.

The recall fell several thousand John Hancocks short of forcing an election on Will Wynn, Brewster McCracken and Danny Thomas.

In the election that did occur, the three candidates endorsed by Sal Costello and his Austin Toll Party all went down. And in November, Republican state Rep. Jack Stick, who voted against the toll road plan, nonetheless lost his Northeast Travis County seat to Democrat Mark Strama.

So much for the potency of the toll road issue. People must not really care, right?

Perhaps Gov. Rick Perry doesn't stand to pay any price for jerking the wheel of Texas road construction toward tollways.

Yes, that recitation of events would seem to indicate that toll opponents frittered away whatever political capital they had. But Costello begs to differ. And a look at the broader picture indicates that though toll opponents haven't elected or defeated anyone, the anti-toll insurgency has had considerable political success.

The allegedly immutable seven-road Austin toll plan introduced last year lost one road entirely in January, tolls on two others were put off for two or three years, and a fourth road was left in purgatory with no funding.

And numerous other toll roads suggested in an early draft of the area's next long-range transportation plan morphed into studies by the time the plan passed this month.

Meanwhile, over the past year, expressing distaste for toll roads has become de rigueur in local elections. The new template: Barton Springs, good; toll plan, bad.

Statewide, even Perry is now against converting free roads to toll roads.

If Costello's slate of council candidates lost May 7 and in the June 11 runoff, that's due at least in part to anti-toll positions taken by their vanquishers. Voters decided based on other issues.

"We've yet to see a toller vs. non-toller race," Costello says.

Furthermore, someone familiar with negotiations on a toll road study endorsed this month by transportation leaders said that toll supporters came to the table precisely because they are chilled by the ill political winds blowing through Austin.

A compromise is afoot, we're told, that could transform the remaining second wave of tollways into expressways with both free lanes and toll lanes.

You may have heard that Carole Keeton Strayhorn announced for her candidacy for governor Saturday.

Guess we'll get that definitive non-toller/toller race.

Getting There appears Mondays. For questions, tips or story ideas, contact Getting There at 445-3698 or bwear@statesman.com.

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