Friday, June 24, 2005

San Antonio Toll Party is born

Toll critics call in an out-of-town ally


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

Grass-roots grumblings over proposed toll lanes on the North Side are like whimpers compared with fights against toll plans in other parts of Texas, but those whimpers have been heard all the way to Austin.

Battle-tested toll critics in Austin are vociferous, tireless, organized and willing to help activists here raise a ruckus.

Sal Costello of and, a takeoff of the historic Boston Tea Party tax revolt, met with more than two dozen people Wednesday at the Reagan High School library.

Costello was invited by Terri Hall, a resident of Spring Branch in Comal County, who facilitated what may turn out to be the beginning of SanAntonioTollParty.

"It's a good start," she said. "If we get enough of those rumblings, enough of those average folks working together, we can fight this."

The first toll roads in San Antonio could be built along 47 miles of Loop 1604 and U.S. 281 on the North Side. The Texas Department of Transportation recently backed off planned toll lanes on U.S. 281 through Comal County but now can't fund those express lanes.

Hall, who uses U.S. 281 to drive into San Antonio, said she has about 150 interested people so far on an e-mail distribution list, with most from Bexar County. She intends to hold two more meetings next month, one in Comal County and the other in Bexar County.

Officials with the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, formed last year to build and operate toll roads, said they don't understand what the big deal is but nevertheless will listen and respond to concerns.

"I don't see the issues," said Tom Griebel, the authority's director. "We're adding capacity and we're speeding up projects."

Mobility Authority Chairman Bill Thornton said it's interesting that people from outside of Bexar County are leading efforts to oppose toll roads here.

"People that live here know that we need to do something now," he said.

But some local residents say a lot of people aren't familiar with local toll plans or don't feel they can make a difference.

"I don't think people really know that they need to be opposed," said Claudia McCoy, who lives on San Antonio's North Side and attended Wednesday's meeting.

There are many other opponents out there, said Bexar County Commissioner Lyle Larson, who frequently denounces state officials for pushing local communities to pay more for highway construction and for making tolls the main option to raise additional funds.

Most of San Antonio's first toll roads would be in Larson's precinct, and he hears the complaints at neighborhood meetings.

"The people in neighborhoods have never been supportive of this concept," he said. "At this point, they don't feel like they're getting a voice and I think that's what's generating the opposition."

There are many reasons motorists should fear toll roads, as they're proposed now, Hall and Costello said, including the perpetuity of toll fees, lack of control over fee increases, use of tax dollars and public rights of way to build toll roads, and restrictions on building free roads so that traffic congestion will persuade drivers to use toll lanes.

The bottom line is that tolls could end up being the largest tax increase in Texas history, Costello said.

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News: