Friday, July 29, 2005

"Toll fees would be an unbridled tax that locally elected officials couldn't cap or eradicate."

Planning board hears toll foes


Patrick Driscoll, Staff Writer
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

The Metropolitan Planning Organization, not much more than a ghost to many motorists, has suddenly been thrust into the spotlight thanks to the looming shadow of toll roads.

The planning board, which oversees local transportation projects, last year slipped about 60 miles of toll roads into its 25-year plan with nary a peep of public protest. The first 47 miles are eyed for the northern half of Loop 1604 and on U.S. 281 from the loop to Comal County.

Board Chairman Lyle Larson was the lone dissenter of the day, and at the time regurgitated his familiar speech about how state officials are shifting costs of state highways to local communities — words that he says have alienated him from state leaders such as Gov. Rick Perry.

But now that the Texas Department of Transportation in recent months has held public meetings for proposed toll lanes on U.S. 281, more motorists are taking notice.

A half dozen newly organized toll opponents in Bexar and Comal counties showed up at a planning organization meeting Tuesday, and said toll fees would be an unbridled tax that locally elected officials couldn't cap or eradicate.

"This is taxation without representation, which started the Boston Tea Party and now the Texas Toll Party," said Terri Hall, a resident of Spring Branch north of San Antonio.

Various speakers in the group listed a litany of concerns to the planning board, including relying on tolls to float bonds when gas prices are skyrocketing and, according to April figures from the Federal Highway Administration, driving is declining on major roads in Texas cities.

"We are financing something that is not going to be profitable," said Helen Rodgers, who lives on the North Side.

Larson, a Bexar County commissioner who represents the North Side, suggested that concerned residents contact the governor and state representatives.

"For whatever reason, it doesn't resonate with them that people are upset," he said. "Get them to fund these in a different way — otherwise toll roads are here to stay."

Other planning board members reflected on the need for better public outreach. Tommy Adkisson, also a county commissioner, said technical jargon at meetings could be recast for easier digestion.

"Frankly, I find a lot of these presentations boring," he said. "Government has to be more exciting."

The first 22 miles of toll roads could open within eight years with the mileage doubling sometime in the next decade, according to plans. Fees would be 15 cents or more a mile.

More toll lanes might follow on Interstate 35 from downtown to North Loop 1604, on Bandera Road between loops 410 and 1604 and on Texas 151 from Loop 1604 to Medina County.

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