Wednesday, August 17, 2005

"I'm not going to be run over from some guy with a big ego from TxDOT."

Wolff raps state transit officials as rude, pushy

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

State transportation officials have pushed San Antonio leaders, treated them rudely and ignored them, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff charged Tuesday.

But that said, it's best to try to work with the Texas Department of Transportation on toll road plans and strike the best deal for the community, Wolff said as county commissioners debated whether to hold back funds from its local toll road agency.

"Let's give it a chance," Wolff said. "But let me tell you, I'm not going to be run over from some guy with a big ego from TxDOT."

Commissioners will decide whether to lend the year-old Alamo Regional Mobility Authority $500,000 for the upcoming fiscal year when they pass their annual budget. They've already advanced the authority $750,000 and the city has lent $500,000.

Commissioner Lyle Larson, who says he's been ostracized by Gov. Rick Perry for opposing state toll road plans, is trying to cut the authority's funding.

"I don't know what kind of Kool-Aid's being sloshed around Austin," he said. "But let me tell you, people are opposed to this."

Larson claims the state asked the county to form the authority just to have a shield against angry motorists. The authority is bureaucratic deadwood, he said, because state officials insist on deciding how to handle private proposals to build the city's first 47 miles of toll roads.

"What's the purpose (of the authority)?" he asked. "It's very difficult for me to understand."

Mobility authority Chairman Bill Thornton said those are fair questions that should be asked all the time. He also said there had been little communication from TxDOT since April, when a private consortium proposed taking over the first toll roads in San Antonio.

But that's changed in recent days with two letters from TxDOT, Thornton said.

One letter, dated Monday and signed by TxDOT Assistant Executive Director Amadeo Saenz, reiterated a promise that state officials will not sign a development contract unless the authority agrees.

The other letter, from TxDOT's San Antonio office, offers to let the authority take over projects to add toll lanes on Interstate 35 from downtown to Schertz and on Bandera Road between loops 410 and 1604, and to build a toll interchange at U.S. 281 and Wurzbach Parkway.

"Stay the course," Thornton advised commissioners. "I read that as a tremendously significant vision of the future."

The surprise that jolted Wolff, Thornton and others was when Spain-based Cintra and its local partner, Zachry American Infrastructure, made an unsolicited proposal to the state in April to build and operate toll lanes on Loop 1604 and U.S. 281 on the North Side.

Cintra-Zachry officials say they can build the system faster and free up $610 million in tax dollars. Local leaders have speculated the companies would seek higher toll rates and collect the fees for up to 50 years.

But the state had planned to build half of that tollway and give it to the mobility authority, which would have expanded it. In June, without input from San Antonio, the Texas Transportation Commission decided to pursue the Cintra-Zachry offer and advertise for other bids.

On top of that, Wolff said, he didn't like the way transportation commissioners treated San Antonio leaders at that meeting.

"That did not leave a good taste in our mouths," he said.

But with gas taxes drying up and newer vehicles getting better gas mileage, toll roads might be the best answer to tackle traffic congestion, Wolff said. So it's important for San Antonio to work with the state in an effort to share profits and keep an eye on toll rates and other details.

"I don't know of any other way than toll roads," he said.

San Antonio Express-News: