Sunday, August 14, 2005

"Taxpayers should have a say about something as fundamental as our highway system."

Road-fund focus is moving to tolls

Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

Texas in recent years has shifted gears on how to fund future highways, hoping to rely much more on toll roads, and San Antonio could soon be on that cutting edge.

Officials here plan to break ground in 2006 for the city's first toll road, a modest few miles of U.S. 281 on the North Side.

But by 2013, there could be a 22-mile tollway system on U.S. 281 and Loop 1604, including toll ramps directly linking the two freeways. The network could more than double by 2016, covering the whole northern arc of Loop 1604 and also U.S. 281 from the loop to Comal County.

Over the next 25 years, about 60 miles of toll roads are planned in Bexar County.

The problem is simple, state officials say. The state and federal gas tax of 38.4 cents a gallon is enough to pay for only a third of what's needed for growing Texas cities, and political will to raise the tax is lacking.

Charging toll fees of 15 cents or more a mile seems easier.

"We are very serious about getting people out of traffic congestion," said David Casteel, who heads the Texas Department of Transportation's local office.

"We as a community are not burying our heads in the sand and hoping for a road fairy to come along with money."

Recent public meetings on proposed toll projects here have rustled up some opposition, and in June a chapter of — a takeoff of the Boston Tea Party — was formed in Bexar and Comal counties.

Concerns include 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.

"Taxpayers should have a say about something as fundamental as our highway system," said Terri Hall, a resident of Spring Branch who organized San Antonio Toll Party. "Our goal is to fight to give the taxpayers not just a seat at the table but to get them in the driver's seat."

Meanwhile, construction continues on free roads, or what officials call gas-tax-only roads. Several major projects are scheduled to finish in 2006, including a second exit lane from Interstate 35 to South Loop 410 and lanes added to Loop 1604 from U.S. 90 to Culebra Road.

In July, work began on a four-level interchange at Loop 410 and U.S. 281 on the North Side, an infamous crossing that has fueled tales of boneheaded road planning for almost three decades because it never had an interchange. The $155 million project is expected to take three years.

"This will be a vital project for improving mobility," said Mayor Phil Hardberger.

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