Thursday, September 29, 2005

Central Texas RMA poll backfires in open records case

Poll: Majority here dislikes toll roads

Toll road authority questions its own study but says it shows that opposition is lower than others claim

Thursday, September 29, 2005

By Ben Wear

Copyright 2005

It's official: A clear majority of Central Texans don't much care for toll roads.

This "well, duh" insight comes to us courtesy of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which builds toll roads and, in a remarkable display of bravado (or misjudgment), commissioned a $57,600 survey of local attitudes about tolls and taxes and traffic. This included a phone poll of 1,060 people in mid-August. According to that poll, which had a margin of error of 3 percentage points either way:

•Half of Central Texans said "no" when asked whether "there is a need for toll roads" here. But that includes toll roads cut through the prairie, like the Texas 130 bypass east of town and five other entirely new roads that will have tolls, and expansions of existing highways, like Ed Bluestein Boulevard, where the new lanes will have tolls and there will be free access roads. Some might accept one kind of toll road and reject the other.

•When the question is narrowed somewhat and people are asked if they approve of adding toll lanes to existing highways, 60 percent say that's a bad idea. That's precisely what would happen in the "phase two" toll road program that caused so much controversy over the past year and a half. The mobility authority would operate those five roads: Ed Bluestein, Texas 71 east of Interstate 35, U.S. 290 East in northeast Travis County, U.S. 290 West in Oak Hill, and Texas 45 Southwest, the only completely new road.

•As for conversions — taking an existing road and simply slapping tolls on it without making further improvements — 78 percent are against that. The only two pure conversions bandied about locally over the past two years — short stretches of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and U.S. 183 — were abandoned after public umbrage.

•So, if most of us don't like paying tolls for these roads, then it follows that we must support raising gasoline taxes to build road improvements, right? Well, no. Asked how to pay for improvements, 38 percent said tolls were the answer, 37 percent opted for a gas tax hike and 25 percent had no response.

"It shows us we have a lot of work to do" in the public relations and education area, said Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the mobility authority.

Heiligenstein said he had some questions about his own survey, wondering if the question about adding toll lanes to existing roads might have been confusing. But, by and large, he accepted the results.

"Not all of this is great information," he said. "And, frankly, I didn't expect it to be. . . . We could have deep-sixed that survey, which I think would be the wrong thing to do."

It also would have been an impossible thing to do after Sal Costello, founder of People for Efficient Transportation and the area's prime toll road opponent, obtained a copy in recent days under the Texas Public Information Act.

Costello said Wednesday that he thought at least one of the survey questions — the one about tolls versus taxes — presented a false dichotomy. Three of the roads in the plan's second phase were entirely or partially funded even before the toll plan was introduced in early 2004, Costello pointed out, and construction has begun on two of them. No tax increase would have been necessary to build them, he said.

"It's not a fair question," Costello said.

If nothing else, mobility authority officials said, the poll accomplished two ends.

It will provide a baseline so that later, after Central Texans have begun using some of the six toll roads under construction or the four in the planning phase, the presumably more toll-friendly attitudes will stand in positive contrast to the survey.

And they said it debunks the 93 percent-hate-tolls figure often cited by Costello and other toll opponents. That was the percentage of people who came out against the phase two toll road plan, via e-mail, letters or comments at public meetings when that plan was before the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The actual figure of those in opposition now, based on the survey, appears to be in the 50 percent to 60 percent range.

Nevertheless, Heiligenstein said, "phase two has got to go forward. . . . If we miss this opportunity, we end up in a really bad place with congestion. Our job is to get that point across. And we've just got to do a better job and keep hammering away at it."

Austin American-Statesman: