Thursday, September 15, 2005

Texas Toll Party shines light on House Bill 2702 toll conversion scam

Toll 'conversion' label rejected for U.S. 281


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

Toll opponents asked a local planning agency Wednesday to dig deep into their souls, do the right thing and declare that state officials are about to convert U.S. 281 into a toll road.

Alamo Regional Mobility Authority board members listened intently, said they share concerns and then voted to declare that the toll project is not a conversion.

The debate swirls around what defines "conversion" — state law or, for critics, common sense.

And the difference determines whether Bexar County commissioners, who oppose conversions, must step in to approve such a project as called for in state law. They won't, based on the board's vote.

"We don't have a choice," board member Bob Thompson said. "That's the way it is."

Then maybe the issue needs to be decided in court and in upcoming elections to oust targeted elected officials, toll opponents told the appointed board.

"How can you sit there and let them do it?" said Brad Holt of Spring Branch. "This is really pretty sad, folks. This is a spit in our face, is what it is."

Board attorney Brian Cassidy explained that if a highway is reconstructed to add toll lanes, it's not considered a conversion under House Bill 2702 if the new roadway includes the same number of non-tolled lanes.

Just what the new non-toll lanes will be on U.S. 281 is the bone of contention.

When the Texas Department of Transportation, maybe through a private consortium, adds six express toll lanes to U.S. 281 from North Loop 1604 to Comal County, the existing highway will be replaced with access roads.

The access roads will have at least the same number of lanes as U.S. 281 currently has, according to TxDOT officials. Also, the section between Loop 1604 and Stone Oak Parkway will have two additional access road lanes, two more turnarounds and a bridge going over a traffic signal.

"We've actually improved upon what's on the ground out there today," said Julia Brown, TxDOT's deputy engineer in San Antonio.

What Brown didn't mention is that plans, at least recently, call for speeds to be reduced from 60 and 65 mph to 45 mph. But toll opponents mentioned it, loudly and frequently, noting common sense says access roads aren't a fair replacement for a highway.

"This is a conversion — you know it and I know it," Mike Maurer said. "But you've got lawmakers on your side, you've got TxDOT on your side."

Construction of toll lanes on 47 miles of U.S. 281 and North Loop 1604 is expected to start next year and finish in five years, with control possibly handed over to the mobility authority. Tolls might be set at 12-16 cents a mile.

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