Wednesday, October 26, 2005

State officials "hide behind regional mobility authorities."

Larson says residents don't like toll roads


Chuck McCollough
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

Bexar County Commissioner Lyle Larson said 95 percent of the North Side neighborhood groups he's talked with are against toll roads and worried about related issues such as increased cut-through traffic in their neighborhoods due to the tolls.

The Precinct 3 commissioner appeared before the District 10 Neighborhood Alliance on Oct. 17 to talk about what he calls the effort to force tolling on the North Side. His precinct includes most of the north side of the county.

Several members of the alliance said cut-through traffic in their neighborhoods near U.S. 281 is bad now and will get worse if toll roads are built on that highway. Larson said many motorists will drive through subdivisions rather than pay tolls, and during construction of the toll roads along U.S. 281 and other highways, a lot of traffic will take alternate routes through nearby neighborhoods.

"I saw a poll in the newspaper that said something like 56 percent of the people support tolls. They are not talking to the neighborhoods in the North Side of San Antonio that I'm talking with because those neighborhoods are overwhelmingly against it," Larson said.

A recently released survey done by the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority said toll roads had a more favorable rating once people learned details about the plan.

Of 500 registered voters questioned in September, 49 percent said they were against toll plans while 44 percent were in favor. But after being told details and how toll roads would help, the approval rate went up to 58 percent and opposition was 34 percent, the mobility authority said in an Oct. 13 Express-News story.

Larson said traffic congestion on San Antonio's North Side, especially on Loop 1604, Interstate 10 and U.S. 281, is largely the result of two factors — underestimating and underfunding.

"San Antonio's road needs were well planned by TxDOT (Texas Department of Transportation) regarding (Loop) 410 and (Loop) 1604. But the problem is they did not continue to fund increased traffic capacity for those roadways as the city grew," he said.

"TxDOT will tell you they underestimated growth on the North Side by 17 years, and that has created our problems today."

And, Larson charged, the Alamo City has been shortchanged by the state.

"For 14 years going into 2002, we were getting 80 percent of the (state) fuel tax (on gasoline purchases) back compared to Dallas, Houston and Austin getting back between 90 and 95 percent of their fuel tax. If we had gotten that additional 10 percent over a 10-year period, San Antonio would have received an additional $400 million to $450 million. That would have fixed the 1604 intersections at 281 and 1-10 and gone a long way to completing 281 North," Larson said.

Local TxDOT official Clay Smith said San Antonio didn't receive the same percentage of state fuel tax return as Houston and Dallas during the 1990s because traffic congestion and the need for roadway improvements were greater in the larger cities.

"The funding formula for mobility needs was different during that decade. Our level of congestion was not as high as Houston and Dallas during the 1990s," said Smith, director of transportation, planning and development in the San Antonio district.

Smith said San Antonio should have gotten more revenue than Austin during the 1990s, based on the same congestion funding formula.

"As of 2003, a new funding formula was developed, and San Antonio now is equal to Dallas and Houston in percentage of state fuel tax return," he said.

Larson, who has been part of transportation discussions for the Alamo City area for a number of years, said his stance of demanding answers on tolling has made him something of a pariah with state officials.

"I'm blackballed from the governor's office, but it is important to get state officials to talk about tolling," he said, adding that state officials won't take a position on toll roads and instead "hide behind regional mobility authorities."

Larson said the local Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MPO, which decides which road projects get federal money, came up with strategies to fix areas of major congestion on the North Side without tolling, but the pro-tolling lobby is forcing it on the public.

"If you look at toll road plans for San Antonio, they are all on the North Side. They (TxDOT) plan to use traditional transportation funding in other parts of San Antonio and leave tolling for the North Side just because residents here have a little bit more discretionary funds, and that is just not fair. Tolling should be done equally around town," he said.

Alamo Regional Mobility Authority Chairman Bill Thornton said there is a good reason why all tolls are planned for the North Side.

"The North Side has had explosive growth and has the most traffic congestion — one of the things needed for a toll-road system. It also has the other thing necessary for a toll-road system, the viability of people who want it, enough people who will travel on a toll-road system," Thornton said.

Thornton, a former San Antonio mayor, said work on the first toll roads along U.S. 281 is set to begin in January or February.

"They will add additional lanes and overpasses to 281 north of Loop 1604," he said.

Art Garza with the El Dorado Homeowners Association attended the meeting and said the tolling picture is wrong.

"I don't find resistance to tolling per se in my neighborhood or other neighborhoods. The resistance comes from converting existing highways to toll roads when we already have paid for the existing highways."

Larson said he shares that concern and would support a new toll road like Texas Highway 130 that will parallel Interstate 35. The commissioner said there are plans to toll the middle section of the Wurzbach Parkway over U.S. 281 and to toll parts of an expanded Bandera Road, including possibly elevated sections.

Larson urged the alliance to get information and take a position on toll roads in San Antonio and then contact state legislators.

District 10 Alliance President John Clamp said the group will invite a pro-toll group or spokesman to address the group soon and then consider taking a position on the matter.

"Right now we are getting information, like we did with Commissioner Larson. Early next year we would like to talk with state Rep. Joe Straus (who represents the area) on the toll-road issue.

"Next year is an election year, and we need to find out where our state lawmakers stand on toll roads for San Antonio," he added.

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