Friday, October 07, 2005

"We've never had a situation like this"

Suit claims planning groups illegal

10/07/2005 12:00

Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

A lawsuit filed in Travis County contends the Metropolitan Planning Organizations in San Antonio and Austin — which dispense tens of millions in federal gas taxes annually — are illegal.

Lately, some of the money in both cities has been allocated for toll roads. That's a burning issue for People for Efficient Transportation, which had the Texas Legal Foundation file the lawsuit Wednesday in district court.

"It's a double tax," PET spokesman Sal Costello said in a statement. "It's morally and ethically wrong."

The lawsuit, which targets Gov. Rick Perry, the Texas Department of Transportation and the two planning organizations, doesn't actually say tax money can't be spent on toll roads.

Instead, the suit claims the planning organizations have no legal footing in Texas to spend at all.

Perry's spokeswoman, Kathy Walt, said the suit is a bunch of huffing and puffing.

"This is a frivolous lawsuit that amounts to nothing more than a public stunt," she said.

The suit hammers out several arguments:

There's no state law to create the planning organizations, and the governor has no authority to do so as called for in federal law.

State law doesn't authorize the planning organizations to allocate federal gas tax money.

State legislators serving on the planning boards, two in San Antonio and seven in Austin, violates the Texas Constitution's separation of powers.

The San Antonio planning organization noted, however, that federal law says boards should include local elected officials, officials with transportation agencies and "appropriate state officials."

Rather than seek an injunction, PET wants to use a court ruling to help push for legislation to fix the flaws.

At the same time, members will seek changes to make the planning organizations more accountable.

"A supermajority of Texans oppose tolls on taxpayer-funded highways and want government to be accountable for toll decisions, but those desires have been ignored by government," said David Rogers, the legal foundation's policy director.

A state law signed by Perry this year prohibits highways that are under construction, or finished, from being turned into toll roads.

But Costello says the law doesn't stop gas taxes and public rights of way from being used for toll roads, and doesn't prevent the downgrading of existing highway lanes into access roads to make way for toll lanes.

Officials with the planning organizations in San Antonio and Austin said they couldn't comment on the lawsuit's legal points but stressed that they operate under federal law.

"It just surprises me to see this kind of claim made," said Michael Aulick, director of the Austin group.

"We've never had a situation like this," said Joanne Walsh, San Antonio's director.

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