Friday, December 09, 2005

Perry: "Let's resuscitate I-69 as TTC-69."

Perry acknowledges federal bailout, says Texas can build I-69


Associated Press

Gov. Rick Perry, acknowledging the federal highway construction spigot has run dry, is ordering work to begin on a joint private-public project to build the long-stalled Interstate 69 highway from the Rio Grande Valley to northeast Texas.

"We all realize the federal funding genie is dead," Perry said Thursday to members of the I-69 Alliance, a group of officials representing cities and counties in the areas the road would serve. "By the time Washington funds I-69, we'll be driving around in hover cars or whatever.
"The harsh reality is we cannot wait for Washington, D.C., to solve the problems of this state."
Under his proposal, which he said would go to the Texas Transportation Commission on Friday, Perry wants an interstate-quality highway to connect the lower Rio Grande Valley to I-37 south of San Antonio.

The project would include consideration of separate lanes for commercial truck traffic, and Perry wants the panel to begin soliciting from the private sector proposals from the Valley to Houston through East Texas to the northeast corner of the state.

"Texas has never been a state to wait for others to lead or innovate, and we're not going to be afraid to try something new when the old ways just won't work any more," the governor said.
The highway would become part of the Trans Texas Corridor, unveiled in 2002 as Perry's ambitious $184 billion vision of thousands of miles of tollways, railways and utility lines crisscrossing the state.

"Let's resuscitate I-69 as TTC-69, using tools of the private workplace and private marketplace to advance the project without waiting on Washington," he said.

The alternatives, according to the governor, would be new and higher gasoline taxes, continuing to wait for federal money or simply doing without the road.

"I will tell you those three options are not options," he said. "Those are not the Texas way. We have no better choice than public-private partnerships. They're the wave of the future.
"We can do this ourselves."

Perry and Ric Williamson, chairman of the transportation commission, said they were confident environmental studies continuing under the original federal plan could be used in this latest idea.

No route for the highway will be specified until environmental studies are complete.
Neither Perry nor Williamson could put a price tag on the project or the amount to be covered by the private investment.

"It's difficult for anyone to say now much we need until we develop a plan," Williamson said.
Perry said the beauty of allowing the private sector to pay for a substantial proportion of the project "is they are very, very good at doing the bottom line."

The governor also said the legal problems of U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, who long has favored I-69 as an upgrade to U.S. Highway 59 in his suburban Houston district, had nothing to do with the lack of federal money for the project.

"Broke's broke," he said. "We just look at the realities, and whether someone has perceived, real or made-up political problems has nothing to do with the transportation infrastructure vision that we're putting in place. This was always bigger than one person and always will be bigger than one person."

Robert Eckels, the Harris County judge who serves as chairman of the I-69 Alliance, said he welcomed the proposal.

"This is probably the only opportunity to build the road," he said.

© 2005 The Associated Press:

© 2005 Denton Publishing Co.


Perry on TTC-69: "Some environmental documents could be ready this summer."

Perry cites plans for South Texas corridor

December 09,2005

Matt Whittaker
The Monitor
Copyright 2005

McALLEN — The "road fairy" may be dead, but Gov. Rick Perry thinks he has found a way to help pay for a major highway between the Rio Grande Valley and the rest of the nation.

Perry announced details of a plan for the state to partner with the private sector to develop an interstate-quality highway and rail corridor connecting the Valley — the only metropolitan area in the state without direct access to an interstate highway — to Interstate 37.

The governor unveiled the details for his plans for the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor 69 on Thursday in Houston at the annual meeting of the Alliance for I-69 Texas, a lobby group formed 12 years ago to promote Interstate Highway 69 corridor development.

Thursday’s meeting comes a month after Texas Department of Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton said the state should not expect federal funding for a proposed I-69.

"I-69 is dead in the state of Texas," Houghton said at the time. "The road fairy has been shot."

Houghton’s comments drew international attention because the proposed I-69 would have been the shortest route between Canada and Mexico.

Perry said Thursday the state’s transportation commission, at his order today, will begin developing proposals to build an Interstate-quality highway to connect the Valley to I-37 in George West, south of San Antonio.

The commission will also begin soliciting proposals to build TTC-69 from the Valley through northeast Texas, he said, adding that Texas is willing to invest state equity in those proposals.

A federal I-69 environmental study is approaching the halfway point and some environmental documents could be ready this summer, Perry said. The results of those studies will determine which cities south of San Antonio — Laredo, Brownsville or McAllen — the route would connect with.

The proposed Trans-Texas Corridor would be funded with public and private money to construct new roads and improve existing highways that stretch from either Laredo or a city in the Valley to Texarkana in northeast Texas.

Interstate 30 at Texarkana would then be the next leg for traffic and freight leaving Texas for points northeast, as it already is for the trucking hub of Dallas.

Funding for the state transportation project could come from several sources, including tolls, bonds or raising taxes and fees on water, electricity or cable bills.

The corridor would be built as the state grows over the next 50 years and is projected to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, save commuters time with speed limits of up to 85 mph, take hazardous cargo out of the most populated areas, provide for passenger rail between cities and reduce air pollution, according to the governor’s office.

"If Texas is to maximize the benefits of trade, if we are to continue to attract new jobs and investments, we have got to be better connected to the industrial Midwest and opportunities beyond," Perry said Thursday, according to prepared remarks obtained before his speech. "Now, I’m aware that one of my transportation commissioners delivered some bad news a couple weeks ago about I-69.

"Like Commissioner Houghton, I think it is important to embrace some frank realities," Perry said. "We have received little funding to design and construct I-69 in two separate federal transportation bills. We all have to recognize the federal funding genie is dead. By the time Washington funds I-69, we won’t need it; we’ll all be driving around in hover cars."

The project could include a mix of toll lanes and non-tolled lanes.

The state could pay for it, Perry said, because over the last five years Texas has passed three constitutional amendments, rewritten the transportation code and gotten the flexibility it needs from federal law to complement the state plan.

Texas wants to get bids from the private sector so it can begin work once the environmental process is over, a Perry spokeswoman said.

The private sector has offered to put more than $7 billion in equity into the I-35 corridor to build TTC-35, a proposed segment of the Trans Texas Corridor, Perry said.

"It’s a new day for the Valley," Houghton said. "You’re going to get an Interstate-standard highway down to the Valley. You talk about opening up economic development in the Valley."

Mike Allen, president and CEO of the McAllen Economic Development Corp., who attended Perry’s speech, said the most significant thing about Perry’s remarks was the specific recommendations he discussed. These gave Allen the impression that the governor and the state’s transportation leader are serious about the project.

"I think this is going to become a priority for the governor and TxDOT," Allen said.

The highway will be a good thing for business in the Valley, he said. It is critical to international trade, much of which goes from Mexico through Texas.

Allen said Houghton’s November comments galvanized opinion throughout Texas toward getting the project on a faster track.

"People from South Texas want an Interstate highway," Allen said.

Bill Summers, president and CEO of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership Chamber of Commerce, attended Thursday’s meeting. He has been trying to bring I-69 to the Valley for years.

"I was really happy," he said after the speech. "It brought tears to my eyes. We’ve been working so hard on this. We’re going to have an Interstate highway from the Valley to Interstate 37."


Matt Whittaker covers business, economics, finance and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4422.

© 2005 The Monitor


Perry: "The federal funding genie is dead."

Perry urges private firms to drive I-69 construction


Lisa Sandberg
San Antonio Express-News Austin Bureau
Copyright 2005

AUSTIN — Saying Texas had to solve its own problems and not wait for the federal government, Gov. Rick Perry called on private companies Thursday to fund a superhighway that would connect the Rio Grande Valley with Houston, East Texas and the American heartland.

"We all have to recognize the federal funding genie is dead," Perry told a gathering in Houston that advocates for the construction of a single highway that would be called Interstate 69 and that would link the Valley with points north and east.

His proposal will go to the Texas Transportation Commission today.

What incentive would there be for the private construction companies that would presumably shell out the billions of dollars needed to build a 650-mile high-speed corridor? In all likelihood, toll money, said Kathy Walt, the governor's spokeswoman.

Perry said the construction of a highway in Texas could one day link the Rio Grande Valley with the Canadian border. He did not put a price tag on the project or the amount to be covered by the private investment.

Where the highway would be built won't be determined until an environmental impact statement is completed.

Interstate 69 stretches from the Michigan-Canadian border to Indianapolis. The highway in Texas would become part of the Trans Texas Corridor, unveiled in 2002 as Perry's ambitious $184 billion vision of thousands of miles of tollways, railways and utility lines crisscrossing the state.

Rep. Juan M. Escobar, D-Kingsville, applauded Perry for keeping the highway idea alive but said that while he hadn't yet studied the governor's plan, he believed the federal government, not private industry, bore the responsibility for providing the bulk of the funding.

Randall Dillard, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation, said the planned Texas highway had been listed as a high priority by the federal government for a number of years but federal dollars haven't come through. And probably won't.

Last month, Texas Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton said that "I-69 is dead in the state of Texas. The road fairy has been shot."

Perry said Thursday there was no need to wait for federal funding.

"By the time Washington funds I-69, we'll be driving around in hover cars or whatever," Perry said.

"The harsh reality is we cannot wait for Washington, D.C., to solve the problems of this state."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
© 2005 San Antonio Express-News:


Perry's appointees at TxDOT to begin soliciting private sector proposals for TTC-69

Perry seeks private funds in push for Interstate 69

He revisits his idea for a state corridor, saying Texas can't wait for federal funding

Dec. 9, 2005,

Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

Gov. Rick Perry announced on Thursday plans to seek private dollars to upgrade U.S. 59 as Texas' portion of the proposed Interstate 69 rather than wait for federal funds that may never come.

Perry said he will order road builders today to begin planning "an interstate-quality highway" from the present Interstate 37, which connects Corpus Christi and San Antonio, to the border, using public and private funding.

His remarks to officials and business leaders from up and down U.S. 59 came during the I-69 Coalition's annual meeting here.

"Let's resuscitate I-69 as TTC-69," Perry said, referring to the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor plan he unveiled in 2002. As envisioned, the corridor would have free traffic lanes and toll lanes operated by investors for profit. It also could include lanes for heavy, high-speed trucks and easements for pipelines, power lines and railroad tracks.

Perry was careful not to specify the exact route, which he said would depend on an environmental study now half-completed. Three South Texas alternatives are being considered: U.S. 59 to Laredo; U.S. 281 to McAllen; and U.S. 77 to Brownsville.

Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said the governor is determined to provide an interstate highway "that has been promised to those people for the past 20 years."

Perry also said he would tell the commission today to begin soliciting private sector proposals to build the rest of TTC-69 "from the Rio Grande to Corpus Christi to Houston to East Texas, all the way to the northeast line of Texas."

Business people in some towns along U.S. 59 have been skeptical of the corridor idea, fearing road builders would bypass them to secure the needed right of way and the most direct route for international truck traffic.

But Williamson said he expects TxDOT would "blend the corridor and these existing tax roads to accomplish the goal."

Perry told the crowd of several hundred that the alternatives to private investment in the corridor are higher gasoline taxes and doing without needed road capacity while population and commerce increase along the route, which would link industrial centers of the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Perry, who received applause after his speech, told the audience that despite their efforts and those of the state's congressional delegation, "There has been little support for I-69" in the last two highway authorization bills out of Congress.

Fund in trouble

"The federal Highway Trust Fund is headed for bankruptcy," he said.
Williamson said the fund is able to provide only enough money for maintenance and some expansion of present roads.

"I think we all realize that the federal funding genie is dead," the governor said. "The harsh reality is that we cannot wait for Washington, D.C., to solve the problems of this state.

"Instead of baby steps, I think it's time for Texas to take a giant leap forward."

© 2005 Houston Chronicle:


Sunday, December 04, 2005

Private pork doctors keep their patients sick to ensure profits

Toll roads will limit improvements to free roadways


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

Toll roads are being pushed as the next best thing to a road fairy bearing cash, but there's a built-in irony that many motorists don't know.

To sell bonds to build tollways to relieve traffic congestion, there usually needs to be some guarantee that there will be ... traffic congestion.

That is, to make sure a toll road returns money to investors, there must be enough congestion on nearby free roads to make drivers want to pay tolls to travel faster.

"So is it worth it?" asked Cindy Cox, who recently moved near U.S. 281 and Loop 1604, two of the half-dozen local highways slated to get toll lanes.

Whether it's worth it to motorists depends on how much they're willing to pay to save time. Early studies by the Texas Department of Transportation anticipate 14 cents a mile in San Antonio, but a recent state survey asked drivers about their willingness to pay more than twice that.

Bond buyers, probably nervous about recent toll-road failures such as the Camino Colombia bypass around Laredo, are looking for better guarantees on investments. As a result, restricting improvements to competing free roads is becoming more popular.

They're called non-compete agreements.

"Nearly all new toll road projects, in order to sell bonds to investors, must offer some degree of protection from unlimited tax-funded competition from competing free highways," Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Los Angeles, wrote in a report this year.

The pitfalls of such agreements came to the forefront in California several years ago. Officials there ended up buying four toll lanes in the median of State Route 91 so they could improve adjacent free lanes.

The Orange County Transportation Authority paid $135 million to a private consortium for the 10-mile tollway, enough to cover the bonds plus $72 million in cash, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office.

The same year California was buying a toll road, Texas officials put a non-compete clause in a contract to sell $2.2 billion in bonds for their 49-mile Texas 130 toll bypass east of Austin. But Texas officials think they made a much better deal.

"We looked long and hard to make sure there was the most flexibility," said Amadeo Saenz, assistant executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation.

Under the non-compete agreement, Texas agreed not to build road projects that would threaten projected traffic on Texas 130, which limits what can be done to Interstate 35 in the Austin area.

But there are exceptions, including projects for maintenance, safety and passenger rail.

Also, anything already planned for the next 25 years can still be done. For I-35, that means a toll-carpool lane can be added through Austin and two lanes can be built south of downtown.

I-35 is already a mess. In the decade following the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which put more trucks on roads to the border, traffic on I-35 near downtown Austin shot up by a fourth, according to TxDOT.

When Texas 130 opens in two years, some traffic will be siphoned off I-35, said Michael Aulick, director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization in Austin. But as the region grows, traffic congestion will rebound and get worse.

Motorists opting for a way to avoid I-35 traffic jams could be paying Texas 130 toll rates of 12 cents a mile for passenger cars and 49 cents for trucks.

But those prices might be too high to get a lot of trucks off I-35, said Oklahoma trucker Rudy Covarrubias, who uses toll roads in Oklahoma and Dallas to haul dog food to San Antonio and car engines to Laredo.

"I mean come on, there's got to be a benefit," he said. "For that much money, it's going to get worse. I hope I won't be driving for another 20 years."

When San Antonio resident Rob Reiter heard that non-compete clauses will likely be in bond contracts for future toll projects here, he paused to ponder.

"I guess it's hard to imagine in 25 years," he said. "I guess our public officials need to get as much as they can ahead of time into the 25-year plan."

But local officials say there isn't money for additional projects. So non-compete agreements will basically ban what officials can't do anyway.

"Where's the money going to come from?" said Tom Griebel, director of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, which will oversee local toll projects.

No bonds have been sold yet for San Antonio toll projects, so what form non-compete clauses could take here is fuzzy.

© 2005 San Antonio Express-News:


"The debate over whether San Antonio needs toll roads is just starting to rev up."

Gas taxes can't fuel all road projects


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

For almost 20 years, Richard Hille has watched houses sprout in the hills north of town and businesses pop up along U.S. 281.

His once-easy sprint on the highway disappeared as traffic swelled five-fold.

He's no highway engineer, but he knows something has to be done.

"It has been just outrageous," Hille said.

A light-rail system won't come to the rescue anytime soon — voters slapped down that idea five years ago. VIA Metropolitan Transit is laying plans to extend commuter buses beyond Loop 1604, but that's not likely to pry enough Texan fingers from the steering wheels.

Highway officials say they'll have to lay more asphalt, and plan to break ground for San Antonio's first toll road in January — adding four to eight lanes to a three-mile section of U.S. 281 just north of Loop 1604.

But a debate rages over how to pay for new highway lanes. The old way has been mostly with gas taxes. The new way, if state officials prevail, and it looks like they could, will include tolls.

Motorists, stressed by growing traffic and high gas prices, and not always familiar with arcane details and ramifications of highway finances, are split on the issue.

Maybe boosting the gas tax by a nickel a gallon would be best, Hille said. After all, he's paid gas taxes that went for roads he doesn't use, so now other drivers can pay to widen U.S. 281.

"Put me down for that," he said.

Or would it be better — and fairer — to ask drivers to pay something like $1.40 for a 10-mile cruise past gridlock?

"If I saw, while I was sitting there, free-flowing traffic on the toll road, I'd pay," North Side resident Rob Reiter said. "At least, people are going to have a choice."

But regardless of what Hille and Reiter think, Gov. Rick Perry and state legislators have decided tolls are the way to go.

Laws were passed in recent years to make it happen, and voters — some critics say unwittingly — changed the Texas Constitution in 2001 to let the state borrow and loan funds for toll roads. It also allows the state, for the first time, to spend gas tax money on toll projects.

Then, in 2003, the Texas Transportation Commission passed a landmark policy to toll every new highway lane possible.

Commission Chairman Ric Williamson coined a mantra to drill the message home: "It's the no road, the toll road, or the slow road."

For almost a century, Texas has taxed gasoline and collected fees to fund roads on a pay-as-you-go basis. Officials claim that tested system is falling apart and can pay for just a third of needed projects.

State and federal elected leaders, worried about what they see as political suicide, have refused to raise gas taxes since the 1990s. Inflation, with help from hybrid and alternative-fuel cars starting to surge into the market, is slowly choking the purchasing power of gas taxes.

Planners say there's an $8 billion shortfall over the next 25 years for new highway lanes and bus service in San Antonio. Meanwhile, the city's congestion is getting worse, with the average motorist stuck in stalled traffic for 36 hours in 2002, up from just seven hours in 1982, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.

"We will see the rush-hour period extend longer and longer," warned Joe Krier, president of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. "It'll back up farther, it'll last longer, and it'll extend to other freeways."

The toll lanes on U.S. 281, funded with $77 million in gas taxes, are expected to open in 2009 and eventually anchor a planned 47-mile network that will extend to Comal County and span the North Side along Loop 1604.

More than 70 miles of toll roads over 25 years were approved last year by the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

But the debate over whether San Antonio needs toll roads is just starting to rev up.

Outraged motorists have jammed public meetings to unleash their fury. They have begun to organize, holding rallies and filling Web pages with their vitriol. Their main complaint is that tolls are more of a tool to raise money — loads of it — than to tackle traffic congestion.

Toll is just another word for tax, they say.

"This is unbridled taxation," said Terri Hall, organizer of Texas Toll Party — San Antonio. "The taxpayers decide when this debate is over."

Stretching facts

When the rhetoric gets rolling on toll roads, some key facts can get stretched or trampled. Both sides are guilty.

For example, the Texas Department of Transportation says toll roads are fair, because users pay for the new lanes.

But toll users aren't the only ones paying for toll roads. Taxpayers paid for land where toll lanes will be built in San Antonio. And more than $500 million, so far, in taxes and fees will subsidize the $3.5 billion worth of toll projects here.

"Don't be fooled by the argument that even those of you that plan to use the free lanes will never be affected by tolls," said Dave Ramos of Texas Toll Party.

Also, toll users won't just pay for the road they're driving on. After a toll road is paid for, officials will continue to collect fees and spend some of the money on other projects, most likely to build more toll lanes in other parts of the city.

Among the bolder claims of toll critics is that money for highways isn't shrinking, despite federal and state gas taxes being frozen at 38.4 cents a gallon since 1997. The state's 20-cent portion has been fixed since 1991.

It's true that gas-tax revenues have been increasing in Texas, even when adjusted for inflation. But the amount of driving has shot up much faster, which means the growing pot of money can't keep up with increasingly worn and clogged roads.

"To not address this problem honestly ... is a disservice to the public and taxpayers," said David Casteel, TxDOT's lead engineer in San Antonio.

Why tolls?

Officials don't have to toll highways to come up with more money; there are other options. It's just that tolls seem to be the path of least resistance.

Without tolls, gas taxes would have to be raised $1 per gallon to build and maintain roads statewide, officials said last year. Just focusing on the eight largest cities and leaving out maintenance, they say gas taxes would have to go up 35 cents to pay for $68 billion in unmet needs over the next 25 years.

But proposed toll roads in those cities will hardly cover that hefty bill. Tolls, the fledgling Texas Mobility Fund and other new sources such as San Antonio's quarter-cent sales tax increase — a portion of which pays for highways — will fund only $12 billion.

Tolls alone will account for just $5 billion over the next quarter century.

What toll critics want to know is how much gas taxes would have to be raised to do what urban toll roads are supposed to do. Considering that each penny of the gas tax raises about $100 million a year for highways, an increase of 2 cents should do it.

But that's not the whole story.

Toll plans such as those in San Antonio also speed up projects as much as 10 to 20 years by securing bonds to get construction money upfront. Toll fees actually can reap more than three times the amount that bond sales would generate, which is needed to cover bond debts that can last for 40 years.

Although bonds for roads also could be secured with gas tax revenues, the current gas tax does not have the same purchasing power as the tolls planned by the state. Drivers are paying 31/2 cents a mile in gas taxes — and a penny of that isn't even spent on Texas roads — but they might pay 12 to 15 cents a mile to use a toll lane.

If gas taxes were used to back bonds, officials would have to scale back and cancel future highway projects or kick gas tax rates skyward to help pay debt service on the bonds.

So then, why not do away with bonding altogether and get money quicker by raising the gas tax by 5 cents a gallon, which would bring in the $5 billion over 10 years?

Fat chance, said state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio.

Four years ago, he and a few other legislators wanted to raise the gas tax by a nickel or a dime. But Perry quashed momentum by promising to veto such a bill if it reached his desk.

Now gas prices are bobbing erratically, and motorists are getting more worried. A bill to at least tie the state gas tax to inflation managed to get some backing earlier this year, but went nowhere.

"It wasn't very popular then, and it's even less popular now," Wentworth said. "All of us want the very best, but we don't want to pay for it, or we want to pay for as little as possible."

But even with those gas tax increases, there wouldn't be enough money, TxDOT officials stress. For that matter, tolls by themselves aren't enough.

"There's still more needs," said Clay Smith, an engineer in TxDOT's San Antonio office. "That still doesn't solve the rest of the congestion in the metropolitan areas."

Some critics aren't so sure the situation is that serious.

"You have to understand that, in the highway world, needs are what most of us would call wish lists," said Bill Barker, a San Antonio-based transportation consultant.

Tolling new highway lanes in San Antonio could add more than $1 billion in construction funds to $2 billion available to this area from taxes and fees over the next 25 years, according to TxDOT.

A toll fee of 14 cents a mile for autos and 38 cents for trucks was used to make estimates.

A recent state poll asked drivers whether they'd be willing to pay from $1.10 to $6.80 to travel roughly 18 miles on a future Loop 1604 toll lane. The poll results have not yet been released.

Bexar County staff and the San Antonio Mobility Coalition — a nonprofit advocacy group that supports toll roads — crunched numbers to look at alternative ways to rake in $100 million a year over a decade. Here's what they came up with:

Create a countywide gas tax of 25.7 cents per gallon.

Or increase the city sales tax by ¾ of a cent.

Or boost city property taxes 56 percent.

Or raise the county's vehicle registration fee from $10 to $110.

Conversion diversion

Perhaps the murkiest part of the toll-road debate concerns whether highways are being converted to tollways.

Both sides have their definitions to frame arguments. For beleaguered motorists, the truth often lurks in shadows.

Toll advocates say drivers will always have an option to use non-tolled roads, though they'll be congested.

Toll lanes will be built in the middle of U.S. 281 after existing lanes are moved apart, and will be placed in the median of Loop 1604 and elevated over Interstate-35. The number of free lanes will stay the same.

Opponents argue that rights of way purchased by taxpayers will be used for toll lanes, and that adjacent free lanes will be pressed into service to feed toll lanes. Existing roads will become more crowded than ever.

But projects attracting the most heat involve highways such as U.S. 281, where express toll lanes will be added from North Loop 1604 to the Comal County line. The existing highway lanes will become or be replaced with frontage roads.

The question is whether a frontage road is a fair replacement for a highway. State law says it is; proponents maintain. Common sense says it's not, critics counter.

As traffic grows on the future U.S. 281 frontage roads, more traffic lights will be added at intersections, TxDOT officials acknowledge. But the same would happen if it remains a highway.

More importantly, the frontage road will be designed for a speed of 45 mph, compared to the current posted limits of 60 and 65 mph on U.S. 281.

TxDOT engineers insist that's not a downgrade, saying average speeds on U.S. 281 near Loop 1604 are less than 45 mph, due to congestion. Also, posted limits are determined by average travel speeds, not road designs, meaning posted speeds can be higher.

"It just depends on what people are driving," said Carlos Lopez, director of traffic operations for TxDOT. "We'll just have to see what happens the day that road opens up."

Toll critics are far from convinced, saying the frontage roads will foster the very congestion that TxDOT officials claim they're solving. Some even say the freeway lanes on Loop 1604 and I-35 could be impacted by adjacent toll lanes.

"Since when is our government into providing separate but unequal services," said North Side resident Nikki Kuhns, who drives on U.S. 281 every day. "I'm not against toll roads, I'm against them on existing roads."

Cindy Cox moved to San Antonio three months ago and she's still trying to make sense of the toll-road talk.

She lives near U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 and avoids those highways during rush hours. She's against building toll roads, though she sometimes paid tolls in Chicago, and she's against higher gas taxes.

What Cox really wants is not even on the drawing board.

"It would be nice if they had a train like they did in Chicago," she said while waiting for her husband to pick her up at a grocery store. "It was the best thing, the trains. The trains got you everywhere."

© 2005 San Antonio Express-News: