Sunday, February 12, 2006

"While radically changing how Texas builds roads, lawmakers decided that road building is too important to let those who pay for them have a say."

Are toll roads really about traffic, or perhaps about big contracts?


Carlos Guerra
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

It has taken awhile for people to understand what elected — and unelected — officials have planned for them, which is why only now are the Texas Department of Transportation's toll-road plans coming under intense fire.

When Gov. Rick Perry unveiled the Trans Texas Corridor, I warned that it could turn into a huge boondoggle. But few readers responded, and some called me an alarmist. And even in late 2004, Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said that "in your lifetime, most roads will have tolls," and Time magazine asked if our state's plans weren't "a Big, Fat Texas Boondoggle." But only a few more people wrote in.

Recent columns about toll roads in the far North Side, however, triggered waves of e-mails from all over Texas expressing strong opposition to tollways and anger that voters are powerless to stop them.

"Why don't they put it out in the marketplace of ideas?" asked one. "If (toll roads) are really that great, people will vote for them."

It won't happen. While radically changing how Texas builds roads, lawmakers decided that road building is too important to let those who pay for them have a say.

TxDOT will turn some existing roads into tollways, and add toll lanes to other existing roads. You will have zip to say about it, or about plans for 4,000 miles of new toll roads — with railway and utility easements — that will be built on state land handed to private investors. The Trans Texas Corridor will take 584,000 acres of land in quarter-mile-wide swaths at a cost of an estimated $183.5 billion.

These projects are well on their way. But only now are many realizing that the "small" tollway proposals close to them are not isolated, one-of-a-kind projects, but part of a bigger scheme. Controversies are erupting throughout Texas, and very diverse constituencies are coalescing in opposition. Their only recourse may be at the ballot box, however.

And toll roads do have supporters. My columns about tolling U.S. 281, for example, triggered some prominent proponents to dispute what I wrote, and I will explore these in a future column.

I must, however, address some assertions made last week in an op/ed piece by Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President Joe Krier. Toll roads, he wrote, are needed to keep our air and water clean, and shouldn't be like Austin, which, by letting its growth get ahead of its highway building, made "its residents suffer painfully long commuting times."

Can anyone explain how building more highways over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone will not increase the chances of catastrophic spills? And why is there such a rush to build more highway miles when both San Antonio's and Austin's commute times are still way below the national average?

Environmentalist Krier did write that as TxDOT "revisits the environmental assessment ..., all critical environmental issues with this project (must) be fully addressed." What he didn't mention is that this more extensive assessment is required by federal law, and it is only now being conducted because a lawsuit forced TxDOT to do it.

It should also be pointed out that Krier did not submit his op/ed in his capacity as chamber president, but as chairman of the San Antonio Mobility Coalition.

Check that group's Web site, and you will see that its membership is a veritable who's who of big construction interests. Could it be that these projects are more about fat construction contracts than about improving transportation?

To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News: