Tuesday, August 15, 2006

City Council gives a resounding 'thumbs down' to elevated toll lanes.

Toll road idea panned by council


San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

HELOTES — On the same night the executive director of an agency exploring ways to reduce congestion on Bandera Road discussed those alternatives, the City Council gave a resounding thumbs-down to the most controversial option, elevated toll lanes.

"This is not just detrimental," Councilwoman Linda Boyer-Owens said Thursday as she made a motion to pass a resolution expressing the council's opposition to toll lanes on Bandera Road, or Texas 16, from Loop 410 to Loop 1604.

"It will change the city forever, and in a very harmful way," she said.

Boyer-Owens said Helotes residents expressed those exact sentiments at a recent public hearing on the issue at Marshall High School that drew an estimated 450 people.

"This is what I've heard, without exception, from the citizens of Helotes," she said during the Aug. 10 session.

Councilwoman Alina Matutes-Eckhardt predicted equally dire consequences for Helotes, saying elevated toll lanes would ring the "death knell for the community."

"If this passes, we will just be an underpass," she said.

Mayor Jon Allan called the state Legislature "irresponsible," claiming Helotes and other communities would not be facing these kinds of situations if Texas lawmakers did not move funds from gasoline and other taxes dedicated to road improvements to "fill gaps in other areas."

"This is why we have these problems," he said. "The money is being used for other purposes."

Councilman J.B. Richeson said he was opposed to an alternative that would involve what he called privatization.

"A public infrastructure should be owned by the public, not by private industry," he said. "This is a shortsighted policy."

Richeson was one of four council members who unanimously voted in favor of the resolution, to the applause of a few residents who were still present near the end of the meeting. One councilman, Stuart Birnbaum, was absent from the session.

Several residents also voiced opposition to elevated toll roads at the beginning of the meeting, including David Galvan, who, like Allan, said state funds that should be used for roads and road improvements are not being administered properly.

"It's simply not planned properly," he said. "The money is going somewhere else."

But Terry Brechtel, executive director of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, created by Bexar County Commissioners Court in 2004 to develop road-improvement plans for more than 28 miles of state roads between Loop 1604 and Loop 410, told the council that elevated toll lanes are not a given. She said there is no final recommendation on toll lanes.

"We will look at many options," she said.

Brechtel's presentation focused on the Alamo RMA's role in general as well as ways to improve mobility on Bandera Road, with a traffic count ranging from 28,000 to 61,000 vehicles per day, according to a 2004 study.

"We're at the beginning stage of the (study) process," Brechtel said. "No specific recommendation has been made."

Other possible solutions to congestion on Bandera Road include better traffic-light synchronization, intersection improvements, rapid transit and dedicated high-occupancy-vehicle lanes.

The San Antonio Toll Party, Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas and the Helotes Heritage Association also list replacing intersections and signal lights with roundabouts, converting Bandera Road to a limited-access parkway and reversing traffic in one or more lanes during rush hour as other alternatives.

Brechtel said adding more lanes is another option but is problematic because of right-of- way issues.

She acknowledged that the community is "very, very vocal" in its opposition to toll lanes and said that changes are a long way off.

"This is a very long study process," she said.

Council members who had questions for Brechtel had their own ideas, too. Allan said improving Loop 1604 would help, and he said the study should involve the participation of police and fire officials and city staff members of affected communities.

"The best people who understand the streets are those who drive them," he said.

In addition, Allan said he is concerned that the Texas Department of Transportation won't proceed with any work during the study.

"I worry that they won't make improvements that would help in the short term," he said.

Helotes officials said they also fear that toll roads would facilitate development in the Hill Country, at the expense of their city.

"I don't want to be the access route for all development in the Hill Country," Allan said.

Matutes-Eckhardt said toll roads would be "convenient for other people but kill our community."

"That's why you hear a lot of emotion in people's voices," she said.

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News: www.mysanantonio.com