Tuesday, January 23, 2007

"These projects should have been built three years ago."

U.S. 281 toll idea gets more detractors


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

Lyle Larson didn't have a friend on the Metropolitan Planning Organization board when he tried to stop it from approving the first toll plans in 2004.

But when the Bexar County commissioner made a last-ditch effort Monday to stop tolling of U.S. 281 and revert to a gas-tax plan, he managed to pull five other votes.

It wasn't enough — the effort failed 9-6 — but as the smoke cleared, toll critics realized they have come a long way.

"It was a bit of a surprise," said David Ramos of San Antonio Toll Party. "It's four more than we had a few months ago. We don't intend to let up."

One of the board members joining Larson's camp was state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, which now makes two local senators who want to see tolls pulled from U.S. 281 plans. Republican Jeff Wentworth wrote a letter of support this month.

But Uresti didn't say why he voted that way. In fact, earlier in the meeting he complained how no one has ever written him to ask that gas taxes be raised to pay for unfunded road needs.

"Raise your hands if you want us to raise your taxes," he said to about 150 people in the packed room.

About a fourth of the crowd raised their hands.

"It depends on how much," one woman murmured.

State and federal gas taxes, totaling 38.4 cents a gallon, haven't been raised since the 1990s, and researchers disagree on how high they'd have to go to cover a wish list of state and local projects statewide.

Without tolls or a higher tax, money would have to be raided from other projects to widen U.S. 281 as planned, Texas Department of Transportation officials said.

What would have cost $78 million to construct last year — express lanes with access roads on U.S. 281 from Loop 1604 to Stone Oak Parkway — will now run $110 million, said David Casteel of TxDOT, who's on the planning organization board.

And because traffic on U.S. 281, now reaching 100,000 cars a day, is getting worse, the project needs to be extended past Marshall Road. That would bring the price tag to $150 million.

The problem, Casteel told the board, is that after spending $9 million to clear trees and prepare for construction a year ago, before a lawsuit forced a new environmental study, the agency now has just $69 million left.

"We need to look at that in a very hard way," warned board Chairman Richard Perez, a city councilman.

Even Larson's best ally on the board, fellow County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, flinched and asked to postpone a vote until he could find out what projects might get cut.

"I just don't know what's being asked here," he said.

Larson said they shouldn't wait because the new environmental study for U.S. 281 will be out next month and then it could be too late. The board just needs to bite the bullet and put back the non-toll plan that used to exist, he said.

"We blinked and now we're in a predicament," he said. "These projects should have been built three years ago."

Adkisson decided to vote with Larson. So did VIA board members Melissa Castro-Killen and Sidney Ordway and City Councilwoman Elena Guajardo — none of whom prefaced their votes with explanations.

Voting against were councilmen Perez and Art Hall, city staffers Emil Moncivais and Tom Wendorf, County Commissioner Sergio "Chico" Rodriguez, Windcrest Mayor Jack Leonhardt, Selma Councilman Charles Eads and TxDOT officials Casteel and Clay Smith.


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