Saturday, May 19, 2007

A Texas activist is born

Toll road foe a powerful force


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

In many ways, Terri Hall was on a collision course with Texas toll road policies long before she and her family loaded up their van and drove from California to the Hill Country three years ago.

A lifetime of volunteering, a hunger for staying on top of politics, and strong religious and moral convictions helped hone Hall's activist instincts.

Her brains, drive, superb speaking skills, engaging personality and wholesome good looks — noted by friends and enemies alike — make Hall especially effective. They help explain why this 37-year-old mother of six is a leading force in a populist assault on the Legislature.

Hall's critics say she doesn't always get her facts right and is quick to attack. But they admit that packing public meetings with angry people and blitzing officials with hundreds or thousands of e-mails and phone calls have made lawmakers pay attention.

"There's no way you can ignore that clear and loud message from folks — it sticks in your head," said Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-San Antonio.

Castro says he hasn't been soft on toll roads, but last year Hall put him on her list of politicians to kick out of office because she didn't think he'd done enough.

Legislators, responding to protests statewide, filed dozens of bills this session to slow or curtail tolling efforts.

Rising to the top was House Bill 1892, which would slap a two-year moratorium — with exceptions — and tighten restrictions on leasing toll projects to private companies.

The bill passed overwhelmingly, putting Gov. Rick Perry, the state's most powerful advocate for toll roads, against a wall. In a scramble last weekend, he and others crafted a weaker version, which added more exemptions and loosened limits on the lease contracts.

Perry vetoed the House bill Friday, an action lawmakers could easily override. But even the watered-down Senate bill would be a victory for the armies of grass-roots activists.

"They've been pretty effective," said Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, who reluctantly agreed to include U.S. 281 in the moratorium. "I don't think that would have happened without an outcry from the public."

Hall's road to tolls

The Texas rush to toll its roads got a big lift in 2003.

Legislators passed a massive bill to allow widespread tolling and let corporations develop tollways in return for collecting profits for up to 70 years. Many now say they didn't fully understand what they voted on.

In December 2003, the Texas Transportation Commission passed a policy to toll new highway lanes whenever feasible. The same day, it approved formation of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority to let San Antonio join the tolling club.

At the time of the commission meeting, Hall was a month into a new blog — — and three days before had posted an entry that celebrated the capture of Saddam Hussein and the courageous, unswerving leadership of President Bush.

"It's a sad day to be a Democrat," wrote Hall, a longtime registered Republican.

Liberal Democrats later would become some of Hall's strongest allies in the toll fight.

In 2003, Hall and her husband, Roger, owned an in-home caregiver business near Sacramento, Calif. Being on call all the time was grueling and interrupted family life, which included home schooling the children.

So the Halls sold the business and in May 2004 headed to San Antonio, an area with affordable homes, room in the hills north of the city and neighbors who also home school. Terri Hall was 71/2 months pregnant during the trip.

Their fifth child was born in July 2004, almost a week before the Metropolitan Planning Organization adopted the first toll plans for San Antonio.

Many months would pass before Hall realized that toll lanes were eyed for U.S. 281, her main link to shopping and other business in San Antonio. Plans also include adding toll lanes to Loop 1604 on the North Side.

In December 2004, the transportation commission selected a consortium led by Cintra of Spain and Zachry Construction Corp. of San Antonio to plan for a 1,200-foot-wide swath of toll roads and rail lines paralleling Interstate 35.

It's billed as the first leg of Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor, a 4,000-mile network that's supposed to be financed, built and operated by private companies over the next half-century.

The next day, Hall posted her "conservative" Christmas wish list to the president. She asked for replacing income taxes with a consumption tax, immigration reform and school choice.

Soon, Hall would awaken to a new cause, thrusting her into a spotlight where her college studies in politics and media and her English degree from the University of California at Los Angeles would be of use.

An activist is born

In March 2005, the Texas Department of Transportation held public meetings to spell out how it could get money more quickly to widen U.S. 281 from North San Antonio through Comal County.

Officials told more than 200 people at Specht Elementary School that the answer is to charge tolls on the new lanes, starting at 15 cents a mile. Murmurs rippled through the crowd.

The next night in New Braunfels, Hall saw the same thing.

"It didn't smell right," she recalled. "Nobody was happy when they left that room."

Hall called her elected representatives to find out more and then met with TxDOT officials. She didn't like what she heard.

As time passed, she began to see sinister motives.

When TxDOT says tolls are fair because only users pay, Hall sees tax-funded rights of way being converted to tollways, with profits going to other uses.

When TxDOT says market forces will keep toll rates in check, Hall sees a government monopoly squeezing cash from congestion-weary drivers.

When TxDOT says private sector innovation and efficiency will save time and money, Hall sees corporate handouts and toll rates rising faster than ever.

As the gritty details emerge in public meetings, on talk radio and anywhere else there might be an audience, both sides complain facts are being twisted.

For example, Hall claims TxDOT has money to widen at least 7 miles of U.S. 281 without adding tolls. TxDOT officials and others say the agency can't do that without raiding funds from other projects.

"What has troubled me from the outset is that she and her organization don't seem to be burdened by sticking to the truth," said Joe Krier, president of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce.

"They've opened the door for this revolt that's going on, and for legislators to have some room to represent their constituents," said Linda Curtis of Independent Texans, a group aligned with Hall.

After talking to TxDOT, Hall decided she had better organize and started calling around.

She soon found Sal Costello, who the year before had formed Austin Toll Party. Curtis, who worked for Costello at the time, remembers Hall coming to their table at a Capitol rally in May 2005 and asking questions.

"She wasn't at the time what I would say is a leader," Curtis said. "I didn't realize what a dynamo she was. I was blown away within months.

"She's beautiful, she's smart, she's passionate and she has the drive and she knows how to juggle. And she cares deeply."

In June 2005, Costello and Curtis came to San Antonio to help Hall kick off the first meeting of what would become the San Antonio Toll Party.

"She just had that look in her eye and backed it up," said Bob Throckmorton, a retired Air Force colonel who became one of Hall's trusted lieutenants.

First big victory

Hall quickly found more help, even reaching across ideological lines to do so.

Bill Barker, a transportation planner who disparages suburban sprawl and says too many highways are being built, has fed Hall reams of data. He's a "progressive" Democrat.

Annalisa Peace, an environmentalist who's not happy with all the construction over the Edwards Aquifer recharge and drainage zones, agrees U.S. 281 shouldn't be turned into a tollway. However, she also doesn't want a full-fledged freeway.

Peace and Hall first got together in July 2005 to tell the San Antonio Express-News Editorial Board why they believe proposed toll plans are bad. When Hall complained that the tolls could stifle North Side growth, a curious editor turned to Peace and asked what she thought.

I think that'd be great, Peace said with a wide grin.

Hall shifted in her seat.

Well, then we disagree, she said in a dejected voice.

But the two remained allies.

Peace's group, Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas, joined one of Costello's statewide groups to file a lawsuit that stopped construction of U.S. 281 toll lanes in January 2006. As a result, TxDOT is redoing the environmental studies on it.

Hall celebrated, calling it Victory No. 1.

"Obviously, it's a double-edged sword," she said later. "You've got different people coming to the table for different things. But we all agree that the cause is greater than that."

Hall is far from alone. The Republican, Democratic, Libertarian and Green parties all oppose how toll roads are being developed in Texas.

Still, many local leaders insist motorists stuck in traffic lost out. Building the U.S. 281 tollway has been pushed back two to five years.

"She's doing what she thinks is right," said former San Antonio Mayor Bill Thornton, chairman of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority. "I also think she's misguided. She's been harmful to our community's transportation needs."

The Texas stage

Year after year, San Antonio business and elected leaders drove to Austin to schmooze the Texas Transportation Commission.

In February 2006, they argued for toll roads, asked for more state money and showed a video proclaiming the city's 50-year "love affair" with TxDOT. But that year, for the first time, a speaker disagreed.

Hall faced commissioners in a room packed with more than 100 highway engineers, private industry officials and toll promoters. Just a handful of her supporters were there.

Commission Chairman Ric Williamson, with a stout build, crew cut and deep voice that matches his aggressive push of Perry's tolling wishes, thanked the tall, slender woman standing before him but said they have different philosophies.

"I know well that the power of my beliefs are strengthened by the most vicious attack of those who don't share that belief," he said. "Your words and your testimony is valuable to us."

Hall stood her ground.

"I really hope that you do listen," she said.

For Hall, wresting government from special interests is bigger than toll roads.

She worries about efforts — some covert, she says — that could break down sovereign borders by expanding free trade and forging a European-style common market. The Trans-Texas Corridor, being sold as a cargo route, is just a piece.

"This is really about taking our government back."

The 2006 elections were a chance for such a cleansing. And TxDOT gave toll critics their best stage yet when it held more than 50 public hearings for the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor route.

More than 13,000 people attended, including 900 in San Antonio. Nearly every speaker railed against corridor plans.

Candidates hoping to oust Perry or win legislative seats seized on the string of hearings as a ready-made campaign trail through the heart of Texas.

In November, toll critics lost more races than they won. The most notable defeat was Carole Keeton Strayhorn's dismal showing in the governor's race.

But the message that voters were unhappy, whether with TxDOT or other agencies, sank in. Lawmakers began singing that refrain after they returned to Austin in January.

"Over the years, the Legislature has been somewhat lazy and somewhat asleep," said Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. "My last election was a wake-up call for me."

The next time Hall and Williamson talked was at a Senate transportation committee hearing, which had dragged on for hours and left toll critics with some of their biggest gains. Most of the audience had left when Williamson turned and leaned over to his adversary.

You know, you changed everything, he told her. You fight like a true Texan.

"You should be proud," he said.

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