Wednesday, August 15, 2007

"Be brazen, act normal, and some people will be happy to pay twice for the same thing."

'Pardon our dust' doesn't cut it


Ken Allard
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

There are tougher issues ahead, but we need to reconsider a nagging question: What do we do about the Texas Department of Transportation?

It's hard to live in San Antonio without being affected by certain oddities in highway construction that occur nowhere else. Just last month, while fighting my way past dozers and airport barricades to leave on a business trip, I spotted highway crews apparently constructing an off-ramp right into the second-story lobby of a nearby bank building.

Was this another TxDOT planning fiasco, the latest innovation in drive-through banking or was Donald Rumsfeld now in charge?

Certain lifestyle adjustments have been required during the past 18 months as an adopted Texan, like using fighter-plane tactics as a routine traffic survival tool or paying exorbitant auto insurance rates.

Even better: learning to admire the "Sea Island oblique" — the fearless way natives exit restaurant parking lots and cut across access roads to enter the interstate by the most direct route.

When local issues get too tough for the newcomer, my designated Texas cultural adviser, Will From Hondo, Aggie-born and -bred, dispenses sage advice unencumbered by the broken winds of political correctness.

Ken: Who really controls TxDOT — assuming anyone does?

Will: On paper, the governor. But mostly the contractors just do what they think best, same as when their ancestors worked for Santa Anna.

Ken: Is the road network here really "Santa Anna's revenge"?

Will: No, San Antonio was already several centuries old before the actual invention of roads. Paving over creeks and cow paths saved earth-moving dollars that would later be needed out at the airport.

Ken: OK, but why does TxDOT build these elaborate "sky-ramps to nowhere" in some places while in others they don't even bother connecting major highways like U.S. 281 and Loop 1604? Haven't they ever heard of cloverleafs?

Will: It's technically true that you have to go through three lights and Pastor Hagee's parking lot to re-enter Loop 1604 from U.S. 281. Of course, some folks find it simpler just to go to Blanco (the town, not the road) and then turn around. Either way, it's a good opportunity to pray for patience.

Ken: I'm not letting you off that easy about those insane skyways into the ionosphere. Isn't the connection between I-10 and Loop 410 higher than most thrill rides out at Sea World?

Will: We like to pay tribute to ancient Mayan architecture and their tradition of human sacrifice. Didn't you see "Apocalypto"? Just bring along some oxygen and quit whining, rookie.

Ken: Speaking of human sacrifice, why do some exit signs vanish, lanes just disappear and whole highways suddenly come to an unexplained halt?

Will: Survival of the fittest for one thing budget cuts for another. While Texas doesn't have an income tax, our gas tax mostly goes for building roads. But a few years ago, the folks in Austin decided that growth was stagnating so they "reallocated" the highway funds back to the general treasury. Just like when a burglar reallocates your stereo.

Ken: With growth going sky high, that actually sounds like most CIA predictions. But is this when TxDOT started talking about toll roads?

Will: Yup. Kind of a Ponzi scheme, though nobody has had the guts to admit it. But I think Austin actually got the toll road idea from those strip clubs down on Sixth Street where there's a $20 cover charge but they still want 10 bucks for a beer. Be brazen, act normal, and some people will be happy to pay twice for the same thing.

Ken: Brazen is one thing, but toll roads? They would cause pollution and even more tie-ups and accidents than we have now.

Will: True but irrelevant. Texans hate taxes but will reluctantly pony up for "fees" — even though the money comes out of the same pockets and winds up in the same state treasury. And after so many years, Texans are used to TxDOT. Maybe they even think of it as an employer of last resort if their kid flunks the TAKS.

Ken: Appalling. Is anyone considering an insurgency?

Will: Are you volunteering to lead one?

When not stuck in TxDOT- induced traffic, retired Col. Ken Allard is an executive in residence at UTSA. E-mail him at

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