Tuesday, September 04, 2007

"It's illegal for them to be promoting toll roads with taxpayer dollars."

More lawmakers add voices to outcry over toll road plans


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

A firestorm ignited by recent news about state officials eyeing tolls on interstates and spending $9 million to advertise toll-road plans continued to roll through San Antonio on Tuesday.

Several state lawmakers gathering at Stone Oak Parkway where U.S. 281 is slated to be rebuilt as toll express lanes with non-toll frontage roads said the Texas Department of Transportation has gone too far.

"They're arrogant in what they're doing because they're not listening to the will of the people," said Rep. Joe Farias, D-San Antonio.

Rep. David Leibowitz, D-San Antonio, said TxDOT shouldn't be spending public money on ads to push its policies. He plans to seek an attorney general's opinion on the matter this week. Also, he'll ask the local Metropolitan Planning Organization, which oversees federal gas-tax dollars in this area, to pass a resolution to oppose the ads.

"It's illegal for them to be promoting toll roads with taxpayer dollars," Leibowitz said.

TxDOT officials in Austin didn't return phone calls Tuesday but said last week that the campaign addresses concerns that the agency hasn't done enough outreach and that state law allows it to spend money on marketing toll roads.

The campaign started June 1 with television, radio, print, billboard and Internet advertising to direct people to the Keep Texas Moving Web site (www.keeptexasmoving.com). It also includes direct mail and training for spokesmen to appear on talk radio.

"A $9 million dollar pain pill is what they're selling us, to buy into their plan," Farias said.

Adding to the anger of toll critics last week were reports that TxDOT was lobbying Congress for the ability to toll existing interstate lanes.

"Even if such authority is granted on the federal level, state law requires both voter and County Commissioner Court approval before any segment of an existing roadway is converted to a toll facility," said a 24-page TxDOT report, which has been on the agency's Web site since last year and was approved in February by the Texas Transportation Commission.

Reaction last week was swift on all levels.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said she'll file a bill to ban states from converting existing interstates into toll roads, and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, concurred.

U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, called for a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on converting interstates to tollways and on TxDOT's ad campaign.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and City Councilwoman Sheila McNeil, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, both issued statements to oppose any tolling of existing highway lanes.