Sunday, September 09, 2007

"Senate Bill 792 left exemptions for nearly every toll road project that had already contracted with private developers"

Toll lanes in county? "Not on our watch"

September 9, 2007

By David Saleh Rauf
The Herald-Zeitung (New Braunfels and Comal County)
Copyright 2007

State transportation officials moving forward with toll road projects in San Antonio have no plans to build toll lanes on U.S. 281 in Comal County.

The Texas Department of Transportation was recently given the green light by Federal Highway Administration officials to continue with an ambitious U.S. 281 toll road project that stretches from Loop 1604 to Comal County. But the U.S. 281/1604 toll project--which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars--and TxDOT's push to convert existing highways into tolled lanes, will not cross into Comal County, officials said.

“Not going to happen,” said Pct. 2 Commissioner Jay Milikin. “Not on our watch.”

State transportation officials announced their plans to move forward with toll lanes on U.S. 281 in San Antonio just five days before local TxDOT representatives held a public hearing on a project slated to improve 6.8 miles of U.S. 281 in Comal County.

Less than two weeks later, reports surfaced that TxDOT had been pushing Congress to pass a federal law allowing them to purchase portions of existing interstate highways and turn them into toll roads, which has put a spotlight on the U.S. 281 issue in Comal County. Since then, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-TX, has filed legislation that would block TxDOT's move to acquire existing roads and convert them into tolled lanes.

The possibility of tolled lanes to fund construction of new roads, such as the proposed outer loop around the city, still is a possibility in Comal County, said TxDOT area engineer Greg Malatek. But local TxDOT officials said they will not turn existing highways into tolled lanes in the County.

“Right now, commissioner's court has made it loud and clear … they don't want to see toll roads on any existing roadway,” Malatek said.

Milikin said the county has reached an agreement with local TxDOT officials that will prevent them from pursuing toll road projects on existing highways in Comal without Commissioners' Court approval.

Commissioners have rejected prior attempts by TxDOT to toll existing highways to help fund road improvement projects within the county, Milikin said.

In turn, Commissioners' Court reached an agreement with TxDOT to front a portion of constructions costs to help improve U.S. 281 and a segment of Texas 46. As part of the pass-through agreement, the county has agreed to loan the state $16 million for each respective project. Milikin said the state will pay back the principle of the loan over a four-to-five-year period, but the county will “eat the interest.”

“I don't like using county tax payer money to subsidize the state, but that's exactly what we're doing,” Milikin said. “Without the pass-through agreement, we were looking at 15 to 20 years before those improvements would be made on 46 and 281.”

While commissioners in Comal have guaranteed that no toll roads will pop up on existing highways within the county anytime soon, in San Antonio and other portions of the state toll road projects are moving forward, despite a so-called two-year moratorium on private toll road contracts.

Senate Bill 792, over which Gov. Rick Perry threatened to call a special session at one point, left exemptions for nearly every toll road project that had already contracted with private developers, including the U.S. 281/1604 project in San Antonio.

Several state lawmakers who voted against the measure, including Rep. Nathan Macias, R-Bulverde, have since banded together to oppose TxDOT's latest $7 to 9 million public relations campaign aimed at promoting toll roads. The “Keep Texas Moving: Tolling and Trans-Texas Corridor Outreach,” which began in June, has drawn criticism from some state lawmakers and anti-toll road activists for wasting valuable gas tax dollars to promote toll roads.

“They're trying to use a $9 million blitz campaign to sell toll roads,” said Rep. Joe Farias, D-San Antonio, who along with Macias and Rep. David Leibowitz, D-San Antonio, held a press conference last week calling for an end to TxDOT's press campaign.

“If anything, the biggest thing is that as far toll roads go, the folks oppose who toll roads we're really not hearing any other options to stop congestion in San Antonio,” Malatek said.

U.S. 281 Expansion in Comal County

• What: Upgrading 6.8 miles of U.S. 281 in Comal County from 2-lane, undivided sections to 4-lane divided roadway.

• Where: Between FM 311 and FM 306 on U.S. 281.

• When: Construction to begin in 2010; could take up to 3 years.

• How Much: $55.4 million

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