Friday, September 28, 2007

"The Transportation Commission's history indicates it will build toll roads with or without the planning organization's approval."

City to get $330,000 to study use of toll roads


By Brandi Grissom / Austin Bureau
El Paso Times
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN -- El Paso's new mobility authority will get $330,000 to study the viability of toll roads in the city after heated exchanges Thursday between state transportation commissioners and state Rep. Joe Pickett of El Paso.

The loan the commission approved will allow the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority to hire consultants to examine possible toll projects, including the Northeast Parkway, the Montana corridor and the so-called Southern Relief Route, which would add express toll lanes to Loop 375.

In all, 12 areas are being considered for possible toll lanes at a cost of $2.1 billion. The toll lanes will have to be built where motorists can choose to take roads that are free.

East Side resident Bruce Speer, a pastor at Cielo Vista Church, drives every day along Montana on his commute from home to work. Without question, he said, congestion and traffic have become a problem where he lives, and something should be done to remedy infrastructure problems in the area.

The only caveat, he said, is that tolls should be used to pay for the construction of specific new roads, then once a road is paid for, any fees drivers pay for using that road should be eliminated.

"The question is, how are we going to solve the problem, and it's not going to go away," he said. "If you don't do something about the infrastructure, then every politician is going to lose their position."

Less supportive of toll roads is Orlando Muñoz, a North Hills resident in Northeast El Paso, who said that the current amount of traffic in his area doesn't appear to warrant additional roadway infrastructure, especially because of the recent expansion of U.S. 54.

Even so, Muñoz said he'd probably use a toll road connecting U.S. 54 to Loop 375 on the far East Side, especially if the price is right -- between 25 cents and 40 cents.

"I don't see a problem with it, but I don't see a need for it right now," said Muñoz, a federal government employee. "With the increase of troops at Fort Bliss, if the case was the buildup would cause the traffic to increase that much and warrant a toll road, I'd probably be for it."

The amount motorists will have to pay for each toll section will be part of the study.

During the hearing, Pickett and the commissioners, who have long been at odds over transportation policies, argued over the mobility authority. Pickett said it does not legally exist and should not get money to study toll projects the El Paso Municipal Planning Organization has not approved.

Pickett said the commission should pay only to study the Northeast Parkway.

Mayor John Cook said the money simply allows the local authority to determine whether it should build the toll projects. Later, the authority could seek the planning organization's approval if the projects are workable.

"Other RMAs in the state are doing the same thing," Cook said.

If the authority decides not to build those toll projects, the Transportation Department would have the option to do so.

Pickett said the Transportation Commission's history indicates it will build toll roads with or without the planning organization's approval.

"They'll find a way to do whatever they want," he said.

Both Pickett and Cook asked the commission to officially clarify the matter.

"Otherwise, I see this argument going on and on and on like a little Eveready rabbit," Cook told the commission.

Brandi Grissom may be reached at;(512) 479-6606.

El Paso Times reporter Darren Meritz contributed to this story.

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