"Groups opposing the toll roads are threatening to take their fight to state lawmakers."
October 8, 2007
By ELISE HU & SHELTON GREEN
Austinites can expect to dip deeper into their pockets to get from point A to B more efficiently in the future.
The Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) approved a $1.5 billion, five-road toll project to address ongoing congestion problems in Central Texas on Monday night. The vote came amidst loud protest from opponents, who say the plan is akin to "double taxation."
Toll opponents interrupted the meeting numerous times.
The toll roads approved Monday include portions of 183, Highway 71, Highway 290 and 45 Southwest.
Members of Take on Traffic, an iniative sponsored by the Austin Greater Chamber of Commerce says of the hundreds they've polled the biggest concern they had about the Austin area was the lack of mobility.
Their counterparts who oppose new toll roads call themselves the Anti-Toll party.com say what CAMPO is doing amounts to double taxation because TEXDOT wants to build tolls on existing roads.
CAMPO Chairman and State Senator Kirk Watson, D-Austin, acknowledged that toll roads are unpopular in the region.
"If I could wave a magic wand, this is not the way I would do it, but right now, it is the only way I can do it and be responsible to the voters and address their traffic needs," Watson said.
Austin is the most congested city of its size in the nation, but federal and state money to help build additonal freeways is dwindling. The Texas Department of Transportation provides funding for new construction based on a matching plan, where regions are responsible for coming up with a share of construction projects.
"In order to get some of the leveraged money from the state, we've got to come up with the matching money. The state doesn't care where it comes from," said Watson.
Under the proposal, TXDOT will shell out $910 million, and toll road revenue will provide the match to get up to the $1.5 billion dollar cost.
"This is just a revenue generation scheme," said toll road opponent Sal Costello. He said the $910 million TXDOT is offering could be enough to build freeways for public use.
But state money isn't available without regional authorities coming up with some of the sum. Watson said other options like increasing property taxes would have placed a bigger burden on taxpayers. The state legislature resoundingly rejected a measure to increase the state gas tax to help pay for more roads. Absent that option, CAMPO's forced to make a politically tough vote.
"It's not an optimal fix, I wish we could do things differently," Watson said.
The groups opposing the toll roads are threatening to take their fight to state lawmakers.
Construction on the first phase of the projects could start in 2009 and is expected to take 2-years before it's completed.
© 2007 KVUE Television, Inc.
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