"The people of Texas are fed up with out-of-control, abusive government. This is taxation without representation."
San Antonio Express-News
With a U.S. 281 tollway plan racing toward the finish line, critics Monday filed yet another lawsuit they hope will slam on the brakes.
This time, they went to a federal court in San Antonio and reached back to the First and 14th amendments of the Constitution, which protect freedom of speech and provide equal protection under the law.
The lawsuit seeks to remove non-elected officials from the Metropolitan Planning Organization board and to ban Sheila McNeil, a city councilwoman who serves as chairwoman, from squelching some discussions on toll issues.
"The people of Texas are fed up with out-of-control, abusive government," said Terri Hall of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom. "This is taxation without representation."
Planning organization Director Isidro Martinez said federal law dealing with local oversight of transportation funds calls for staff officials from major agencies as well as elected leaders to serve on such boards.
Eleven of the 19 members of the planning board have been elected to city councils, the Bexar County Commissioners Court and the Legislature.
"It's just the way we've always done it," he said. "I guess we'll just have to wait and see."
McNeil said it's disappointing that no one first tried to resolve differences with her.
"Whoever's filing a lawsuit has not come to me and asked me to reconsider or do anything," she said. "It's a waste of court time."
Board member David Leibowitz, a state representative, said McNeil has repeatedly blocked consideration of a resolution that would advise the Texas Department of Transportation to stop spending up to $9 million to promote toll roads.
McNeil put the resolution on last month's agenda but, she said, pulled it after reading it. She said an unwritten policy lets the chairwoman set the agendas.
"It got inadvertently put on the agenda," she told the board last month. "It is not a matter for this MPO. We're a planning organization. We don't tell other organizations or entities how to spend their money."
The maneuver was just the latest to spark the lawsuit, Hall said. Others include a split vote in July to push aside a toll critic and install McNeil as chairwoman, and a sudden policy change in May to try to keep a toll advocate on the board despite leaving elected office.
San Antonio has four council members on the board, more than any other entity. The city also has two staff officials who serve, and they typically vote with their bosses.
"We've done everything in our power to exert the political pressure to change this unconstitutional board," Hall said. "But when a powerful unelected voting bloc is allowed to persist unchecked, we have no choice but go to court."
The lawsuit's lead attorney, David Van Os, who last year ran as the Democratic candidate for state attorney general, said he'll ask for a hearing before the planning board meets Dec. 3.
In December, the board plans to set U.S. 281 toll rates and shift more public money to subsidize the toll road, from $69 million allocated now to $112 million. With the extra funds, the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority could build 8 miles of tollway instead of 4.
The mobility authority hopes to start construction next summer and open the toll road in 2012, with express lanes running from Loop 1604 to either Marshall Road or Comal County. Toll rates might start at 17 cents a mile for cars and rise 2.75 percent a year through 2017 and then 3 percent annually.
But that's if the project doesn't get shoved into a legal ditch. A 2005 lawsuit filed in a state district court forced more environmental study, which stopped work for more than two years. Construction costs have since gone up by a third.
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