Tuesday, October 16, 2007

"Texans have to be asking themselves, 'Why do we have to pay so much?' "

17 cents will get you a mile


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

Noisy, anxious speculation over how much motorists will pay to use toll lanes on U.S. 281 has
ended with a silent revelation.

Barring legal action and a dramatic turnaround in the courts, drivers in two- and three-axle vehicles could pay 17 cents a mile when the first four miles of U.S. 281 toll lanes open in 2012, according to documents posted on the Web without fanfare Monday.

Rates might increase 2.75 percent a year through 2017 and then 3 percent annually after that, about as fast as consumer inflation has been rising.

The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, which will develop the U.S. 281 tollway, negotiated for months behind closed doors with the Texas Department of Transportation to set the toll rates and had carefully kept the numbers hushed.

But the local Metropolitan Planning Organization must sign off on the deal, and following its habit of releasing information before meetings, posted the proposed toll fees. The organization meets next Monday.

"There you go," spokesman Scott Ericksen said. "It's just our process."

Now that the rates are out there, a furious long-running debate over toll roads will now shift to new ground.

"I'm just glad we're finally getting down to the nitty-gritty," said Jim Reed, a mobility authority board member.

Terri Hall, founder of San Antonio Toll Party and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, said the fees, while comparable to Houston and Dallas, are higher than some other states — a claim borne out by a recent state audit.

"Texans have to be asking themselves, 'Why do we have to pay so much?'" she said.

Vic Boyer, director of the public-private San Antonio Mobility Coalition, said business and road industry officials are so far warm to the rates.

"I think they feel fairly comfortable with what they've seen," he said.

Rebuilding U.S. 281 into a tolled expressway with nontoll frontage roads from Loop 1604 to Marshall Road is just a start for the mobility authority.

The agency hopes to use $258 million in public funds and sell bonds backed by decades of toll fees to add $1 billion worth of toll lanes to highways:

The first 4 miles of U.S. 281 — which officials say will cost $200 million, a third more than estimates earlier this year. Construction starts next summer.

U.S. 281 toll lanes to Comal County. No timetable has been set.

Loop 1604 from Culebra Road to U.S. 281. Construction starts in late 2009.

Plans also call for tolled interchange ramps along Loop 1604 to give motorists faster shots to other freeways such as U.S. 281. The proposed toll rates under consideration for 2012 suggest charging 57 cents for each ramp.

Emergency and military vehicles would get free passage on toll lanes. VIA Metropolitan Transit would get a $42,000 a year break, enough to allow buses and vans to ride free, but the agency would have the option of spreading its exemption among other vehicles, such as vanpools.

In 2012 trucks would be charged 46 cents a mile on toll lanes and $1.15 per interchange ramp.

There would be no tollbooths. Instead, motorists would pay via an electronic scanning system.

"Our goal is to be reasonable, to keep it affordable," mobility authority Chairman Bill Thornton said.

The authority will brief the nonprofit mobility coalition at a private meeting Friday at Valero Energy Corp. to strategize support for toll plans.

"We want everyone to have a chance to see this, to ask questions," Boyer said. "We were on the ball and asked for it."

When Hall heard about Boyer's meeting, she called Reed to set up a presentation for toll critics, which will be held at 6 p.m. today at Chester's Burgers at 16609 San Pedro Ave. She said she wants to know how much profit U.S. 281 toll lanes will generate.

"That's the real crux of the matter," she said. "That'll be interesting."


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