Sunday, November 11, 2007

"Not all businesspeople are marching to Krier's tune."

Businesses split on tollway benefits


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

Joe Krier, a voice of the business community for two decades, has worked hard to add toll lanes to 70 miles of North Side highways.

As a recent president of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, he has taken up the toll-road cause for some 2,000 businesses employing more than 300,000 people.

"My sense is that there is broad-based support," Krier said. "Who's pushing for this is the business community and people who want to be able to get to work on time and who want to get home on time and who want to get their kids to school on time."

Along U.S. 281 and Loop 1604, where most toll lanes would go, some businesses agree.

"I just can't wait for them to do something," Realtor Diane Craig said. "They just need to free up the traffic — it's killing stuff out here."

But not all businesspeople are marching to Krier's tune.

"If he had talked to us, we definitely would not agree with that opinion," said Gerry Telle, president of TETCO convenience stores. "I think most of the businesses are going to be hurt by this."

Some managers aren't sure what to think.

"Well, I live out here, I don't think I like that," said Cliff Cantu, a manager at Five Star Cleaners at U.S. 281 and Evans Road. "But I guess it's better for traffic. Um, yeah, I don't have an opinion on that yet."

Others, including some of the area's largest employers, aren't even talking.

USAA and the University of Texas at San Antonio declined to comment, and officials with the Shops at La Cantera, Six Flags Fiesta Texas and the Forum Shopping Center didn't return phone calls.

But that doesn't mean companies are blind to toll plans.

Tesoro Corp. officials knew of the U.S. 281 tollway plan north of Loop 1604 when they looked at ZIP codes of their growing employee base last year and decided to move their headquarters farther north on the 281 corridor, to Redland Road.

"But as far as any impact on our business, we don't really have a comment," spokeswoman Natalie Silva said.

When Tesoro moves in 2009, construction crews could be a year into a four-year job to rebuild eight miles of U.S. 281 into a six- to eight-lane tollway with merging lanes and free frontage roads, with the first pay lanes set to open in 2011.

The widest segment will be 21 lanes at Redland Road, next to Tesoro's new campus.

Washington Mutual, which runs a customer call center on Stone Oak Boulevard near U.S. 281, asked the toll agency overseeing the project for a briefing two months ago. But company officials aren't commenting.

"We really just try to keep a neutral position on things like this," spokeswoman Missy Latham said.

Among big firms willing to speak up is Valero Energy Corp., which last month hosted a private meeting for chambers of commerce and other business groups to get a preview of proposed toll rates for U.S. 281.

The company staggers work hours but still spills 2,000 workers a day into snarled Loop 1604 traffic near Interstate 10.

"So for us it's an employee benefit," spokesman Bill Day said. "I know for sure that they don't like the congestion."

Valero declined to let employees be interviewed.

Support from within

Some of the strongest toll supporters, to the chagrin of critics, are businesses seeking to profit from such projects.

"As a working mom, I want the choice of paying a toll to get out of traffic," Brenda Vickrey Johnson wrote to the Express-News last year. "As a business owner, I also need the choice to pay tolls to avoid congestion, which will allow my company to continue to operate efficiently and provide responsive and reliable service and high-paying local jobs."

Johnson's company, Vickrey & Associates Inc., is an engineering firm that does work for the Texas Department of Transportation, the agency pushing hardest for toll roads.

The company also has more than $300,000 in contracts lined up with the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, which is handling the U.S. 281 tollway, and is among at least half a dozen local businesses on three teams bidding to design and build the $426 million toll road.

Johnson also serves as this year's chairwoman of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, and her company is a member of a public-private nonprofit group called the San Antonio Mobility Coalition, which lobbies for transportation projects.

Many other firms doing or bidding for work with the toll authority also belong to the lobby coalition, including HNTB Corp., Zachry Construction Co., Pape-Dawson Engineers Inc., HDR Engineering Inc., Raba-Kistner Consultants Inc., R.J. Rivera Associates Inc., Locke Liddell & Sapp LLP, Loeffler Tuggey Pauerstein Rosenthal LLP, and Poznecki-Camarillo & Associates Inc.

Through August, HNTB did $2.9 million worth of work for the toll authority.

"I can't blame construction companies in terms of lobbying for toll roads, but that represents merely one segment of our economy," said Dave Ramos of San Antonio Toll Party, a grassroots group critical of toll plans. "The public ought to take their pronouncements with a grain of salt and consider the fact that they're an industry that stands to benefit greatly."

Johnson said it makes sense for the road industry to be at the table to solve community transportation problems.

"I think we're really all trying to achieve the same objective," she said.

Shift in spending

State lawmakers caused the jam over the past two decades by routinely raiding highway funds for other uses and letting inflation gnaw at the 20-cent a gallon gas tax. Then in recent years they offered tolls as the easiest way to squeeze money from motorists.

With toll roads, discretionary spending will shift as drivers weigh fees — about 15 cents a mile in today's dollars and rising with inflation — against time stuck in growing congestion on free roads.

Any extra business costs, tallied in tolls or time, could get passed on to consumers.

The local toll authority doesn't intend to release projections on traffic or fees, which could amount to billions of dollars over several decades, until it's ready to sell bonds.

But toll roads will likely draw more high-end shops and restaurants that are attractive to people willing to pay to avoid heavy traffic, said Ward A. Kampf, president of retail leasing for Thomas Enterprises Inc., which is developing The Rim shopping center at Loop 1604 and I-10.

"In our experience, tollways have been good, high-income growth. If you look at 1604 and 10, that's where your high-quality, high-income growth is and it's probably what's warranted in that environment," he said. "If you look at the growth, something's got to be done."

Nevertheless, as The Rim is built out, shoppers will also be able to get there from non-tolled streets such as Vance Jackson and Camp Bullis.

"Part of our development was always about connectivity," Kampf said. "So we kind of hedged a little bit on that."

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE