Tuesday, November 20, 2007

"This is one of the most bedrock issues of life in a representative democracy."

Toll road foes file to stop vote


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

Toll critics Monday fired a torpedo at a coming toll-road vote by filing a request for a temporary court injunction.

The Dec. 3 vote by the Metropolitan Planning Organization to sign off on toll rates for a proposed U.S. 281 tollway is a must before construction can start next summer.

If the toll road opens in 2012 as planned, with express lanes running from Loop 1604 to either Marshall Road or Comal County, fees could start at 17 cents a mile for cars and rise with consumer inflation.

The request for the injunction on MPO votes is connected to a lawsuit filed in federal court last month over whether the public is represented fairly in the move toward toll roads. It calls for booting non-elected officials from the board and stopping Chairwoman Sheila McNeil, a San Antonio City Council member, from blocking agenda items or motions.

"This is one of the most bedrock issues of life in a representative democracy," attorney David Van Os, who represents Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, said Monday.

Toll advocates say the lawsuit is frivolous and that freezing MPO votes would only slow down needed toll projects.

"With traffic levels effectively doubling every six years along these high-growth corridors, we cannot afford to wait any longer," said Vic Boyer of the San Antonio Mobility Coalition, a government and business group that includes highway and engineering companies.

The MPO declined to comment, but its attorney, Howard Newton, filed a motion last week to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the 19 board members represent the county, city and government agencies that appointed them and not voters.

Critics say non-elected officials on the board simply parrot their elected bosses serving on the same board, which essentially stacks the votes.

"Every time, the citizens lose out when you have unelected people that are making these decisions, because they don't answer to the people," TURF founder Terri Hall said.

Hall says $325 million in public funds earmarked for local tollways should instead be used to fix the worse traffic spots without adding tolls.

But that money has to be matched with local funds, according to a Texas Department of Transportation policy.

The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority plans to come up with the match by selling $1 billion worth of bonds to add toll lanes to U.S. 281 and Loop 1604. Toll fees would pay for the bonds.

Besides setting U.S. 281 toll rates in two weeks, the MPO board would also consider shifting more public funds to U.S. 281 — to $112 million from $69 million — to double the tollway from 4 to 8 miles.


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