Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"It seems like the citizens aren't really wanted at this meeting."

Turnout low for hearing on U.S. 281 toll lanes


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

The latest public hearing for planned U.S. 281 toll lanes, needed to clear yet another obligatory hurdle, drew a sparse but die-hard crowd Monday.

Speakers for business and road industry groups waxed on about how bad traffic is getting and trumpeted how local officials, not foreigners, will operate the tollway.

"Traffic in San Antonio is getting worse every day," said Richard Perez, president of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. "We must do it, and we must do it now."

Critics pressed for a return to a gas tax-funded plan from several years ago and complained that the Texas Department of Transportation has rammed through toll plans against motorists' wishes.

"Tolls are not what we want," Michael Gravett said. "I'm absolutely ashamed to have to stand here and lecture a TxDOT official about this."

Just 76 people attended the hearing, held at Bush Middle School, a fraction of the showings at previous U.S. 281 tollway meetings. Of those speaking, opponents outnumbered advocates 9-5.

Some speakers said there was little notice of Monday's hearing, such as the usual messages posted along highways.

"It seems like the citizens aren't really wanted at this meeting," Linda Hanak said.

TxDOT held the hearing to get input on handing U.S. 281 to the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, a local agency that intends to develop the toll project.

Advocates said the move is a must for local control, while critics said it will fragment and add bureaucratic red tape to a nationwide highway system.

The transfer is one step in a home-stretch sprint to start construction of the toll project by next summer. Plans call for rebuilding 8 miles of the highway into toll express lanes and non-toll access roads by 2012.

A scrapped 2004 freeway plan would have widened half as much.

Motorists will start out paying 17 cents a mile to cruise toll lanes, with fees rising annually with consumer inflation, a local planning board decided last week. The board also approved $112 million in public funds to subsidize the project's $476 million startup cost.

At least one more public hearing looms, this one to cover highlights in a labyrinth of toll financing.

The mobility authority has to disclose the debt, interest and payback schedule at least two weeks before signing a bond contract and to hold a hearing 10 days before. Clauses penalizing improvements to surrounding roads must also be released.

The bond contract could be ready in February or March.


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