Monday, December 03, 2007

"It's not about building capacity, it's about revenues."

Crowded meeting, lots of e-mails show the passion over toll roads


Carlos Guerra
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

After getting a bunch of e-mails from toll road opponents — and a forwarded e-mail apparently sent out by the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce — urging people to show up in force, I knew that Monday's meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Organization would be worth watching.

The organization is a local intergovernmental agency that approves all transportation projects, and Monday's meeting was called to unveil how much the toll trolls will extract from travelers once two toll lanes in each direction and a tolled interchange are built on U.S. 281 north of Loop 1604.

It is expected that the toll structure set for San Antonio's first toll road will set the price for the rest of this area's 70-odd miles of planned toll lanes.

After 15 minutes looking for a place to park, I showed up 33 minutes before the 1:30 meeting. Even so, I had to wade through a crowd of 42 people who were being kept outside the VIA building by a stern-faced security guard at parade rest, guarding the door.

A sign proclaimed that the fire marshal had limited attendance to 208 people, though this rule apparently did not apply to journalists, who were welcomed in. This was the first time they had to turn the public away from a meeting, said Scott Ericksen, who is, ironically, the agency's public involvement coordinator. But rules are rules.

Inside, the crowd was peppered with familiar faces from both sides of the issue. But it differed from other public meetings convened to discuss toll roads, especially the "hearings" convened to unveil the Trans-Texas Corridor, in which well over 90 percent of the speakers condemned tolling. This time, the toll advocates' attendance was impressive.

The meeting, Metropolitan Planning Organization board member and County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson said, was being held "at a very inconvenient time" for working people, and he urged City Councilwoman Sheila McNeil, the chairwoman, to get the show going so the public could be heard on this increasingly acrimonious issue.

The Greater Chamber, I was told, mounted a major effort to get its people to attend.

"I got 442 e-mails generated by the Chamber," County Commissioner Lyle Larson mused, pointing to a breakdown of the senders. "You've got engineering firms, 86; real estate firms, 67; construction and engineering, 37; homebuilders, 33 ...

"These are all folks that have a vested interest in getting construction under way. But I can tell you that the lion's share of correspondence I've gotten over the last 31/2 years has been opposed to (toll roads), and I mean by the thousands."

Like others, Larson doesn't buy into the notion that tolling is the only option for alleviating traffic congestion. And he questions the numbers the Texas Department of Transportation has issued to support its pro-tolling arguments.

"On the state level, at least, they're focused on revenue," he said.

"It's not about building capacity, it's about revenues.

"That's why you are seeing the state come in now to subsidize the (U.S.) 281 corridor by about $112 million," he added. "They have been indicating all along that there was no money available for 281, and all of a sudden, they found $112 million."

At $35 million each, he said, "If they had the $112 million in 2003 when (TxDOT) was supposed to start construction on the first three overpasses, we would have gone a long ways at building overpasses at all seven intersections that have traffic lights (on U.S. 281) and alleviated a lot of the congestion by now."

As for the argument that Houston, Dallas and Austin have embraced tolling options, Larson said, "Well, I've always thought San Antonio was unique. I don't want to be like Houston, Dallas and Austin (in the) way they developed their urban areas, and adding toll roads is nothing to be proud of."

To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail His column appears on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

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