Monday, December 03, 2007

"State transportation officials have never dealt from the top of the deck on the toll-road issue."

McNeil just doesn't get the toll-related frustration of 'those people'


Jaime Castillo
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

I've been invited in the past by immigration hawks to "go back to Mexico," even though I'm a third-generation U.S. citizen.

And, from time to time, I've been lumped in with that vast media conspiracy which supposedly takes its p's and q's from an unseen deity named "Liberal."

But, to my knowledge, last week was the first time I was branded one of "those people" merely because of where my family lives.

For that, I have City Councilwoman Sheila McNeil to thank.

In an attempt to ease the fears of her East Side constituents, McNeil last week added another chapter to the ongoing public relations nightmare perpetrated by toll-road proponents.

She did so by telling a gathering of homeowners that they need not worry about proposed toll rates on U.S. 281, which could be made official today, because the folks who live and drive on the north central corridor can afford it.

"Most of the people who use this road live out in that area. That's who it impacts," she said in videotaped comments Wednesday that are now part of Internet lore. "Now when they start coming over here on (Interstate) 35, then we can talk.

"But right now the decision we're making next week is 281 and the folks who live and drive out there," she continued.

"And those people can afford a toll, because the average income out there is probably around two, three hundred thousand dollars a year."

At best, McNeil possesses an alarming ignorance of the city. At worst, she will stop at nothing to further her argument, including making up facts.

Express-News transportation writer Pat Driscoll, who blogged about the episode last week, noted the following:

"City stats say four out of five households in Council District 9, where half of the U.S. 281 tollway will be, earn less than $100,000 a year. More than half the district's households make less than $60,000."


To be clear, as a resident along U.S. 281, I don't believe McNeil was trying to start class warfare. But her comments reveal that toll-road backers, after months and months of public discourse, still don't get the primary source of frustration for those who will be tolled.

It's not about whether someone can afford to pay 17 cents a mile to travel on a tollway. Heck, I can afford to pay parking tickets, but I don't rack them up on purpose just to save myself a few blocks worth of walking.

The issue, which admittedly is lost in the incessant frothing displayed by organized toll opponents, is that state transportation officials have never dealt from the top of the deck on the toll-road issue.

When it came to divulging financial details about the private partnership looking to build a section of the Trans-Texas Corridor, Gov. Rick Perry and his handpicked leadership of the Texas Department of Transportation did not just tell the public "no."

They also told the office of Attorney General Greg Abbott, which ruled that the information was public record, to go fly a kite for more than a year and half.

Similarly, it has long been known that the state's highway funding crisis is in large measure worsened by the fact that state lawmakers keep spending supposedly dedicated highway funds on non-road purposes.

So, acknowledging the anger that the practice generates, did Perry and toll fans lay down the law last legislative session?

Of course not. The biennial budget crafted earlier this year diverts another $1.6 billion from the fund.

Pardon me, Councilwoman McNeil, the issue is not whether a certain group of residents can afford something.

The issues is whether you, as chairwoman of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, will ever put your foot down for anybody outside your council district.

To contact Jaime Castillo, call (210) 250-3174 or e-mail

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