Monday, November 17, 2008

The end of the toll road for Sal Costello

Anti-toll guerrilla has moved on down the road

Costello's four years of rough tactics hurt finances and marriage, leading to move to Illinois.


By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

Texas politicians who support toll roads won't have Sal Costello to kick them around anymore.

Costello and his family moved to a small town in Southern Illinois this summer. He announced it on his blog Sunday, quietly, an adverb seldom associated with Costello in the past.

Costello, if you're new around here or have forgotten, was a Southwest Austin graphics designer who in 2004 made a warp-speed trip from obscurity to notoriety after politicians pushed through a plan to build seven more toll roads. The plan included putting tolls on three roads that were already under construction using nothing but tax money. After a three-month sprint through the political process, the tollway program was approved by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board that July.

End of story, it seemed.

No, says Costello, who organized something called the Austin Toll Party and began high-tech guerrilla warfare against the plan and the politicians who voted for it. Costello, who's now 44, sustained the jihad for the next three years or so, often making personal attacks (many, but not all of them, factually accurate, but far too many of them unfair or beside the point), on officials who advocated toll roads. This newspaper, after allowing him to blog on for a time, eventually took him off the site because of his attacks.

Costello — in spite of or perhaps because of his whatever-it-takes tactics — made a difference, though.

One of those tax-built roads, the William Cannon Drive bridge on MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1), fell out of the toll plan within a few months of Costello's offensive. The other two roads, pieces of Texas 71 and U.S. 183 in East Austin, after spending a couple of years officially as future toll roads, are now to remain free to drive in perpetuity. Several election officials who pushed for the roads have left or are leaving public office. None of the other toll roads in that July 2004 plan have begun construction.

With other activists around the state — there is now a Texas Toll Party — Costello helped delay or kill other toll roads and made the Trans-Texas Corridor plan a top issue in the 2006 governor's race and 2007 legislative session. It's safe to say that absent Costello's activism, you'd be driving on more toll roads right now and more in the future than you will with his participation.

Some people will say that's a bad thing, that a number of roads won't get built or will get built much slower because of the anti-toll movement, making our roads more congested. You can make up your own mind about that.

I often wondered how Costello continued to make a living and sustain a marriage, given his obsession and bruising approach. The answer, Costello says now, is that by 2007, he was in financial straits and his marriage was troubled.

"Basically, my wife was saying 'I've had enough of this,' " Costello says now. "She was saying, 'Hello, are you in there? I know you're obsessed with this toll stuff, but I'm here too.' "

Costello, in a final post on his anti-toll blog, says his crusade succeeded but that "success can take a toll on other areas of one's life. I decided to move on."

They put their house up for sale in July , sold it quickly and, telling almost no one he knew in Austin, moved to a town of about 400 people near Carbondale, Ill . His wife, who grew up in that area, works for a nearby university. Costello says he has a freelance marketing contract with a school that serves children with learning disabilities.

Looking back, does he rue the cards he chose to play in the toll debate? Costello accused dozens of politicians and other officials of corruption or other venality, often based more on inference than evidence, and on his blog accused one toll official of being a deadbeat dad. Incorrectly.

"I don't have any regrets how I did things," he says. "Sometimes ,if you want to get things done, you have to bust up some eggs. I'm proud we helped educate some folks."

There are no toll roads anywhere near his new town (he didn't want to reveal its name), and Costello says he doesn't want to get anywhere near political activism ever again. It, uh, took a toll.

"I'm retired from that," Costello says. "It doesn't pay, and it's a long road. It's a lonely road."

Getting There appears Mondays. For questions, tips or story ideas, contact Getting There at 445-3698 or

© 2008 Austin American-Statesman:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE