Tuesday, December 02, 2008

"Do we want the Alamo RMA, which was created for the sole purpose of selling toll roads, to conduct an 'impartial environmental assessment?' "

Time for a new participant in toll-road controversy: AACOG


Carlos Guerra
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

Amazing how an already long tale keeps growing, all because we refuse to deal with the reality of our drinking water.

Commuters who drive into town via U.S. 281 know all about long morning waits. Of course, that's because they moved into the city's then-unincorporated northern reaches, where they could have expansive yards, be away from the city's hustle and bustle and. initially at least, pay no city taxes.

The problem is they weren't alone.

Over the past five years, more than half of all new “San Antonio” homes have been in unincorporated areas of the city's northern extraterritorial jurisdiction, and the impact has been significant. Especially along the U.S. 281 corridor, where every morning tens of thousands of cars pour onto the highway in a southerly migration.

But much of the congestion is around the light-controlled intersections, where arterial roads pour thousands of additional cars into the flow.

The Texas Department of Transportation proposed an absurd plan to deal with it all: Instead of building overpasses over the congested intersections that would allow southbound drivers to cruise over them, the agency proposed toll roads along the route, and along the northern reaches of Loop 1604, so a foreign-owned company could excise tolls from all those who wanted to get into town quickly.

Two minor problems arose.
  • First, the Legislature ordered that no toll roads replace existing highway lanes, which in essence required TxDOT to double the highway lanes on 281 so they could toll them.
  • The other problem was that the entire area lies over the most sensitive areas of the recharge and contributing zones of the Edwards Aquifer, our sole water source, and, because the project requires federal money, federal laws apply, so they had to take environmental concerns into account.

TxDOT's “outside contractor” for the “environmental assessment” — a lightweight appraisal of the environmental impact — turned out to be a company for which a TxDOT employee's husband worked. It found that a U.S. 281 toll road over the most sensitive part of the aquifer's recharge zone would have no significant impact.

Bill Bunch, lead attorney for Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas, took TxDOT to court, not once but twice — and won twice.

“We've beat them twice, and both times, each time, before ever going to trial,” Bunch says with a chuckle.

But the next step is nothing to laugh about.

A news release from the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority states: “County Judge (Nelson) Wolff requested the Alamo RMA take the lead role in developing a new environmental document for 281 ...”

Now, honestly, do we want the Regional Mobility Authority, which was created for the sole purpose of selling toll roads, to conduct an “impartial environmental assessment of a new toll road route” now?

Annalisa Peace, head of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, a coalition of 45-plus water activist groups, had this to say: “I think that the Alamo Area Council of Governments would be the appropriate agency to conduct the (environmental impact statement) for 281 and all tolling projects within the San Antonio area. AACOG is the agency tasked with addressing our air quality compliance, certainly an important issue for an EIS to address. And the many small municipalities and county governments that will be impacted by these projects are members of AACOG.

“The sooner we can begin to address transportation issues on a regional basis, the better. The EIS process for 281 is an excellent opportunity to begin doing this.”

Makes sense to me.


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