Sunday, September 27, 2009

"For the first time, the taxpayers have a handful of responsive representatives willing to do the right thing."

Toll roads finally DEAD in San Antonio?


Terri Hall
San Antonio Transportation Policy Examiner
Copyright 2009

After four and half years of wrangling, congestion weary commuters may finally be close to REAL relief, without slapping TOLLS on existing freeways.

Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, the new Chairman of the Bexar County-San Antonio Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), moved heaven and earth to see to it 281 north of Loop 1604 and Loop 1604 west (from Military Hwy to Bandera Rd) were officially removed from the MPO's long-range plan. The board will be briefed on the new plan at its meeting Monday, and it is slated to be formally adopted at its meeting October 26.

After thousands of Texans protested, attended hearings, organized petition drives, recalls, marches on Austin, as well as lobbying the Legislature, and taking their fight all the way to the halls of the U.S. Congress in Washington, concerned citizens are finally within striking distance to reverse course in nothing short of a David versus Goliath epic battle.

The final vote to adopt the new plan won't happen until October 26, but just getting these two freeways removed from the toll plan is a major feat. However, the grassroots are taking nothing for granted and have worked with Chairman Adkisson to ensure maximum public participation by holding the October 26 MPO meeting in the evening and on the northside.

Rick Perry's Transportation Commission also has to approve the plan. Considering every single opponent in the race to unseat Perry is against tolling existing freeways, he faces a massive voter uprising if his Commission attempts to usurp the decision of the local MPO.

Though funds can only be identified to fix only 16 miles of the over 40 miles of toll lanes planned for 281 and 1604, if these critical areas on 281 north of 1604 and 1604 from Military to Bandera Rd. remain toll-free, the other segments will not be toll viable and the rest of the ship will sink on its own.

Bait & Switch

TxDOT promised overpasses and expansion on US 281 in public hearings in 2001, and the gas tax funds became available in 2003. However, that same year the Texas Legislature, at the urging of Perry, passed an enormous omnibus toll road bill, HB 3588, which created a massive shift away from gas tax financed public highways to privatizing and tolling Texas roads.

By July of 2004, the Bexar-San Antonio MPO voted to turn 281 and 1604 into toll roads, then planning to use the gas tax funds allocated to fix 281 to subsidize the toll road instead. Every single existing expressway lane would be tolled, leaving access roads as the only non-toll option for the next 50 years. The ill-conceived plan to convert our freeways into toll roads, double the footprint (from 10 to 20 lanes), prohibit any expansion of free routes without paying penalties to investors, and explode the cost (by 10 times) led to two lawsuits that prevailed both times.

Foreign companies vie to takeover 281, 1604

In 2005, Spain-based Cintra and San Antonio-based Zachry submitted an unsolicited bid on the desk of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to takeover 281 north and the entire northern half of Loop 1604 (from Hwy 90 on the west side to I-10 on the east side).

Most local officials balked at such an idea, but the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (ARMA, an unelected bureaucracy created by the Bexar County Commissioners) entered into a memorandum of understanding with TxDOT to participate in negotiating the contract (and likely a revenue sharing agreement) nonetheless. In all, the ARMA and MPO have marked segments of 281, 1604, Wurzbach Pkwy, I-35, I-10, and Bandera Rd for tolling, many of them slated to be privatized and handed over to foreign entities.

However, selling our Texas freeways to foreign corporations doesn't sit well with most Texans, and a grassroots revolt against such deals ensued. In 2007, under tremendous pressure from taxpayers and citizens' groups like TURF, the Legislature passed a moratorium on private toll contracts (one severely weakened by Perry). Despite a dozen projects being excepted out of the moratorium, 281 was included in the moratorium and effectively killed the deal with Cintra (and a second bidder from Australia, Macquarie).

Local Toll Authority enters stage left

But the victory was only temporary since the ARMA stepped in to toll 281 and 1604 as a public toll project, leaving the taxpayers out of the decision once again. Having no ability to sway unelected agencies like TxDOT and the ARMA, concerned citizens turned anew to the MPO and Texas Legislature.

Managing to halt a litany of horrible anti-taxpayer transportation bills in the 2009 legislative session and special called session in July with the help of State Representative and MPO Board member David Leibowitz, up until now, the citizens were effectively no closer to stopping the toll road train wreck than they were when they first heard about it in hearings in March of 2005. New faces make the difference

That is, until Adkisson took the helm at the MPO in July. More sweeping change occurred on the MPO board with the addition of three new city councilmembers (all of whom ran on a platform against tolling existing roads) and a different mayor representing the small cities, Leon Valley Mayor Chris Riley. Add to that, a new San Antonio Mayor, Julian Castro, a refreshing change from the ardently pro-toll roadblock, Phil Hardberger, and for the first time, the taxpayers have a handful of responsive representatives willing to do the right thing.

Of course, TxDOT and the ARMA are already claiming the sky is falling and that the proposed amendment to fund these freeways and keep them toll-free isn't possible, but if the MPO exerts its political will to stand-up to these agencies, a non-toll solution will prevail, and a whole lot faster and cheaper than any toll solution (the soonest a toll road would be open to traffic is nearly a decade away). In fact, private toll contracts in Texas are no longer legal as of August 31 (except for those few projects that were excepted out of the moratorium), which will also effectively kill many tolls roads across the state.

So stay engaged and plan to attend the October 26 MPO meeting at 6 PM (location to be announced soon, likely at the Alzafar Shrine Temple off 1604), to ask this new MPO board to adopt its long range plan to remove 281 and 1604 from the toll plans once and for all.

© 2009

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