“I dare Rick Perry — in an election year with all anti-toll opponents — to vote this down.”
By Josh Baugh
Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson on Monday will recommend stripping toll roads from the Metropolitan Planning Organization's plans and fixing some of the region's most congested corridors with freeway expansions.
The move would represent a sweeping policy change for the MPO board, of which Adkisson is chairman, as well as a major victory for toll opponents, who say the concept of tolling in Bexar County would die altogether if Adkisson's plan proves successful.
Terri Hall, founder and director of two anti-toll groups — the San Antonio Toll Party and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom — has played a substantial role in the forming of Adkisson's plan. The portion that deals with U.S. 281 on the far North Side is exactly what Hall and her groups have been demanding for years.
“We're going to make them non-toll roads like they were in 2001,” Hall said, referring to a Texas Department of Transportation plan that called for overpasses at some major intersections on U.S. 281 north of Loop 1604. The plan never came to fruition and was replaced by one that would build tolled lanes instead.
Since Adkisson, a toll opponent, was elected MPO chairman in July, Hall has seen her power and influence multiply. Hall now has an ally in the top position of the organization. She appears to essentially have a seat at the table — she made a lengthy presentation at an MPO board meeting this summer and has helped craft the proposal that Adkisson will introduce Monday.
“The sense that Commissioner Adkisson and I are getting when we meet with elected officials is that toll roads are finished,” Hall said.
The 19-member MPO board will discuss the proposal Monday, but a vote won't come until a board meeting next month.
The MPO controls the purse strings of all transportation projects that include federal funding but doesn't do any construction. The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, TxDOT and local governments are charged with building the projects.
Adkisson aims to amend the MPO's short- and long-range plans by removing tolling proposals from segments of Loop 1604, U.S. 281 and Bandera Road. The amendment would require shifting money and would likely affect other transportation projects.
Because the changes deal with state funding, they would also have to pass muster with the Texas Transportation Commission, a five-member board appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, an ardent toll advocate. The TTC's chairwoman, Deirdre Delisi, is Perry's former chief of staff.
But Hall and Adkisson don't see that as a substantial obstacle because Perry can't afford to cross voters on the far North Side who don't want tolls, they say.
“Pressure works in favor of anyone seeking to change the status quo,” Adkisson said. “The status quo on 281 North and 1604 has got to go.”
Hall was more explicit.
“I dare Rick Perry — in an election year with all anti-toll opponents — to vote this down,” she said.
Adkisson's plan would reduce the cost of a U.S. 281 project from Loop 1604 to the county line from $475 million to $200 million, expanding the road to include six to eight lanes and overpasses. It would call for building all eight direct connectors between U.S. 281 and Loop 1604, rather than just the four southern connectors that the Alamo RMA plans to construct.
The plan would also expand Loop 1604 from Texas 151 to Bandera Road with six to eight non-tolled lanes, and it would remove plans to build toll lanes on Bandera between Loop 410 and Loop 1604.
Can it be done?
MPO board members learned about Adkisson's proposal Friday morning when the organization released an updated agenda for Monday's board meeting. Some officials say they're not sure that Adkisson's plan would work.
“If it can happen, I'm all for it,” said County Commissioner Kevin Wolff, an MPO board member. “If you can prove this up, then let's go to town.”
City Councilman Ray Lopez said he is reserving opinion until he better understands Adkisson's plan. He wants to see how it would affect the funding of other projects in the region.
Others say they won't support it at all.
“We don't support it at the Texas Department of Transportation because in so supporting it, we lose over $900 million of transportation infrastructure,” said Clay Smith, a TxDOT planning engineer who sits on the MPO board. “That leaves hundreds of thousands of motorists for generations to come in gridlock. We don't think that's the right thing to do.”
Smith said Adkisson's plan would kill any expansion on other parts of U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 for the next 25 years, leaving those portions exactly as they are today.
The Alamo RMA, which has tolling power, is the agency slated to build highway expansions on U.S. 281 and Loop 1604. The agency received federal environmental clearance Friday to build a “superstreet” on U.S. 281, which is expected to temporarily ease congestion until the RMA can build more capacity.
The RMA also is conducting massive environmental studies on the two highways and a smaller study of an interchange project on the southern side of the 281/1604 intersection, where the agency plans to build four non-tolled connectors with federal stimulus money.
But TxDOT's Smith said the project's stimulus funding could be jeopardized by Adkisson's desire to build all eight connectors at once.
Adkisson said he expects there to be ample opposition.
“It won't take long for dark imaginings to be showcased by the just-say-no-to-anything-new crowd, and those who are ensconced in the thinking of the past that would have us tolling these roads,” he said. “I would think anybody who wants to defeat this will attempt to suggest that the sky is falling, the world is coming to an end, life as we know it will never be the same again, because that's a tried-and-true, age-old tactic.”
RMA spokesman Leroy Alloway, who contended that the plan was Hall's — as opposed to Adkisson's — questioned Friday whether the details on funding and environmental issues in the proposal would be plausible.
“We look forward to seeing what Ms. Hall's plan is. We've said from Day One that if there's another plan that works, we'd look at it,” he said. “We want to see what she has to say and what she's going to present.”
RMA and TxDOT officials say there's no available funding for non-tolled highway expansion plans, despite what Hall says.
Vote in October
The debate starts Monday, with the decision coming a month later. Adkisson said he plans to hold the October meeting in the evening on the North Side so constituents can attend. Adkisson said the MPO meetings, typically held on one Monday a month at 1:30 p.m., are “anti-citizen, inconvenient (and) citizen/user unfriendly.”
Hall shared the same sentiment.
When the MPO board meets in October to vote on Adkisson's proposal, it'll do it in front of a packed house of toll opponents rather than a room full of highway lobbyists who are paid to baby-sit the meetings, she said.
Adkisson and Hall say they believe they have enough support on the MPO to move the non-toll proposal forward. What remains to be seen is whether they do.
“I'm depending on all of them to join hands and march down this road as a show of solidarity of this community that we want this to be done without tolls,” Adkisson said.
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