Tuesday, October 27, 2009

“It's never going to be over till we get our nontolled plan.”

Adkisson shifts focus after losing toll vote


By Josh Baugh
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2009

Terri Hall knows no defeat.

Monday night's toll road vote by the Metropolitan Planning Organization, she said, wasn't a loss in her crusade against toll plans in Bexar County.

That the proposal to strip toll plans from segments of U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 was shot down by a 13-5 vote wasn't a surprise to Hall. The MPO board held a “roll call” vote, Hall said, and now there's an official record of how each MPO member — 11 of whom are elected officials — stands on toll roads.

Alongside Hall, MPO Chairman Tommy Adkisson, a Bexar County commissioner, had pushed the plan to strip tolls. But shortly after its resounding defeat — and for perhaps the first time since rolling out the proposal several weeks ago — he didn't appear to be on the same page as the activist.

It's time to “turn the page and get on with other governance items,” Adkisson said. He pointed to Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Department of Transportation as major obstacles to removing toll plans. “I think that unless we get a new governor, the toll road issue is on hold.”

A mass transit proponent, Adkisson — who's up for re-election next year — said he would shift his focus to that issue.

The 19-member MPO board spent nearly five hours Monday listening to public comment. Of the more than 500 people who attended the meeting, about 100 registered to speak. Only seven spoke in support of keeping tolls in transportation plans for the county. But the opposition to tolls wasn't enough to sway the opinions of the policymakers.

“That says that our elected officials need to be thrown out on their ears,” Hall said. “It's never going to be over till we get our nontolled plan.”

She warned that the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority — the agency that would expand the highways, and possibly toll them — and others would face a third round of litigation unless they kill tolls outright. In 2005 and 2008, Hall's organization, Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, and environmental groups filed lawsuits to block toll roads in North Bexar County.

Adkisson questioned whether the results of environmental impact statements on U.S. 281 and Loop 1604, which aren't expected to be completed until 2012 at the earliest, would pass legal muster.

“I would think that others who weigh in on this — and there are many others besides myself — will have something to say about it,” he said. “That's really more their fight than mine.”

With tolls still on the table for U.S. 281 and Loop 1604, only time will tell whether they come to fruition. A plan will emerge for the gridlocked highways after the environmental studies are completed in three to five years.

Until then, the mobility authority has other projects to keep itself busy. It's slated to begin work on a “super street” on U.S. 281 early next year. It's also studying the feasibility of another super street to help congestion on Loop 1604.

Super streets help reduce congestion by removing signals at some intersections. Motorists who want to cross the highway or turn left, for example, instead go right and then make a turnaround.

The agency also is working on an environmental study that would clear the way for an interchange on the south side of U.S. 281, connecting to Loop 1604.

At the MPO, work will continue on Mobility 2035, a comprehensive, long-range transportation plan. And it's possible that the MPO will move forward on a proposal from County Commissioner Kevin Wolff to conduct a study that would allow the organization to do an “apples-to-apples” comparison of tolled and nontolled plans.

Adkisson's two-year chairmanship, which began in July, has been turbulent. Tolls have been the focal point of every meeting he's presided over. During his first as chairman, he promised to move “heaven and earth” to find a solution to gridlock on the North Side.

The move to strip tolls from transportation plans has put him at odds with the majority of the MPO board, and his role as chairman has come under fire from some of his colleagues. Wolff said Adkisson's management of the MPO “is severely lacking.”

The organization, he added, has the task of determining the region's best transportation projects — from highways to rail lines — and can't only focus on the toll issue.

“If he doesn't start figuring out that this job is much larger than the narrow, myopic place he's taken it to, I think you'll find a board that says, ‘You know what, we've got to make a change,'” Wolff said.

City Councilman Reed Williams, a recent addition to the MPO board who voted for the nontoll plan Monday, said Adkisson's leadership was fine. He said he's eager to move forward with a proposal made by Wolff to conduct a study on a potential nontoll plan.

“I'm going to work on this estimate. I'm going to try to figure out a nontoll road that makes economic sense,” Williams said. “I'm going to go to work.”

© 2009 San Antonio Express-News: www.mysanantonio.com

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