“Vote for toll roads and you're fired!”
By Josh Baugh - Express-News
San Antonio Express-News
Near midnight Monday, the Metropolitan Planning Organization shrugged off the pleas of scores of toll road opponents and voted to keep tolls in the mix for U.S. 281 and Loop 1604.
In a striking defeat for MPO Chairman Tommy Adkisson, the panel voted 13-5 to keep tolls in the short- and long-range plans for the two highways. But it also voted unanimously to kill toll road plans for Bandera Road.
The series of votes was the climax of a night in which hundreds of toll opponents packed the Alzafar Shrine Temple on the far North Side to demand that plans for toll roads be stripped from Bexar County's transportation future.
Their message was unequivocal: They vehemently opposed tolling U.S. 281 and Loop 1604. They implored the MPO's 19-member policy board to fix the gridlocked highways — quickly, and without tolling. Throughout the night, speakers reminded the 11 elected officials on the board that they would be up for re-election, and their decision on tolls wouldn't be forgotten in the voting booth.
“It's been loud. It's been clear,” Paula Stoner said. “The majority of the people in this room do not want (tolls).”
They were fighting for Adkisson's proposal to take toll roads off the table in Bexar County.
Several others, including Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President Richard Perez — a former MPO chairman — and Terrell McCombs, asked the board to vote against Adkisson's plans, which they said would only add to congestion in the future.
More than 100 people signed up to address the board, the vast majority of whom said they opposed current plans to toll highways in San Antonio.
Normally, the MPO would have held such a meeting during the day, making in inaccessible to most residents. But Adkisson, a county commissioner, and toll critic Terri Hall wanted a big turnout to bolster board support for the plan. And they got it — or at least they got the big turnout.
State Rep. David Leibowitz, an MPO board member, and Adkisson were heralded as champions for the taxpayers while others on the board were chastised for their opinions that ran contrary to Adkisson's plan.
State Sen. Jeff Wentworth was singled out and attacked for his support of leaving tolls in the MPO's short- and long-range plans. Critics said he wasn't representing his constituents. But Wentworth fired back, saying there are only three options for North Side highways, including doing nothing or increasing the statewide gas tax.
Not addressing the problem is “off the table,” he said, and as long as Gov. Rick Perry is in office, a gas-tax increase isn't politically viable.
“The third option is tolling,” he said to a boisterous round of boos. “Whether you like it or not, I'm speaking the truth. ... What I'm trying to do is reduce congestion. I'm not a toll road advocate. What I am is an advocate against congestion. If we adopt this half-baked plan, it will delay reducing congestion in my district.”
The hundreds-strong crowd responded by holding pink signs high in the air that read: “Vote for toll roads and you're fired!”
Hall, founder of toll-opposing Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, received by far the strongest support of anyone at Monday's meeting. One resident suggested that the first overpass on U.S. 281 should be named “Terri Hall Way.”
After speaking for nine minutes about the need to spike toll plans, Hall received a standing ovation and a series of hugs from supporters.
Hall demanded that the MPO board listen to the public about U.S. 281 and Loop 1604.
“We want both of them fixed, and we want it done with the tax money we've already given you,” she said.
© 2009 San Antonio Express-News: www.mysanantonio.com
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