Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"We understood that TxDOT and ARMA were so stuck on their insistent toll planning that they could not consider other options."

Toll road plan survives MPO vote


By Amber Whittaker - Staff Writer/North Central News
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2009

The San Antonio-Bexar County Metropolitan Planning Organization's transportation policy board defeated an amendment to nix tolls from plans to widen U.S. 281 on Monday despite heavy opposition from an audience that was largely anti-toll.

The amendment was proposed by Bexar County Commissioner and board Chairman Tommy Adkisson and supported by anti-toll groups Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom and the San Antonio Toll Party.

Adkisson said his plan would have reduced the cost from $475 million to $200 million for a non-tolled 281. The final vote was 13-5 against the amendment. District 8 City Councilman Reed Williams was one of the few amendment boosters. The board also unanimously voted to kill tolling plans for Bandera Road.

The meeting at Alzafar Shrine Temple drew a rowdy crowd of more than 500, though that number dwindled to about 100 when votes were cast around 11:30 p.m.

Opposition was intense throughout the meeting. Residents held signs that read “Pink Slip, vote for toll roads and you're fired” and booed officials who advocated toll roads.

Adkisson had a strong anti-toll road ally in State Rep. David Leibowitz, who grilled Alamo Regional Mobility Authority Executive Director Terry Brechtel on costs and the exclusion of overpasses in ARMA's toll road plan.

When Leibowitz asked Brechtel if toll booths would be taken down when road construction funds were paid, her answer caught some of the night's loudest jeers.

“First of all, the Alamo RMA has never represented that there will be toll booths because it will be all electronic,” Brechtel said.

Many commenters supported overpasses to relieve traffic congestion on 281 north from Loop 1604 to the Comal County line as an alternative to a toll road.

County Commissioner Kevin Wolff asked that the creation of a non-tolled engineering study be added as an agenda item in the MPO's next meeting.

He said he still felt “very wanting” for a side by side comparison of a tolled and non-tolled plan.

TURF Director Terri Hall said the MPO had previously asked ARMA and the Texas Department of Transportation to provide a non-tolled study for a side-by-side comparison.

“They failed to do it,” she said, “so that Commissioner Adkisson would come here today asking for your vote empty-handed.”

Some residents living near 281 north of 1604 criticized a toll road plan, citing prohibitive costs for motorists, safety concerns for residents and business profit losses.

“If 281 is tolled, I won't be able to make a move without reaching for my purse. I'm retired. I live on a fixed income. I don't want to be triple taxed for getting into my car,” Timberwood Park resident Marilyn Knapp Litt said.

Elvis Ruiz, Encino Park Homeowner's Association president, suggested that an overpass or underpass be built from 281 to Encino Rio for ease of access and safety reasons.

He said the toll road that TxDoT and ARMA representatives described to Encino Park residents would be dangerous for them.

Motorists leaving Encino Park would need to merge across three lanes of high-speed traffic to reach a turn-around exit at Evans Road to travel south.

Ruiz said he was told that TxDoT would monitor the intersection but not build a better connecting road until the “number of accidents warranted it.”

“After that meeting, we understood that TxDoT and ARMA were so stuck on their insistent toll planning that they could not consider other options,” Ruiz added.

Hollywood Park City Councilman Bob Sartor said his constituents were concerned a toll road would increase cut-through traffic, costs of living and harm local businesses.

While most board members who would later vote against Adkisson's amendment were mum throughout the meeting, State Sen. Jeff Wentworth, who was openly derided for opposing a non-toll option, defended his stance.

“I'm not a toll road advocate. What I am is an advocate against congestion,” he said.

“If we adopt this half-baked (non-toll) plan, it will delay reducing congestion in a corridor, which is completely in my senate district. I am committed to reducing congestion and increasing mobility,” Wentworth added, incurring many boos.

As the final vote happened more than five hours after the meeting's start, attendees listened in silence before trudging out of the room.

“This was a waste of time. They don't care. I don't know why they are up there,” said Timberwood Park area resident Anna Gonzalez. She vowed not to take a future toll road.

“I'll avoid it just because I'm not paying that toll,” she added.

Shirlene Harris, who travels 281 frequently, said she was displeased but not surprised.

“They are flouting the will of the people,” she said.

“Only seven people testified in favor of tolls, and they were the Greater (San Antonio) Chamber of Commerce, the North (San Antonio) Chamber of Commerce and those who work for the highway lobby,” Hall wrote on the TURF Web site Tuesday.

“It was over 90 percent against tolls. This should sound the alarm quite clearly that our elected officials no longer represent us. It's taxation without representation.”

State and local officials are working to flesh out plans on two other projects to help alleviate traffic congestion in North Central San Antonio: a partial interchange at 1604 and 281 and a superstreet along 281 north.

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