First decode the jargon:
ARMA = Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (ARMA), a misleading name for tolling authority, whenever you hear “mobility” it’s code for tolling
MPO = Metropolitan Planning Organization is the local transportation planning board
NEPA = National Environmental Policy Act, federal law that guides environmental review for highway projects
The RMA can’t seem to tell the truth. At yesterday’s MPO meeting, Executive Director,Terry Brechtel, couldn’t even tell the Board how many toll lanes the agency is planning to build on 281. She’s either incompetent or intentionally hiding the truth. I believe it’s the later.
The point of the discussion was to get to the bottom of what happened to the $100 million in gas taxes dedicated to fix 281 (some became available in since 2003, the rest by 2006, documents showed it was still there through 2007) and how to move forward with an immediate solution. For the scoop on how a non-toll plan for overpasses and expansion on 281 was promised in public hearings in 2001 and funded with gas taxes since 2003, go to: www.281OverpassesNow.com.
Every project needs environmental clearance and funding. Sufficient funding, despite TxDOT’s best attempts at hiding and spending every cent available to fix 281, is still available. But yesterday, Clay Smith of TxDOT NEVER answered Rep. David Leibowitz’ direct question asking where the $100 million in gas taxes went. Brechtel also tried to claim the cost difference between the 20-lane toll road and 10-lane freeway plan was a mere $20 million.
TxDOT nor the RMA ever has to answer for its defiance, not as long as we have Rick Perry as governor and a sheepish legislature that’s too afraid to fix the big bad wolf. Guys like Commissioner Tommy Adkisson (new Chair of the MPO) and Rep. Leibowitz are in short supply in Austin. However, Bexar County Commissioners appoint the RMA Board and have floated the idea of dissolving it. Let’s insist they do.
The other hurdle in getting 281 fixed becomes the environmental clearance. The clearance for the toll road was pulled October 1, 2008. TxDOT royally botched the 281 toll road environmental study that was found to be rigged and fraudulent for which one employee was fired, two others “re-assigned,” and caused TxDOT to be banned from doing the new study (totally unprecedented).
The clearance was pulled for the toll road only. Federal law, NEPA, provides for a different course of action to advance in place of the toll road, particularly one that’s different in size, scope, and impacts. The original non-toll plan for 281 fits the bill, and yesterday we laid out how to get environmental clearance expedited for 281. It was abundantly obvious that TxDOT and the RMA continue to dismiss ANY other solution other than converting our existing FREEway into a tollway. Every non-toll scenario is shot down.
Brechtel and sidekick Leroy Alloway blatantly misled the public in Sunday’s Express-News article stating that the footprint for the freeway plan and the toll road are identical when the RMA’s own web site (see inset photos) and even past Express-News reports show otherwise. The original freeway fix is 10 lanes and the toll road is up to 20 lanes wide. We don’t need a mega toll road to fix 281, we need overpasses and access roads.
The toll road has detrimental impacts that the non-toll plan does not. There are significant negative economic impacts such as $2,000-$3,000 a year in new toll taxes and a higher cost of goods, indirect effects such as traffic diverting to neighborhood streets, environmental impacts due to continuous frontage roads that induce overdevelopment of the aquifer and a larger footprint creating greater impervious cover.
In addition, the criteria to determine what level of study is needed states controversy as a reason to do a full environmental impact statement. The toll roads are extremely controversial. The FHWA already required the RMA to do a full impact statement for the Bandera toll road for that reason.
Public meetings this week:
“Open House” means silence opposition
The RMA is hosting two public hearings this week, one tonight on the 281/1604 interchange at Harvest Fellowship off 1604 (just west of 281) at 5:30 PM, and a 281 “Scoping Meeting” Thursday at St. Mark’s Church off Thousand Oaks at 5:30 PM. The Open House techniques being utilized by the RMA for its public hearings do not comport with federal law, NEPA.
An open house format does not allow the public a chance to hear a formal presentation all at one time, with identical project information. The public has to read handouts, look at posters and project drawings spread around the room, and ask one-on-one questions of people from ARMA and the consulting firms in order to gain any understanding of the project. There is no official record of the questions and answers from the comments/concerns expressed in such one-on-ones. For a public hearing, there is a comment and response report where you can read the agency’s official response, but not with an open house.
TxDOT in recent years has begun to use the open house so that those opposed to a project don’t get to express their opposition during an open comment period at the end of a meeting where the audience hears these concerns and sometimes applauds and may cause some people to change their minds about a project. The open house format is a divide and conquer technique designed to silence those who may oppose the agency’s preferred alternative, which is always toll roads.
At the RMA’s open house for the 281 superstreet, attendees were not even made aware that in order to have their comments appear on the official record, they had to go submit them to the stenographer. We had many folks tell us they didn’t even know a stenographer was present.
The open house format is not a proper format for public hearings and it must be stopped or it can and will be challenged.
Here’s what you can do…
1. Head straight to the stenographer to get your comments on the official record.
2. Express your concerns with the Open House format where dissemination of info is not uniform and citizens cannot benefit from hearing other attendees thoughts about potential impacts.
3. Specifically for the interchange meeting, ask to see the document you’re supposed to be commenting on. (they’re holding a public meeting for comments on a document we believe is not even completed yet, which is cart before the horse and another violation)