The people of this community have expressed time and again in every way available to them that they DO NOT want toll roads. With tourism such a major industry and economic engine for our region and the adverse impacts of a high cost of transportation on the region’s economy, toll roads are not the right fit for San Antonio, nor are they sustainable. They will bury us in debt to the tune of BILLIONS with no way out (except a taxpayer bailout and draconian tax hikes). When the cost of transportation goes up, driving goes down.
Toll roads rely on ever increasing traffic volumes and more driving to pay off the debt of toll roads, which is anti-thetical to the economic reality of what occurs when the cost of driving goes up…driving goes down and so does toll usage. Also, increasing the cost of transportation through tolling makes the the cost of goods go up, which everyone pays whether they take the toll road or not. San Antonians cannot afford tolls, when a third of Bexar County doesn’t make enough money to cover their basic needs for daily living. San Antonio has also been ranked by Forbes Magazine as one of the top 10 cities hardest hit by high gas prices. When tolls are like adding $4.00-$17.00 more to every gallon of gas you buy (for toll rates from 25 cents up to 75 cents per mile as we’re seeing around the state), they’re completely out of reach for the vast majority of San Antonians.
Based on the MPO plans, it claims a funding gap figure of $18 billion. To put it in perspective, that’s like saying they need more than $10,000 from every man, woman, and child in San Antonio in the next 25 years…that’s from every person in San Antonio, not just motorists, and that’s $40,000 from a family of 4! A study conducted by the Surface Transportation Project published in June of 2005, shows the two biggest costs for every household since 1984 are housing and transportation and account for 52% of the average family’s budget (or $21,213 a year)…the highest level in 20 years! Now compare that with the median household income in San Antonio of only about $36,000 a year and compare it with TxDOT’s claim they need $40,000 from the average family in San Antonio in the next 25 years, and you’ll see this will not only cripple the economy, it’ll tax people into bankruptcy. Their plan is unrealistic and totally unsustainable! With 57 toll projects in the MPO’s plans, there will be no escape form this new tax on driving.
Add to that, San Antonio has been consistently shorted the highway funds that it sends to Austin and Washington. In addition, vehicle sales tax revenues have been dumped into general revenue instead of going to roads as the taxpayers intended. Ending this diversion of funds amounts to $2-3 billion a year (on track for $4 billion this year, this reaps more than doubling the gas tax) for roadways, and would nearly triple our region’s money for roads WITHOUT RAISING TAXES! Restitution needs to be made before ANY taxpayer is asked to pay more.
As long as ANY project is marked “toll” in the MPO’s TIP (and there are 57 of them), the RMA (which is the tolling authority) has control of the project and a vested interest in ensuring projects remain tolled even when new sources of revenue become available. RMA Chair Bill Thornton promised on WOAI radio January 14, 2009 that they’d fix 281 non-toll if they got a new source of funds. When stimulus funds became available, the RMA STILL submitted the project as a toll project (they planned to build it with stimulus money and still charge users a toll to drive on it, a DOUBLE TAX). The FHWA also informed MPO Chairman, Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, that as long as a project is marked toll in the MPO plans, it will be done as a toll project.
With 800 people packing an auditorium in October 2009 to tell the MPO they don’t want toll roads (and only 100 got to testify with all but 7 against), and with MPO Board members assuring the public that both toll and non-toll options are on the table for 281 and 1604, how can they have an ounce of credibility when both are marked toll projects in the MPO’s TIP and when the tolling authority (RMA) is conducting the “study” of the options? How can the MPO have any credibility that non-toll options are even being studied when its attempt to find a contractor to do an independent study of non-toll options yielded ZERO takers?
This demands ACTION, not words, and must be remedied.
MPO MUST remove all toll projects from its plans
The federal government requires an agency to show a reasonable source of funding for a project in order to place it in an MPO plan. The RMA can’t show any of its toll roads are funded by any reasonable funding sources since toll revenue bonds won’t cover 100% of the project costs and all of them need massive public subsidies. In other words, none of the toll projects in the TIP are toll viable (meaning they cannot pay for themselves with the toll revenues of projected users).
TIFIA loans can only fund up to a third of the project costs. The current federal TIFIA loan pot of money is EMPTY, and there’s a cloud over the program after the first PPP toll road to receive a TIFIA loan went bankrupt a few months ago (at the hands of an Australian firm, Macquarie. (Read more here). The taxpayers aren’t going to get their money back, and many in Congress are doubting the efficacy of this controversial program that has, up until now, been used as a backstop to primarily benefit private toll operators at taxpayer expense. The TIFIA program may or may not be funded in the next federal highway bill, and there’s talk that the focus be shifted away from funding PPP & toll projects and directed to more mass transit and rail projects. Yet the RMA lists it as a “reasonable” source of funding for both the 281 and 1604 toll projects.
Second, TxDOT issued a letter to the MPO last fall saying the Texas Mobility Fund money ($200 million) isn’t available in one chunk any longer, it’s only available in $25 million chunks over 7 years (2012-2019). So how is this a “reasonable” source of revenue for the RMA’s toll road when the entire sum is needed in 2012 for just 281? So with two-thirds of the 281 project revenues in doubt (TIFIA and TMF), the RMA cannot demonstrate that the 281 toll project is funded by any reasonable sources of revenue. Ditto for segments of 1604 that also rely on TMF or TIFIA funds.
The RMA also has to spend $83 million on ROW acquisition for 281 (the figure given in the last TIP), when the MPO does NOT have to come up with that sum under a non-tolled scenario (since TxDOT funds ROW out of a different pot of money apart from the MPO). This ROW cost thereby drives up the project cost that the RMA bonds have to cover.
So with the RMA Chairman admitting the toll funding is a mere “placeholder” to keep certain road projects in the MPO plans, why can’t a non-toll source of funding be used as a placeholder instead and keep the plans toll-neutral, which they claim is their goal?
For instance, using the Zachry estimate for US 281 north of Loop 1604 from 2005, the cost to fix 281 as a freeway would be less than $200 million. The 2005 plan cost is $78 million for the first 3 miles (and that was the actual contract bid price, not an estimate, when construction costs were much higher). Extrapolate that for the 7.8 mile project area, and the cost is actually UNDER $200 million ($160-$170 million). So a $200 million project cost (with some flexibility to add extra overpasses where needed) is perfectly reasonable and is based on actual construction costs. No one has yet to give a single reason why this estimate isn’t bonafide when Zachry’s proposal had engineering and the contract had already been let (prior to clearance being yanked). Clay Smith of TxDOT stated on the record in a Technical Advisory Committee meeting last fall that the Zachry proposal is the “actual” cost, not TxDOT’s estimates.
With $3 billion more in Prop 12 bonds are expected to be approved by the legislature next session (they issued only $2 billion of the $5 billion voters approved last session), and Speaker Joe Straus announcing at the NE Partnership meeting April 15 that there is near unanimous support to end at least some of the gas tax diversions, we can use some gas tax revenues with a mix of Prop 12 bonds (or even just solely Prop 12 bonds) as the “reasonable” anticipated source of revenue to fund 281 as a freeway in the TIP to keep it toll-neutral. Prop 12 is a more reasonable expected source of revenue than the RMA’s pot of funds listed in the current TIP. With the current batch of Prop 12 monies netting our region about $200 million, a $3 billion issuance would net us closer to $300 million. That would more than cover a non-toll fix to 281.
The Legislature has also placed restrictions on using Prop 12 and other bonds backed by general revenue (and the majority of Texas taxpayers) for toll roads, since it’s a DOUBLE TAX to build a road with general funds and charge taxpayers AGAIN (a toll tax) to use the public road.
Return to sustainable transportation policy. Restore credibility and heed the public outcry. Remove toll roads from all MPO plans.