Leon Valley battles tolls

Link to article here.

Note: The article states that TxDOT only plans to generate enough revenue from the toll roads to equal a 2 cent gas tax hike! So why are they building these behemoth corridors with more lanes than we need, and charging us nearly twice as much to build, maintain and operate toll roads than it costs to do them as free roads only to make as much money as a modest gas tax increase? And this is AFTER TxDOT has repeatedly claimed they’d need anywhere from 10 cents to $1.00 a gallon gas tax increase if we don’t do the tolls. Their own math doesn’t add up!

Leon Valley battles on tolls
By Patrick Driscoll
Express-News Staff Writer

Now that toll road fever has shifted to proposed elevated toll lanes over Bandera Road, Leon Valley residents are getting their dose of the numbing data and shocking rhetoric that puff the debate.

A debate last week at the Leon Valley Community Center has left city officials scratching their heads as they try to untangle the mountain of information, collected over months and even years, that spewed for more than an hour and a half.

“Cognitive overload is what I call it,” Mayor Chris Riley said. “One person would say this, and then (another) would say no, so I’m like — get me those (studies) and let me read it for myself.”

Riley, along with state Rep. Joaquín Castro and San Antonio City Councilwoman Elena Guajardo, held the debate to inform and perhaps assuage concerned residents. More than 250 people showed up and clapped liberally for both sides, though a little louder for toll critics.

So far, the community is decidedly against both tolls and the elevated lanes.

Just over a week ago, Leon Valley City Council candidate Arthur Reyna Jr. trounced an incumbent by more than a 2-to-1 ratio after targeting a city resolution from September that asks the Texas Department of Transportation to study flyover lanes.

Most Leon Valley Area Chamber of Commerce members, polled twice in recent months, said businesses would do poorly in the shadow of flyover toll lanes. The organization would rather see Bandera widened to eight lanes, beautified and made easier for walking.

“Personally, I think it would be a horrible thing for the city,” Reyna said. “From the other side, I’ll do whatever the citizens want me to do, and right now what I hear them saying is, they do not want this toll road. So it’s my job to try and do whatever I can to stop it.”

That’s the crowd that David Casteel, TxDOT’s head engineer in San Antonio, and Terry Brechtel, Alamo Regional Mobility Authority director, faced Wednesday when they debated San Antonio Toll Party members.

TxDOT has laid out plans for 75 miles of toll roads on the North Side — along U.S. 281, Loop 1604, Interstate 35, Bandera Road and a Wurzbach Parkway interchange at U.S. 281 — and is studying additional toll lanes on I-10 outside Loop 1604.

The mobility authority recently took over the 28 miles of toll projects for I-35, Wurzbach and Bandera and is helping TxDOT pick a private consortium to operate 47 miles of planned toll lanes on U.S. 281 and Loop 1604.

Pitch for tolls

Casteel and Brechtel argue that there’s not enough tax money to solve traffic congestion — it’s not even close.
Over the past 25 years in Texas, the population grew 57 percent and the amount of driving almost doubled while miles of highway lanes increased just 8 percent. Much of the same is expected over the next quarter-century, except that driving is projected to triple.

Planners say $188 billion worth of traffic projects are needed by 2030, but the state is short by $86 billion, a tenth of it in San Antonio. Gas taxes — which are the same 38.4 cents a gallon that they were more than a decade ago — would have to be raised by $1.20 a gallon to cover the bill.

Inflation has whittled purchasing power of the state’s 20-cent gas tax — per road-mile driven — to early 1980s levels.

But the Legislature has refused to raise the tax in recent years, opting instead to go with tolls. As of late last year, planned toll roads in Texas cities were expected to rake in $5 billion in construction money over 25 years, which is equivalent to a 2-cent gas tax.

Together with gas taxes, tolls can fund projects decades sooner, officials say. And as toll roads are paid off, excess revenues could be used to help pay for other projects. Motorists would choose whether to drive on congested non-tolled lanes, such as existing Bandera Road, where traffic is projected to double in 25 years, or pay fees to save time.

Otherwise, San Antonio’s traffic will soon look like Houston’s today, torturing drivers even more, increasing costs to do business and scaring companies thinking about locating here.

“It doesn’t take too much in-depth analysis, it doesn’t take a Texas A&M engineering degree, to say that if you don’t like congestion today, you’re really not going to like it in the future,” Casteel said.

Ditch the tolls

Terri Hall, founder and director of San Antonio Toll Party, and locally based transportation consultant Bill Barker say something smells funny.

For one thing, tolls do not solve traffic congestion. And congestion is needed on competing roads to make tolls viable because motorists won’t pay a fee if they can get somewhere just as quickly on free roads.

Toll lanes will benefit only those who can afford them, while everybody else will still help pay, they said. Gas taxes are eyed for many toll projects because tolls can’t always do it all; rights of way bought with public money would also be used, and businesses using toll lanes would pass on the costs to customers.

Also, they said, the state’s $86 billion worth of road needs are probably more of a wish list when one considers that gas taxes would have to more than triple to get the money. A better idea is to tighten spending and prioritize better.

It’s even arguable that more highway lanes will just spread sprawling development faster and induce more driving, as in the past.

San Antonio already has more miles of freeway lanes per person than 45 of the 50 largest U.S. cities, and when mileage per capita here increased between 1990 to 2000, commute times still went up.

The strategy should focus on decreasing how much people drive, such as more carpooling and telecommuting, better public transit, and building neighborhoods where it’s easy to walk to bus stops and other places, they said.

Other solutions include developing a network of city streets that connect better, requiring developers to provide for those streets, using the latest technologies to coordinate traffic signals and using reversible lanes.

Smoke hasn’t cleared

Work on the first three miles of toll lanes in San Antonio was scheduled for U.S. 281 in January, but federal officials pulled the environmental clearances after a lawsuit was filed that says impacts hadn’t been studied enough. TxDOT is redoing the evaluations.
Meanwhile, the mobility authority is starting an environmental assessment for the seven miles of toll lanes that might be built over Bandera Road. The assessment could be completed within two years and the tollway opened in five.

Many residents in Leon Valley will be watching closely.

“If 50 percent of what San Antonio Toll Party presented is indeed true, TxDOT has some problems,” said Phillip Manea, president of the Leon Valley chamber.