Local Planners Pushing Expansion of 1604 Without Toll Lanes

The Bexar County Metropolitan Planning Organization, the body created by the Legislature to guide transportation planning in the San Antonio area, is moving forward with a plan to construct the long-awaited expansion of Loop 1604 on San Antonio’s north side without resorting to toll lanes, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.

MPO Chair Kevin Wolff told News Radio 1200 WOAI and KLRN-TV’s ‘On the Record’ that he is pushing for a vote of the MPO to change direction on the long awaited project.

“We will essentially be passing a resolution asking TxDOT and the Texas Transportation Commission to, instead of doing 1604 as a toll, give us the $500 million needed to complete that project, which is our most congested portion in the entire county, from Bandera Rd. to I-35,” Wolff said.

The entire cost of constructing two new lanes in each direction from Bandera Road to Interstate 35, a 24 mile project, is $800 million, but $300 million had already been secured from other sources.

Wolff didn’t say where the extra $500 million might come from, but since the original concept for the expansion was proposed, voters statewide have approved two propositions to free up money from various sources, including the gasoline tax and sales tax revenue from vehicle transactions, specifically to pay for non tolled highway improvements.

Wolff pointed out that the mood among state officials from Gov. Abbott on down is decidedly anti toll today, as opposed to the mood when the 1604 project was first conceived and pro toll Gov. Rick Perry was in office.

Abbott and Legislative leaders have both expressed a desire to complete major transportation projects without tolls.”

You are probably looking at over the next three to four months for this to get in front of the Texas Transportation Commission and hear what their decision is,” Wolff said.

But Wolff pointed out that all Commission members are appointed by Abbott, and are well aware of their feelings about toll roads.

He also said the political mood in Bexar County has long been anti-toll, due largely to the lobbying efforts of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom founder Terri Hall.

Wolff didn’t say whether this new method of funding would delay the start of the construction on the badly needed new lanes.

Link to story…

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Toll roads not a good fit for San Antonio

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.

Express-News sold out for tolls

Bruce Davidson, author of the column below, heads the Editorial Board at the Express-News. He, and the paper (as evidenced by their coverage since they laid off the excellent, unbiased, and very fair transportation reporter Pat Driscoll), are sold out on tolls. This is one of many editorials that read like an RMA press release. Whatever RMA Chair Bill Thornton speaketh, Davidson prints as Gospel.

Whenever we’ve attempted to go to the Editorial Board to dialogue about the toll issue, they flatly ignore us and our concerns (as well as elected officials, attorneys, certified planners, and other experts who have joined us) and print a negative editorial in response to our “visit.” After all, the paper has the establishment to please, never mind the Express-News is bleeding readers. Why? Because of columns, editorials, and stories like this one. Or perhaps it’s because the RMA has paid the Express-News nearly $25,000 in government advertising.

I find the first line of this column inexplicable. How can we NOT blame the tolling authority, which is precisely what the RMA is, for tolling our existing freeways? Though there’s plenty of blame to go around, including the people Davidson cites, our state lawmakers led by Rick Perry (we would add there are culprits who have approved and voted for this at EVERY level of government, local, state, and federal), it defies logic NOT to address the RMA’s culpability in the toll road fight.

The RMA is a Board of UN-elected bureaucrats appointed by YOUR county commissioners, who have given them the authority to levy taxes (toll taxes) without answering directly to the taxpayers (which is taxation without representation). Their only source of revenue is tolling (and a heap of loans from the city and county and grants from TxDOT to keep them afloat until they tap the vein of your wallet with their first toll road). RMAs were created in state law for the sole purpose of tolling and off-loading the State’s job to build STATE highways to local government and its taxpayers.

This notion that the RMA “doesn’t care where the money comes from, they just want to fix the road” is a farce. They’re a tolling authority! They exist to toll roads! Most importantly, the needed fix to 281 was already paid for with gas taxes until TxDOT made the money disappear sometime in mid-2008. So the toll agenda for 281 has NOTHING to do with lack of funds. They had the funds…it’s about tapping a new revenue stream and levying a discriminatory, targeted tax on 281 users in order to fund 1604 (which they don’t have the money for). The fact 281 already had the funding is one the RMA and the Express-News like to ignore so they can push toll roads, making them appear the ONLY option.

Then, the stimulus money the RMA is using to build HALF of a non-toll interchange (for the price of a WHOLE interchange) is a one time deal. We’ve long objected to the RMA even doing a non-toll project, especially with the pricetag they can’t justify ($143 million for just the four southern ramps of the interchange when the RMA’s published price to build the northern ramps in 2018 dollars is $59 million. If they can build half of the interchange for $59 million, they can surely build the whole thing NOW for $120 million! For comparison, the 410/281 interchange just built cost $155 million). What on earth are we paying our highway department to do if we now have these high paid bureaucrats at the RMA sitting around duplicating TxDOT’s role and charging us $20 million in “management fees” to oversee the interchange project that TxDOT should be doing (without the added cost)? The RMA is a second-tier bureaucracy and a taxpayer rip-off from start to finish.

Here are just two timelines (here and here) to give you a flavor of how corrupt and untrustworthy this RMA is. Then here’s a few other zingers. The RMA operates in secrecy and has refused to hand over the financial guts to its potential toll agreements BEFORE the contract gets signed (when the public can actually DO something to stop provisions that are not in the public interest). It hides behind a state law that allows these agencies to keep toll viability studies, the market valuation, and other key financial details SECRET from the public AND even YOUR elected officials. In fact, prior to a crucial vote on financing the 281 and 1604 toll projects at the MPO December 7, 2007, the RMA did not give MPO Board members this information prior to their vote, causing them to vote BLIND.

During the last legislative session, the RMA spent $32,000 of YOUR money to hire a lobbyist to lobby state lawmakers for toll roads and more taxing authority to levy ANY kind of tax to raid your pocketbook. The RMA also recently came out in favor of thwarting legal challenges to its unwanted toll projects by lobbying to force binding arbitration. Then, the RMA Board just voted to do all of its business BEHIND CLOSED DOORS, out of the public eye, unless they have an “actionable item” to vote on. Plus, the RMA has 8 employees whose total salaries with benefits equal more than $1 million dollars annually. All but two employees make six figures, which is totally out of balance with the median household income in San Antonio, which is $36,000/yr.

Credibility gap
As long as the 281 & 1604 projects are marked “toll” in the MPO’s plans, the RMA has control of the project and a vested interest in ensuring it remains tolled even when new sources of revenue become available. The RMA is conducting its own environmental studies on both the 281 and 1604 toll projects (the fox guarding the hen house), yet to read the Express-News editorial (see below), you’d think the RMA was a paragon of diplomacy, reaching out to its “enemies.” Diplomacy? Pleez…their consultants told the community advisory groups that the RMA didn’t have to listen to our feedback nor the public feedback at the hearings either. The RMA is using these “community groups” as window dressing, nothing more. After repeated attempts to sit down with the RMA and work out many issues regarding these projects, they’ve REFUSED to work with ANYONE who gets in the way of their toll agenda. The RMA opposed the citizens’ call for a temporary superstreet fix on 281, too, until they figured out that doing the project could boost their PR with fed-up residents and give them something to do until their first toll project brings home the bacon.

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), which is proof-positive that even when they get a new pot of money to do something non-toll, the RMA still pushes its toll agenda…regardless of the opposition to it.

Also, 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 & the RMA 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 (apart from the RMA) yielded ZERO takers?

Toll roads NOT inevitable
Then, Davidson would have us accept his premise that toll roads are inevitable because lawmakers in Austin refuse to raise your taxes. First of all, tolls are taxes and they have yet to hesitate to charge commuters the MOST EXPENSIVE tax to fund roads. Second, where is Davidson’s call to end the diversions to the gas tax we ALREADY PAY? Why would any thinking person ask government to raise taxes when they’re misappropriating the taxes we already send them? Third, why isn’t Davidson insisting San Antonio get back the money we already send to Austin and Washington that we’re shorted before he advocates for higher taxes (tolls)? Lastly, ending the vehicle sales tax diversion (that’s being dumped into general revenue instead of going to roads) would nearly triple our region’s road money WITHOUT RAISING TAXES! But Davidson doesn’t think that way. He’s an extension of the government bureaucrats at the RMA.

Goes to show, one must do his/her due diligence before believing what you read in the Express-News.
Austin’s aversion to tax hikes makes toll roads inevitable
By Bruce Davidson – Express-News

Web Posted: 05/13/2010

Don’t blame the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority when U.S. 281 from north of Loop 1604 becomes a toll road.

RMA officials are in the midst of the lengthy Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process. They are studying three possible approaches to dealing with the nightmarish traffic on U.S. 281.

One scenario involves overpasses at the key intersections and non-continuous frontage, as RMA spokesman Leroy Alloway described it. Another would have expressway lanes and continuous frontage road from Loop 1604 to the Bexar County line. And a third option would have elevated U.S. 281 lanes, leaving most of the existing structure in place.

RMA Chairman Bill Thornton emphasizes that while the project is listed as a toll road in Metropolitan Planning Organization plan, that status is a placeholder.

Read the rest of the story here.

Agua should drop legal threat
Express-News Editorial Board
Web Posted: 05/11/2010

The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority is engaging in some highway diplomacy. Rather than allowing plans for road construction in the U.S. 281-Loop 1604 corridor to get bogged down in challenges, the RMA is bringing potential adversaries to the table and making them part of the development process.

The RMA has created community advisory committees for both of the two major highway projects it is managing — a 7.9-mile segment of U.S. 281 north of Loop 1604 to the county line and a 37-mile stretch of Loop 1604 from Interstate 35 North to Highway 90 West.

Among the stakeholders on these committees are representatives of homeowners associations, school districts and the business and development community.

The RMA has also included groups with which it has traditionally had an adversarial relationship: the Alamo Sierra Club, Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas, Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, San Antonio Toll Party and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom.

This diplomatic approach is a wise one. A good faith effort by members of the advisory groups can streamline the process for road construction and avoid lawsuits and political challenges that are both costly and time consuming.

Read the rest of the story here.

Austin's toll revenue projections cut in HALF

Link to article here.

Note how Austin’s toll revenue projections are cut by more than HALF in their long-range plan. Also of note is the acknowledgment that selling our highways to foreign companies in “concession” deals has fallen out of favor with the legislature. That’s due to the grassroots’ blowback over the last 4-5 years. Stay vigilant so we can keep it that way!

Regional transportation plan nears approval
CAMPO 2035 plan includes reduced road spending and much more for rail, other transit.

Published: 8:12 p.m. Sunday, May 9, 2010

Think of a blueprint, one written in chalk.

In the case of Central Texas’ official transportation plan for the next 25 years, which a committee of local leaders probably will approve later this month, what goes into that blueprint to a great degree depends on who gets to hold the chalk. The proposed CAMPO 2035 plan is several hundred pages long with several hundred road, rail, bicycle and pedestrian projects in it that add up to $26.8 billion.

That’s almost $4 billion more than the last version of the 25-year plan, approved in 2005 by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board. But that money might not all materialize. Those numbers assume a much higher rate of Capital Metro sales tax revenue than in recent years, as well as aggressive road bonding in Williamson County.

The new plan includes a much higher percentage of rail and other transit spending than its predecessor and a sharply reduced amount for maintaining highways. In the introduction, the plan claims to embrace a new philosophy of transportation planning based on encouraging dense centers of development rather than continuing suburban sprawl willy-nilly.

But even those working on the plan say the focus on centers — not an emphasis of previous plans — will make little real-world difference. The plan is only as accurate as its assumptions about the future, they said, and making predictions about the next quarter-century is inevitably an exercise in guesswork.

“To borrow a Hemingway phrase, it’s pretty to think we can plan 25 years in advance,” said Hays County Commissioner Jeff Barton , a Democrat who serves on the CAMPO board. “There’s value in the exercise, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves.”

What’s in the plan matters, however, because under federal law a transportation project can’t get federal dollars — almost all highway and transit projects are at least partially funded by the federal government — unless the project is in the long-range plan. But the 19-member CAMPO board, made up mostly of local elected officials from Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop and Caldwell counties, can amend the plan at any time. And there will be another wholesale rewrite five years from now, five years after that, and so on.

The CAMPO board, recipient of more than 4,000 public comments submitted on the draft plan in recent months, will take one last listen in a public hearing today. The meeting will start at 6 p.m. in Ballroom B of the Austin Convention Center.

The board probably will vote on the plan May 24, officials said.

If it is approved as written in draft form — and some CAMPO members still intend to push for changes — the plan would include:

• $2 billion for more passenger rail, including $857 million for the City of Austin’s proposed streetcar initiative, $467 million for a segment of a commuter line from Austin to San Antonio, $327 million for an Elgin-to-downtown Austin commuter line on Capital Metro’s railroad and $149 million for expansion of the MetroRail Red Line.

Rail and bus operations account for $10.3 billion of the plan, almost double from the 2030 plan. The money for this includes an estimated $6.6 billion from Capital Metro’s 1 percent sale tax, a $3 billion increase over the last plan’s 25-year estimate. The plan assumes, based on numbers from Capital Metro, that the agency’s sales tax revenue will increase 5.3 percent a year for the next quarter-century, more than double the average increase over the past decade.

• $10.9 billion for highway and road expansion, a 6.5 percent decrease from the 2030 plan. And the drop would be much greater but for an aggressive forecast by Williamson County — some CAMPO members from other counties say unrealistically aggressive — that it will spend $4.3 billion on new roads. The plan assumes that Williamson County voters will approve $425 million in road bonds every other year from 2011 to 2027.

Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe, chairman of the CAMPO board, said having all that money in the plan, along with dozens of projects tied to it, would give Williamson County an unfair advantage in getting federal funds in future years. Travis County, by contrast, estimates it would have $1.1 billion for new or expanded roads over the next 25 years.

“We have to increase ours, or Williamson County has to reduce theirs,” Biscoe said. “I expect that to be discussed on May 24.”

Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long, vice chairwoman of the CAMPO board, said it’s a matter of need.

“What we’ve seen is very low tolerance among our citizens for congestion, and we are responding to that,” Long said. “Rather than asking why Williamson County’s number is so high, I would ask why Travis County’s number is so low.”

• $5 billion of state, federal and toll revenue for roads, down almost 56 percent from the $11.3 billion in the 2030 plan. That reflects the diminishing power of gas taxes to pay for new roads, a trend made worse in Texas because the state Department of Transportation in recent years has borrowed heavily against future gas tax revenue to pay for projects now completed. And the estimate of surplus toll revenue (what’s available after paying debt service and operations costs) from Central Texas turnpikes is down sharply, from $3.2 billion in the past plan to $1.3 billion.

As a result, local governments would contribute a greater portion of road spending, including state highways that historically were exclusively TxDOT’s province.

“That’s something we’re going to have to address at the state level,” Barton said. “And soon.”

• No spending over the next 25 years to expand the capacity of either Interstate 35 through Central Texas or Loop 360 (Capital of Texas Highway) in West Austin, two of the area’s most congested highways. Joe Cantalupo , CAMPO’s executive director, said that TxDOT is studying what to do about I-35 and that the plan would be amended as plans coalesce.

“We’re not looking at it and saying, ‘Oh, there’s no problem, with 2009” Cantalupo said.

The 2030 plan envisioned making Loop 360 a toll road, with frontage roads alongside, and doing so by leasing the road to a private company. Such “concession” agreements fell out of favor with the Legislature, and new ones are no longer legal under state law. Given that and the looming cash crunch at TxDOT, Cantalupo said, Loop 360 expansion fell out of the new plan.

Study of non-toll plan for 281 nixed

The fact the MPO could not get a single contractor to do an independent study for a non-toll option on 281 (and 1604 was added by an amendment by Rep. David Leibowitz) shows the whole process is severely tainted and that non-toll options will not be given any serious consideration as federal law requires. It’s obvious that road builders know if they dare give an honest analysis or put forward an independent non-toll option for 281 (for which there already is one, see the plans here: www.281overpassesnow.com), they’ll never get another job in this town again.

The obvious answer is to update the TxDOT plan from 2001 that was already adopted by the MPO for 5 years and promised and promoted in public hearings. There is also another more recent plan done in 2005 that can also be used as a non-toll plan. As a last resort, the MPO can always find a contractor outside Texas politics to do an independent non-toll plan. The cancellation of a non-toll plan OUTSIDE the control of the tolling authority, the RMA, displays the pathetic state of transportation in Texas today. I don’t know which is worse, the power TxDOT and the toll authority wields or the gutless crowd of contractors we have…

Toll road study axed but alternatives still on the table
By Vianna Davila – Express-News
03/29/2010The long-awaited resolution to the battle over tolls roads still hasn’t come — yet.

In December, members of the Metropolitan Planning Organization board authorized a study to determine the cost differences between toll and nontoll alternatives on U.S. 281, after a heated public meeting last fall over the board’s transportation options.

But by a February deadline, no consulting firms had stepped up to do the study, leaving the board back where it started.

At MPO’s transportation policy board meeting on Monday, officials decided to rely on the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority’s environmental impact statement — a three-year study that will ultimately recommend an option on U.S. 281 and how to fund it.

The environmental study will examine three main construction options: an expressway, which could include a combination of high-occupancy toll lanes and nontoll lanes similar to those in Houston; an elevated expressway, which also would include a similar combination of high-occupancy toll and nontoll lanes; or an overpass expansion, a plan that currently does not include tolls and would have the smallest physical impact, said RMA Executive Director Terry Brechtel.

For the rest of the story, go here.

Supporter of pro-toll Sheila McNeil tries to buy votes

Link to article here. McNeil “Those people can afford the tolls” McNeil, who’s trying to oust Good Guy Tommy Adkisson from office (more how McNeil stole the MPO chairmanship from Adkisson here), has a supporter offering to “buy” votes to reward people for voting for McNeil. It’s highly illegal, but do you think anyone will pay the price?

McNeil voters were to be rewarded
By Gilbert Garcia

A Sheila McNeil supporter who runs a youth football program sent a text message last week urging parents to vote for the Commissioners Court hopeful in exchange for a $125 credit on their children’s football enrollment fees, according to multiple sources.

Fred Davis, 35, founder of Youth Advancement Initiative, a nonprofit organization with five youth football leagues and a cheerleading program, sent the offer Friday, according to three former East Side City Council members: Mario Salas, John Sanders and McNeil, the hopeful whom Davis sought to help.

In the text message, Davis told parents with children enrolled in his program that if they went to the Claude Black Center over the weekend and cast their vote for McNeil, one of two hopefuls challenging incumbent Commissioner Tommy Adkisson in the Democratic primary, he would reward them with a $125 enrollment credit. It’s unclear how he would’ve determined whether the parents voted for McNeil.

Early Saturday, Davis sent a follow-up text message rescinding his offer, according to sources. But by then, the initial text had generated a buzz on the East Side.

Davis declined to comment.

Read the rest of the story here.

Grassroots hail Adkisson's anti-toll leadership

Link to article slamming Adkisson here.

Op/Ed on Express-News attack of Good Guy Tommy Adkisson
By Terri Hall

Your editorial attacking the leadership of Commissioner Tommy Adkisson couldn’t be more off-base. Adkisson has jumped-in to defend the disenfranchised in our community by LEADING the way in keeping our freeways toll-free. When thousands of San Antonians have spoken out against toll roads and the appointed and elected officials on the local planning board (MPO) continue to ignore the outcry, Commissioner Adkisson risked his own political hide by standing with the people against the big money in town. One of the politicians who ignored the public outcry against toll roads is one of Adkisson’s opponents, former councilwoman and MPO Chair Sheila McNeil.

Your editorial also got the facts wrong. Adkisson took the helm at the MPO with a major focus on fixing 281 and 1604 without tolls and on improving mass transit. He introduced an amendment to re-instate the EXACT same non-toll plan for 281 that had already been vetted, adopted, and in the MPO plans for 5 years (before Governor Perry’s shift to tolling everything). TxDOT wrongfully claimed this non-toll plan wasn’t properly studied. It is TxDOT’s toll agenda that suddenly made the original overpass and expansion plan for 281 “insufficient.”

It’s also inaccurate to claim Adkisson put the stimulus money and interchange project at risk with his proposals. Adkisson merely proposed doing an equal swap from two pots of money to fulfill TxDOT’s arcane matching fund policies, which are discretionary and optional. Transportation Commission approval of the swap was entirely possible if the board had gotten behind it and spoken with one voice, but instead they chose to cower in the corner at TxDOT’s threats to yank the funds if the MPO dared to return 281 to a non-toll project.

Adkisson then withdrew that part of the proposal well before the board was set to vote on it, and testimony from Alamo Regional Mobility Authority Executive Director Terry Brechtel on the day of the final vote affirmed, on the record, that Adkisson’s non-toll amendments DID NOT jeopardize the stimulus funds or the interchange project in ANY WAY.

So what the Editorial Board calls “ill-considered” was, in reality, a power play by an out of control agency bent on double taxing congestion-weary motorists to use a freeway they’ve already built and paid for. The grassroots of this community hail Commissioner Adkisson’s heroic leadership on transportation issues, and urge the voters of Precinct 4 to re-elect this outstanding visionary.

Terri Hall is the Founder/Director of the non-partisan, grassroots San Antonio Toll Party and an Express-News City Brights blogger.

Stop San Antonio freeways from falling under foreign control


Eye-popping 37 toll projects put into local MPO plan; 18 will put TX roads under foreign control!

Vote to adopt it is Monday, December 7.

EMAIL the MPO Board here: Listen@TexasTURF.org

Urge them to…
1) REMOVE toll roads and CDAs (contracts that hand our TX roads to foreign toll operators in 50 yr sweetheart deals!) from its plans.
2) Use traditional gas tax funding NOT privatizing and tolling Texas roads as its source of funding for these projects.
3) NOT VOTE for ANY plan with toll projects and CDAs in it.

Sampling of the toll projects on the docket:
-Hwy 90 (from 410 to 211)
– I-10 (from 410 to Kendall County line)
– Loop 1604 (just about the entire loop, not just the north half)
– 281 (from 1604 to Comal County line)
– I-37 (from 410 south to Atascosa County line)
– Bandera Rd (from 410 to 1604 still appears despite amendment to remove it)
– interchange at I-10 & 1604
– interchange at 281 & 1604 (northbound ramps)
– interchange at 1604 & 151
– interchange at 1604 & 90
– interchange at 1604 & 1-35
– interchange at I-35 & 410
– Kelly Pkwy/Spur 371 (US 90 to SH 16)
– ALL of I-35 (from Atascosa to Comal County line)

For more info on these horrific sweetheart deals and runaway taxation at a cost of 75 cents PER MILE, go here.

MPO rams 37 toll projects down San Antonians' throats


UPDATE: It’s been brought to our attention that there are actually 57 toll projects in the plan. The MPO adopted the plan December 3, 2009.

Eye-popping 37 toll projects appear in MPO’s new plan, 18 to come under foreign control
Taxpayers’ revolt ahead of Monday vote

(San Antonio, TX, December 3, 2009) While San Antonians were enjoying turkey and counting their blessings this Thanksgiving, their politicians were scurrying to load-up the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s (MPO) long-range plan with no less than 37 toll projects, 18 of them slated to come under foreign control using controversial private toll contracts called Comprehensive Development Agreements (or CDAs).

The grassroots defeated CDAs during a special called session of the Texas legislature in July, yet the MPO plugged these now illegal contracts into its plan anyway, apparently following TxDOT’s playbook of using it as a means to get CDAs re-authorized over the LOUD OPPOSITION of Texans in the next legislative session in 2011.

TURF has alerted the grassroots to urge the MPO to:

1) REMOVE toll roads and CDAs from its plans.

2) Use traditional gas tax funding NOT privatizing and tolling Texas roads as its source of funding for these projects.

3) NOT VOTE for ANY plan with toll projects and CDAs in it.

“We’ve been warning San Antonians for years that Rick Perry has made his toll tax policy so expansive, they won’t be able to escape it. The MPO’s list of 37 toll projects shows how out of touch our politicians are with the economic realities of their constituents. It’s clear this about more than getting projects built, it’s an all-out assault on our freedom to travel by making it unaffordable to drive. I haven’t met a single Texan outside the Capitol that thinks it’s a good idea to cede control of our Texas roads to foreign companies,” observes Terri Hall, Founder/Director of TURF.

As an example of just what a taxpayer disaster it is to hand control of our public roads to private, foreign toll operators using CDAs, drivers on a road operated by Spain-based Cintra (who has won three Texas contracts already) in Canada receive their first bill totaling thousands of dollars in fines years after they supposedly took the tollway. The government has no power to step-in and protect motorists from runaway taxation nor disputed toll fines.

A recent article in the Toronto Star chronicles the nightmare:

“’We, as a government, have no control over that, as a result of the (Mike) Harris government’s deal,’ to lease the toll road to a private consortium for 99 years and include a provision in the contract forcing the transportation ministry to deny new plates to anyone who doesn’t pay the 407 whatever it demands, said Bradley.

“The 407 ‘negotiated a deal that was very favourable to them and they covered all the aspects of the deal that they would want,’ said Bradley.

“Many readers said they think the 407 deliberately holds back invoices on unpaid balances to allow interest charges to grow, but Bradley noted that it “is responsible for establishing its own business practices, and under its deal … it has the right to set and collect tolls and administration fees and interest.”

Here’s some of the anti-taxpayer provisions involved in CDA sweetheart deals:
-In Texas, they can last up to 52 years
– Contracts kept secret from the public until AFTER they’re signed (no transparency, no way to ensure public protections)
-Charge oppressively high toll rates, like 75 cents PER MILE (like the deals in DFW) which on average will mean $3,000 a year in new taxes on driving
-Grant foreign companies the right to levy taxes, the power to take away drivers licenses or car/license plate registration
-Removes rights of due process for toll violations and fines
-Non-compete agreements that guarantee congestion on the free routes
-Guaranteed annual profits (so they can raise the toll rates to whatever price needed so they always get their guaranteed level of profit)
-Massive taxpayer subsidies (so it’s a double and even triple tax scenario) yet all the profits leave Texas
-Toll companies write off the depreciation of the “asset” on their taxes (then spin it off to another subsidiary company and start the depreciation all over again)
– Exemption from alternative minimum taxes and often special use of tax-exempt public bonds
– Little to no actual risk transfer
Slower speed limits on free routes and higher speed limits on the tollways to drive more traffic to the toll roads (financial incentive given to TxDOT for driving more traffic to the tollways)

A sample list of toll projects on the docket:

-Hwy 90 (from 410 to 211)
– I-10 (from 410 to county line)
– Loop 1604 (just about the entire loop, not just the north half)
– 281 (from 1604 to Comal County line)
– I-37 (from 410 south to Atascosa County line)
– Bandera Rd (from 410 to 1604 still appears despite amendment to remove it)
– interchange at I-10 & 1604
– interchange at 281 & 1604 (northbound ramps)
– interchange at 1604 & 151
– interchange at 1604 & 90
– interchange at 1604 & 1-35
– interchange at I-35 & 410
– Kelly Pkwy/Spur 371 (US 90 to SH 16)
– ALL of I-35 (from Atascosa to Comal County line)


One toll project defeated, but misplaced priorities prevent non-toll fix to most congested roadways

It’s a HUGE VICTORY for taxpayers that one Bexar County toll project, Wurzbach Parkway’s completion, has been nixed and reverted back to a non-toll project. However, putting Wurzbach Pkwy’s completion above the fix to the unbearable congestion nightmare on US 281 and the west and east sides of Loop 1604 is inexplicable. On October 26, the local MPO had the chance to fix the west side of 1604 non-toll using Prop 12 bonds and to revert 281 back to a non-toll project using existing monies. The MPO voted it down 13-5, Councilman Ray Lopez and Commissioner Chico Rodriguez who represent that area of 1604 and Senator Jeff Wentworth and Commissioner Kevin Wolff who represent the 281 corridor were among the board members to vote down the non-toll amendments.

Weeks later, TxDOT and the RMA railroaded the Wurzbach Pkwy project through the Transportation Commission and removed Wurzbach Pkwy from the toll plans without even coming to the MPO for approval and without a word of public testimony asking for it. Contrast that to the 281 and 1604 amendments before the MPO on October 26 that would have made them non-toll projects and reduced the cost using the same arguments TxDOT used to get Wurzbach approved at reduced cost, that the MPO rejected despite more than 500 attendees and FIVE AND HALF HOURS of public testimony demanding the non-toll fix to these roadways. Something is seriously wrong with this picture!
The article below references a letter sent to Chairman Joe Pickett by MPO Chair Commissioner Tommy Adkisson but grossly misrepresents the intent of the letter. Read the letter. for yourself. What continues to fuel inaccurate assessments of all these letters flying around of late is that no one seems to be reading them. Adkisson was objecting to TxDOT’s claim that it had come to the MPOs to get an approved list of projects for Prop 12 funding when it had not.

TxDOT acted alone, so did the RMA by removing Wurzbach from its toll plans and passing a resolution to fix it non-toll with Prop 12 bonds. Adkisson was sticking-up for the MPO’s proper role in transportation decision-making, and from what I can tell, that’s been the reason for most of his letters. So that was the rub, yet the article makes it appear Adkisson was blocking money coming to our region when nothing could be further from the truth. Had TxDOT come to the MPO as they are supposed to do and as they told the legislature and Commission they had, there wouldn’t be any question about the MPO’s priorities because the board would have adopted an official list.

At the end of the day, it’s TxDOT who acted unilaterally to use-up the Prop 12 bonds on everything BUT a non-toll fix to our most congested roadways, 281 and 1604. TxDOT needs unbearable congestion in order to entice people to pay a toll to get out of it.  TxDOT just gave us another lesson in railroading 101.

Web Posted: 11/19/2009 5:02 CST

Wurzbach Parkway funds OK’d

By Josh Baugh – Express-News
The Texas Transportation Commission on Thursday approved about $2 billion in highway projects across the state, including $130 million to complete the final three segments of Wurzbach Parkway on the city’s North Side.

Envisioned as a major thoroughfare connecting Interstate 35 to the Medical Center, the parkway has languished for years because of a lack of funding. But the state allocation will allow the Texas Department of Transportation to complete the final 4.8 miles of roadway.

Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff said the area was lucky to receive the money during an era of declining funding for road projects.

“This is a huge, huge win for us,” Wolff said. “It’s about time that we finish a project that’s 20 years old.”

Statewide, more than 850 projects worth $8.9 billion were submitted, according to a TxDOT press release. The commission approved 74 projects, including six on Interstate 35 in Central Texas worth about $1 billion.

Not everyone agrees with the transportation commission’s priorities.

Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, who also is chairman of the local Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the commission’s funding allocations were “incomprehensible.”

“I still think U.S. 281 North is easily the No. 1 project in Bexar County that should get our focus,” he said. “But I’m happy to have any money come to Bexar County.”

Read the rest of the story here.