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.

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:, 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.

NTTA bailout saddles taxpayers with toxic debt

Last week, both the Texas Transportation Commission (TTC) and the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) approved a deal to use ALL Texas taxpayers (our state gas taxes) as collateral for toll roads in North Texas. Highway 161, a road to primarily benefit the Dallas Cowboys (Hwy 161 is the main pathway to its new stadium), got the green light first, and we’re on the hook for virtually unlimited interest on the debt for 36 years if the toll road traffic doesn’t show up.

The NTTA wouldn’t need the State to guarantee its debt if it didn’t already know that the projected traffic to pay for it is on shaky ground. Investors won’t bite unless a return on their investment is a sure thing. They made it a sure thing by using the State’s highway fund as a backstop for the NTTA’s toxic debt (read more history here).

For years Rick Perry’s excuse for levying toll taxes on urban Texans has been, “Why should West Texas pay for the congestion in Houston or Dallas?” Yet here we are, ALL paying for congestion in North Texas! The move is also unconstitutional (exploiting what TxDOT thinks can be construed as a “loophole”). The highway fund cannot be used to guarantee loans. To skirt the law, TxDOT added a provision it thinks it can use to make the unconstitutional deal legal by charging the NTTA interest on any money lent to it from the highway fund.

Exploitation or illegal?

Sound familiar? TxDOT exploited a “loophole” that was supposed to prohibit tolling existing roads for US 281, US 290, among others (watch it here). TxDOT also exploited the prohibition against selling our highways to foreign corporations through private toll contracts called CDAs by using another financing mechanism meant for local governments (called pass through financing) to accomplish the same thing.

In another example, TxDOT exploited a law that allows it to advertise toll roads in order to wage a PR campaign to persuade/lobby the public to accept more toll roads versus following the legislative intent of the law, which was to advertise the use of toll roads already open to traffic (like “get your Toll Tag here”). Perry vetoed a law passed by the legislature last year that would have prevented such chicanery from continuing.

Lastly, TxDOT attempted “creative accounting” tricks with Proposition 12 bonds in order to multi-leverage debt (use borrowed money as a down payment to get more borrowed money and so on) after the Texas legislature soundly defeated such legislation in the special session in July of 2009. Lawmakers clearly did NOT want TxDOT to become a bank or engage in the same risky financial schemes that caused the mortgage meltdown and global financial crisis that required a massive taxpayer bailout.

So how many times will this rogue agency get away with flouting the law? Would you and I get a free pass for such violations (especially considering TxDOT is doing it with other people’s money forcibly confiscated through taxation)? Of course not! Add to that its rigged, fraudulent environmental studies to gain clearance for controversial toll projects and its $1 billion dollar “accounting error,” and it adds up to intolerable acts that cry out for accountability.

Scheme to buyback FREEway to toll it

Hwy 161 is already three-quarters built with taxpayer money and could open as a free road, yet in this NTTA bailout, the agency will borrow over $1 billion in part to buy back the free portion of the road so it can turn around and toll it. This scam shoots a hole through another Perry talking point that claims we’re out of money to build these roads with traditional funds, “so we MUST toll it.” In fact in 2007, a TxDOT report to Congress lobbied to buy back existing interstates so it can slap tolls on freeways already built and paid for, and it caused a statewide backlash, a federal amendment by Kay Bailey Hutchison to ban the practice, and a TURF lawsuit to stop such lobbying against the taxpayer.

See the pattern here? TxDOT continues its deplorable behavior unchecked while taxpayer money is exploited, wasted, and recycled (how many times do we have to pay for the same road?). At the end of the day, lawmakers huff and puff, but they never blow the house down (and clean house)!

It’s abundantly clear no one is looking out for us, so we must do it ourselves. We cannot give up the fight for accountability nor can we afford for this Governor and legislature to look the other way and continue to condone such disastrous fiscal policy certain to bring economic ruin for generations.

Call your state lawmakers at (512) 463-4630 or to contact his/her district office go here.

Toll agency lawyer disbarred

Link to article here.

Nielson is a prime example of the revolving door syndrome that dominates transportation/toll issues. He’s not unlike former State Rep. Mike Krusee who nows lobbies his ex-colleagues for big bucks. These guys just get recycled from one job to the next, using their connections from elected office to exploit taxpayers…

Toll road agency lawyer resigns after bar suspension
Tom Nielson served on Round Rock City Council for six years before joining Central Texas Mobility Authority as general counsel in 2006

Monday, Feb. 8, 2010

Tom Nielson, a former Round Rock City Council member and general counsel of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority since 2006, quietly left the toll road agency several weeks ago after the State Bar of Texas suspended his law license.

The five-year suspension of Nielson’s right to practice law, for “professional misconduct,” grows out of a 2000 land deal that went awry several years before he became the toll authority’s lawyer, according to a six-page suspension judgment by the bar. Nielson, according to the judgment, falsely claimed to have put $25,000 in a trust account and gave a “false document” to a partner in the deal purporting to show that the money had been deposited with a title company.

Nielson, 49, who officially left his $164,388-a-year position at the toll authority Jan. 15 after his license was suspended Jan. 1, said that although there was a “discrepancy” involving a document, “I still contend there was no issue with it.” The charges confirmed in the Dec. 28 judgment were of the “he-said-she-said” variety, Nielson said.

“Hey, I’ve lost my career,” Nielson said. “But I’m not a bad guy. It’s not like I made off with millions.”

Instead, Nielson said that he and Byron “Dick” Wilson, of Hutto, were “squeezed out” of the sale of land on U.S. 183 near Anderson Mill Road, well south of where the mobility authority would later build the 183-A toll road. Then Wilson sued in 2006, and Nielson said he paid about $50,000 in a settlement in which he didn’t admit guilt.

He also must pay the State Bar almost $6,000 in attorney fees.

Wilson, who in August 2008 filed the grievance with the State Bar that led to the license suspension, could not be reached for comment.

Mobility authority Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein, whose friendship with Nielson goes back two decades to when their children played youth sports together, said he knew nothing about the disputed land deal between Nielson and Wilson.

“It was never brought up during his employment, or before that during the interview process,” Heiligenstein said. “He obviously thought it had been worked out.”

Nielson told Heiligenstein in mid-December about the bar complaint and that he was resigning, Heiligenstein said. Nielson’s picture and his position with the agency were still posted on the agency’s Web site Monday afternoon. Agency spokesman Steve Pustelnyk , alerted to this, had the post removed later in the day.

Nielson, who graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in 1986, according to the bar, served on the Round Rock City Council from 1999 to 2005. He became general counsel for the mobility authority several months later, in effect replacing private attorney Brian Cassidy, who had been doing legal work for the agency on a contract basis almost since its creation in 2002.

Cassidy, who had continued to provide some services for the authority, including lobbying at the Capitol, was back in the counsel’s chair when the mobility authority board of directors met Jan. 27.

The bar decision said that Nielson, representing a landowner, in late 2000 had approached another person, identified in the original grievance as Wilson. Nielson and Wilson, anticipating a $100,000 profit on what Nielson described Monday as a “land flip,” agreed that Wilson would put up $25,000 “earnest money.” Two years later, according to the judgment, the partner questioned Nielson about when they would see the profits. Only at that point, the document says, did Nielson reveal that the deal had soured and returned the $25,000.

It was unclear Monday whether that $25,000 was a part of the $50,000 settlement of the lawsuit.

Heiligenstein is interviewing candidates for general counsel, he said Monday.

Toll authority lobbies to end citizen legal challenges to unwanted toll roads

This excerpt from the story pretty well sums up our thoughts on this obvious attempt to railroad UNWANTED toll projects upon taxpayers by removing genuine legal challenges, the only method they listen to and the only method that has worked so far:

“There’s a reason why they have public comment and review periods,” Hall said. “It is important to give the public a chance to review these things and scrutinize it.”

Some environmental documents are hundreds or thousands of pages long, Hall said, and can’t be digested in 60 days.

“The best way to not have to worry about litigation is not about keeping things out of court — it’s to do the documents right, do right by the public and get community consensus so that there isn’t any opposition.”

Web Posted: 01/14/2010 6:25 CST

Proposal would sideline road-blocking lawsuits

By Josh Baugh – Express-News
Alamo Regional Mobility Authority board member Robert Thompson on Thursday called for a change in federal law that would effectively stop lawsuits that block road projects.

In San Antonio, it would mean swift action in suits filed against toll projects.

Thompson, a lawyer, said he planned to e-mail Bexar County’s congressional delegation after Thursday’s meeting of the agency to seek support for adding such language to federal transportation legislation that Congress is considering. Thompson called lawsuits filed to block highway construction “the bane of so many projects.”

Currently, federal law offers a 180-day window for lawsuits to be filed once an environmental study is approved by the Federal Highway Administration. Thompson’s proposal would cut that to 60 days and require plaintiffs to accept binding arbitration. Resolution would be required within 180 days, Thompson said.

Read the rest of the article here.

Interchange at 281/1604 to cost TWICE as much as it should?

Let’s try to compare apples to apples in order to demonstrate how egregious the fiscal malfeasance is here…

The 410/281 interchange that opened not even two years ago, included ALL 8 ramps (northbound and southbound connectors) for $155 million (see article below from June 2008). Now the 281/1604 interchange project being built by the tolling authority, the RMA, (not TxDOT), wants to blow $140 million on just 4 ramps, only the southbound connectors. Considering project bids have been coming in UNDER cost due to the economic downturn and road builders being hungry for work, this betrayal of the RMA’s fidiciary duty to the public is that much more irresponsible. Why?

So it can come in later and toll the northbound ramps that will charge motorists nearly 60 cents per vehicle and over a $1.00 per truck for the “privilege” of using a public roadway for which we already pay taxes. The RMA initially promised to build the whole interchange non-toll, but cut the project in half once the feds found out their plans to toll the northbound ramps and insisted it be a part of the new environmental study required for the 281 & 1604 toll roads. If they’d drop the toll roads, the northbound ramps could also be built NOW with existing stimulus money.

But because they just can’t stop seeing green from all the money they stand to make from tolling us, they continue to thumb their noses at the thousands of citizens opposed to tolling these freeways (who have fought it at the local, state, and federal level for 5 years now), and proceed to ram it down our throats anyway, abusing taxpayer money to the tune of $84 million (that’s the cost of the extra “enhancements” on the project that have NOTHING to do with the interchange, which is designed to blow through the extra money that should be going to build the northbound ramps that have a published cost of $59 million).

Compare Cost:
$59 million (published cost for 4 northbound ramps for 281/1604 interchange)

$140 million (published cost for 4 southbound ramps for 281/1604 interchange)

$155 million (actual cost for ALL 8 ramps of 410/281 interchange that opened June of 2008)

What’s wrong with this picture?

Padding the cost to taxpayers
The interchange project also closes 3 entrances/exits that exist today and make all traffic exiting or entering 281 to/from the frontage roads have to sit through two traffic lights instead of one.  I wonder if Costco, Walmart, and HEB realize the hassle these “improvements” will create for their customers? It’s certainly guaranteed to make access to the neighborhoods affected a nightmare! Then, the plan pads the project with re-surfacing all of 1604 from Bitters to Redland and 281 from Bitters to 1604 (this isn’t even needed compared to the poor condition of 281 north of 1604 and could be funded out of maintenance dollars, not the scarce funds for new construction), as well as lighting, sidewalks, and two pedestrian bridges.

They’re also adding numerous “auxiliary lanes” (on 1604 westbound from Bitters to Stone Oak and 281 northbound and southbound from Bitters to 1604), which is a way to add capacity without calling it adding capacity in order to get around environmental hurdles. Yet, they claim NO added capacity nor any overpasses can be added to 281 north of 1604 until the new environmental study is completed in 3-5 years. So let me get this straight, the RMA can add two stories (70+ feet high) to the 281/1604 interchange and add lanes to both 1604 west and 281 south of 1604, but it can’t build a few overpasses (23 feet high) or add any lanes to 281 north using the same category of environmental review? What hypocrites!

Any thinking person can see the unequal application of the law, and that’s why citizens blasted the RMA for its misplaced priorities, flagrant abuse of taxpayer money, and for playing games with people’s lives for their own gain.

Net gain or net loss?
While the taxpayers want and deserve this long overdue interchange non-toll, the RMA acknowledged Monday night that the ramps would only shave 5 minutes from the current conditions. Compare that to the exponential time savings of overpasses on 281 north, and it’s a no-brainer where this money ought to be spent and where the congestion problem really lies.

Web Posted: 01/11/2010
Work on North Side interchange may start soon
By Josh Baugh

The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority could begin building a nontolled interchange between U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 on the North Side — relieving gridlock at the city’s most congested intersection — by the summer.

But during a meeting Monday to present the project’s draft environmental document to the public, the RMA came under fire for everything from plans to install pedestrian bridges and additional lighting to the existence of potholes in a subdivision neighboring the project.

About a dozen residents voiced concerns and opposition to the $140 million project, which would build an interchange connecting northbound U.S. 281 to Loop 1604 in both directions, and east- and westbound 1604 to southbound U.S. 281.

The RMA will include comments from Monday’s meeting — and further comments submitted by Jan. 21 — in its environmental document, known as a “categorical exclusion,” which must receive approval from the Federal Highway Administration for the project to proceed.

Toll road opponent Terri Hall, founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, said her group doesn’t officially oppose the project yet, but it has some concerns over it. Hall said she believes the interchange will stifle access to adjacent neighborhoods and shopping centers and could produce air and noise pollution.

Hall also objects to the RMA’s plans to gain environmental clearance through a categorical exclusion — the lowest level of environmental review.

“We hope they’re not cutting corners with how they’re designing this project,” Hall said, adding that she hopes the RMA will address her group’s concerns before the project is built.

Read the rest of the story here.
U.S. 281/Loop 410 interchange ramps are complete
Web Posted: 06/10/2008

One of the most widely ridiculed features of San Antonio’s highway network — the lack of an interchange at Loop 410 and U.S. 281 — slipped into history Monday with the opening of the last two ramps.

Crews opened the ramps from both directions of U.S. 281 to eastbound Loop 410 before rush hour, Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman Anikka Ayala-Rogers said.

“Oh, really?” said Ken Kephart, an automobile diagnostician who uses Loop 410 and U.S. 281 half a dozen times a week to get to jobs. “Well, when I came to San Antonio 25 years ago, I didn’t see how they got along without access.”

Work began three years ago on the $155 million interchange, and the first of the eight ramps started opening in June 2007. Bonds squeezed the work from about 10 years to a record 31/2.

Motorists such as Kephart found the shorter schedule hard to believe, especially after upgrading the interchange at Interstate 10 and Loop 410 dragged on for a decade, with the last ramps opening there just seven months ago.

Read the rest of the article here.

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.

Express-News, Wolff mislead public about non-toll plan for 281

Talk about misleading…the claim that there is no valid non-toll plan for US 281 is flatly UNTRUE. Go here to see the TxDOT documents for a $100 million gas tax funded plan distributed in public hearings in 2001 that were also adopted into the MPO’s plans for 5 years before being turned into a $1.3 billion toll road in 2004. The “let” date on this non-toll plan was 2004. How is a 5 year old plan “outdated” by TxDOT’s standards? Wurzbach Pkwy, just approved by the Transportation Commission, is a 20 year old plan. The interchange at 1604 & I-10 used a 15 year old plan. Nearly all of TxDOT’s planning is long-term, and its plans are meant to meet the needs of future projected traffic forecasts years into the future.

The cost escalation for the fix to 281 going from $100 million to a $1.3 billion toll road has NEVER been justified by TxDOT or the tolling authority (RMA) nor scrutinized by Commissioner Kevin Wolff, the MPO, or any elected officials except Commissioner Tommy Adkisson and Rep. David Leibowitz. Inexplicably, Wolff now advocates unprecedented scrutiny be paid to the far more affordable non-toll option, and he wants more taxpayer money spent on yet another non-toll study.

This unneeded wasteful spending of $200,000-$500,000 of taxpayer money on something TxDOT already has on the books but refuses to sponsor or advance due to its pro-toll agenda is a gross abuse of taxpayers and congestion weary commuters on 281. Fiscal conservatism and responsible government is absent from such “studies”…

Web Posted: 11/19/2009 12:00 CST

Non-toll option needs valid study

Express-News Editorial Board
Anyone who has to endure traffic in the U.S. 281-Loop 1604 corridor on a regular basis wants the congestion problem solved sooner rather than later. And given the option, they’d prefer that the solution increase mobility with free lanes and interchanges rather than tolled ones.

The problem is that no up-to-date non-tolled option exists. As County Commissioner and Metropolitan Planning Organization Chairman Tommy Adkisson discovered in September, there is no plan or study available that can serve as the basis for non-tolled improvements to U.S. 281.

That didn’t stop him from pushing the non-existent non-tolled plan at last month’s heated MPO meeting. Fortunately, a majority of MPO board members voted down a proposal that would have put hundreds of millions of dollars in state and federal transportation funding at risk and delayed progress on U.S. 281 by years.

Read the rest of the editorial here.

Tolling Exec pulls $10,000 bonus in down economy

While the average Texan is thankful to have a paycheck, even if it’s a shrinking one, the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (ARMA) has been living large getting across the board 5% pay increases (FY 2008-2009, with another 5% budgeted for merit increases that were never paid out), and the Executive Director, Terry Brechtel, raking in an additional $10,000 performance bonus, paid to her in June. Performance bonus? Perhaps they mean her performance as a master in obfuscating and misleading the public on its toll plans? (Watch it on You Tube here).

Considering the Bexar County Commissioners were grilling county agencies at Commissioners Court Tuesday over 2% pay hikes in this down economy, it begs the question why a county-appointed tolling authority, the ARMA, is getting off scot-free without a whisper of scrutiny or without challenge to such lavish luxuries when so many in the community are economically hurting.

Considering the ARMA has NOTHING to show for itself, not one road open to traffic after five years in existence, their proposed 5% “merit” increases (budgeted in FY 2008-2009, but were never actually paid out) certainly wouldn’t square with actual performance. Even its 5% cost of living pay increase (FY 2008-2009) is more than most Texans will see in their paychecks this year or next.

In fact, a dozen citizens asked the county commissioner to dissolve the ARMA altogether Tuesday. Three commissioners have already floated the idea of closing the ARMA earlier this year. Yet at today’s ARMA Board meeting, the Board approved the $1.2 million in salaries for the small staff. Though next year’s salaries will not increase, out of eight employees, only two make less than $100,000 a year. Considering the median household income in San Antonio is only $36,000, it shows just how out of step this agency is with the plight of the ordinary citizens it’s anxious to tax to get to work.

Greed and the proverbial “gravy train” motivate the ARMA to continue its gratuitous spending, dishonesty, and intransigence in pushing toll roads on an angry public that rejects tolling existing freeways.

In yesterday’s Washington Times article about executive pay being out of step with main street America, Nell Minow of the Corporate Library, said “the continued big earnings and pay at bailed-out banks is feeding a sense of injustice and outrage among ordinary citizens who are feeling the brunt of the financial crisis. Pay that is out of whack with performance … is a symptom of bad corporate governance, bad economic judgment, but it’s also the disease.”

The same can be said of this government agency. They’ve adopted the worst of corporate America’s bail-out indulgences with government inefficiency and exploitation of the taxpayers who pay the bills.

Enough is enough! It’s high time the County Commissioners put a stop to such abuse and extravagance. Dissolve the ARMA, now!

For more info go to: and