Comal County Judge not being honest about plans to toll 46

Link to Herald-Zeitung here.

TxDOT wants to toll Hwy 46 and the Commissioners know it, so for Comal County Judge Danny Scheel and TxDOT’s Greg Malatek to say it’s not going to be tolled is untrue. The Commissioners may not anticipate tolling 46 for this go-round, but it’s clear TxDOT has its sights set on tolling it. The November Transportation Commission Meeting transcript affirms this and so does an email from Comal County Commissioner Jan Kennady March 16, 2005, “While the toll road would not be constructed for another 15-20 years or so, it has been mentioned every time TxDOT holds a meeting. That may never happen, but I want the public to be aware of the possibility of a toll road in the future before the county kicks in funds for the four-lane highway. The incorporated cities (Bulverde and New Braunfels) would also be responsible for buying right-of-way within their city limits, etc.” This is why folks have a hard time swallowing the vow not to toll. It’s also a misstatement of fact to say someone was escorted out of the meeting by deputies. With 200 witnesses in the room, the actual situation can be easily confirmed.

Also, the sentiments of many who attended were this: they feel rushed, they don’t think 46 is congested (except at Bill Brown for pick-up/drop-off), people don’t want new taxes to pay for roads, and the overwhelming sentiment was unsupportive of this expansion without more concrete planning and dollar figures. It seems fair and balanced to interview a cross section of actual attendees and not just politicians to truly gauge the sentiment like the Express-News did.

Commercial real estate signs and new subdivisions have steadily peppered 46, particularly the last two years. I find it interesting that TxDOT’s engineer, Greg Malatek, says the reason 46 can’t be tolled is due to the almost endless driveways dumping traffic directly onto 46. That’s not the citizens’ choice; developers, the City, and County have allowed this to take place and now want us to pay to fix it. Apparently Mr. Malatek hasn’t looked at 281 lately since it, too, has endless driveways and is often the ONLY way in or out of subdivisions and businesses north of Loop 1604, and despite many driveways, they’re finding a way to toll 281. Sorry, but his assurances ring hollow!

Then, County Engineer Tom Hornseth says TxDOT’s out of money. Who’s been getting all of that gas tax we pay every week at the pump? TxDOT takes in more money than Starbucks or Southwest Airlines does in a year, and if Southwest Airlines can get people from Point A to Point B and stay in the black, TxDOT can too! See the $820 million in gas taxes sitting in TxDOT’s account RIGHT NOW earmarked not for free roads, but TOLL ROADS here. When the ORIGINAL PLAN for 281 (see it here) cost $48 million and now as a tollway, $83 million (see the Express-News article), seems TxDOT can cough up the money when and where they choose. The trouble is, the ONLY choice they’re picking (when it’s toll viable, ie- enough congestion) is to build toll roads at nearly DOUBLE the cost to erect PLUS a lifetime NEW toll tax! That’s not “out of money,” it’s fiscal irresponsibility!

With an $8.2 billion surplus, it’s hard to believe the state is “cash-strapped” and needing new sources of funding for highways. We pay gas tax, new vehicle sales tax, licensing and registration fees, the list goes on and on…TxDOT gets plenty of money for highways. It’s how they’re spending it and the fact that they’re overcharging (nearly double) us for projects (like taking 281 from a $48 million free road improvement plan to an $83 million tollway) that’s breaking the bank. Their budget went up over $1 billion last year. It’s a matter of priorities, not lack of funds.

Bulverde may not join Texas 46 upgrades
By Ron Maloney
The Herald-Zeitung
April 28, 2006

County officials said Thursday that Bulverde could either pitch in with the county on widening Texas 46 or go its own way on the project.

The word came as County Judge Danny Scheel expressed frustration following a public meeting Wednesday night in which he said Bulverde residents — many of whom had previously expressed concerns about traffic problems on Texas 46 — suggested they might rather wait than join the county and the city of New Braunfels in efforts to upgrade Texas 46.

The Wednesday meeting, listed as a special meeting of the Bulverde City Council, was conducted at Guadalupe Valley Telephone Cooperative in Smithson Valley to accommodate an anticipated large crowd, although a quorum of Bulverde council members did not attend.

Scheel said Bulverde Mayor Sarah Stevick asked him to attend to explain the “pass-through financing” agreement the county is working to reach with the Texas Department of Transportation to finance the project and upgrades to U.S. 281.

During the “reports of elected officials” portion of Thursday’s Commissioners Court agenda, Scheel spoke of a meeting in his office several weeks ago between New Braunfels, Bulverde and TxDOT, called to discuss the problems on Texas 46 and how to pay for a solution.

Scheel noted that each day he is “bombarded” with e-mails from constituents complaining about inconveniences and even danger on Texas 46.

“On FM 2722 in the mornings, the traffic lines up so far and traffic is so bad on 46 that people can’t turn left,” Scheel said. “So they turn right, then look for a place to turn around and head back toward New Braunfels, which only makes the traffic worse.”

On Walnut Avenue most afternoons, Scheel said, westbound traffic backs up well down the hill toward Landa Street from the Loop 337/Texas 46 interchange. At the intersection, Texas 46 veers west away from the loop after several miles of Loop 337 and Texas 46 running as one roadway. Walnut Avenue, a main artery connecting downtown New Braunfels to the loop, becomes Texas 46 West at the intersection, and many drivers take Walnut to Texas 46 as part of their commute home to west New Braunfels subdivisions or western Comal County.

“I think the city of New Braunfels recognizes we have a severe situation there, and we have to do what we can to deal with that situation. After the meeting last night, I’m not sure the people of Bulverde do,” Scheel said. “Bulverde’s only cost would be the cost of interest on the money we would have to loan TxDOT, the cost of the right-of-way and moving utilities.”

Bulverde’s 3.7 miles of Texas 46 would cost that city $1.3 million under the agreement the county is working on, Scheel said.

“People last night thought maybe it wasn’t necessary or that they ought to wait,” Scheel said. “I just don’t understand that thinking. I told them, as politely as I could, we plan to move forward. The total cost of Bulverde’s part of this project is $7.9 million. They can spend $1.3 million with us or $7.9 million on their own. It’s their choice.”

Stevick said she appreciated county officials attending the meeting to educate citizens on the proposal.

“The meeting was intended to inform the public, and we’ll have this before council twice more before we vote on it,” Stevick said. “The public will have opportunities to learn about it.”

Stevick said she supports the Texas 46 project.

“The judge is correct — there are some residents concerned,” Stevick said. “But I think it’s just like any other issue. You’re never going to have 100 percent of the people behind it. Do I think the people who are against it are a majority? I don’t know. I didn’t get that feeling last night. I think a majority might be in favor of it.”

Residents responded positively, she said, to information they learned at GVTC.

“I think as we get more information and specific numbers out there, it will help as well,” Stevick said. “In the next 60 days, we’re going to look at hard numbers and narrow this thing down. It’s just like anything else. If you start taking action without informing the public, you’re going to have resistance.”

County: No tolls

Work on U.S. 281 in Bexar County has been halted pending an environmental study. But the project has become a lightning rod because new lanes on the federal highway in northern Bexar County will be paid for through tolls.

For more than a year, Comal County officials have said at virtually every forum where they could get in front of a microphone or into print that they would not support toll projects on Texas 46 or U.S. 281.

Still, many members of the crowd of some 200 who attended Wednesday night’s meeting in Smithson Valley were there to express their opposition to toll roads.

“We have continually said — it feels like hundreds of times — that there will be no tolls on these projects. TxDOT told them last night there could be no tolls on Texas 46,” Scheel said. “But there we were, two-and-a-half hours later, listening to speaker after speaker, and they were asking if we didn’t have a secret agreement with a private company for tolls. There are no tolls on these projects, so I guess these people came to the wrong meeting. The deputies had to escort one person out of the meeting.”

Scheel and New Braunfels officials have been working with TxDOT to create an agreement similar to one recently approved for a San Marcos project in which Wonder World Drive would be extended three miles to allow western Hays County residents access to Interstate 35 without driving through downtown San Marcos.

A cash-strapped state looking for ways to fund highway projects created two nontraditional scenarios in the 77th Texas Legislature for funding road projects. One, such as the Bexar County U.S. 281 project, involves toll funding and requires local governments to create a body called a regional mobility authority to oversee the work and collect the tolls.

The other, “pass-through,” which is being pursued by Comal County, involves local government financing of a project that would then be repaid by the state without tolls.

Under that “pass-through” scenario, the county would issue bonds for $16 million to fund part of the proposed Texas 46 improvements from FM 2722 to about a mile west of U.S. 281 in Bulverde.

TxDOT would repay the bonds over four years, and then the county would use the repaid money to leverage work on U.S. 281 within the county. On both projects, the county would pay the local 10 percent match for right-of-way, the moving of utilities and the interest on the bonds for a net local cost of $7 million, county officials have said.

The bulk of the $70 million the two projects would cost would be financed through traditional TxDOT sources.

Scheel and the other commissioners bristle at the thought of paying anything above the local match for state road projects, which they see as an unfunded state mandate, but say they are forced to if they want to see the project go forward anytime soon.

“If we don’t do this, these projects are probably 10 to 15 years out,” Scheel said. “If we do, we’d move this thing up on the front burner. These projects will not include tolls, and the money we put up will be repaid in each case in four years.”