Express-News Neighbors- Resident says: "It's (tolls) doomed before the get-go."

Link to article.

The headline is misleading in that it looks like they’re simply “studying” toll lanes. Not so, 1604 toll lanes are already in the toll plans and contract negotiations are near completion. Perhaps yet another ploy to catch the public off-guard and unawares until it’s too late. Otherwise, a very fair and balanced article.Though TxDOT and the RMA keep stating the public financing option is still on the table, TxDOT’s statements here make it clear the private deal is the way they’re going, “Officials said little or no money would come from public funds because of a plan to use private investments to construct the start-up toll network and open the lanes to motorists sooner. That will free up more money from the state to be used for other needed projects.”

The “public funds” they refer to is the $77 million for the improvements on 281, $48 million of which has been funded and programmed since 2004 along with public bond debt. Bexar County Commissioner Lyle Larson has stated TxDOT has not been honest with taxpayers about the amount of gas tax funds being used to build these tollways (Read his statements in WOAI story here.). TxDOT gives the impression it’s private money fronting this, but a heap of tax dollars and bond debt goes into the equation as well. Over $500 million of YOUR gas taxes have alreayd been allocated for toll projects thanks to the MPO (See what MPO and other toll terms mean here.)!

Officials studying Loop 1604 toll concept
Web Posted: 03/15/2006 12:01 AM CST
Lety Laurel
Express-News Staff Writer

People driving along Loop 1604’s northern arc someday may have a choice between congestion and stopping for traffic lights or paying a toll to avoid them — whether they want the option or not.

Texas Department of Transportation officials are investigating whether placing toll lanes along Loop 1604 between Highway 151 and Interstate 10 East is a feasible and economically viable solution to the traffic woes that exist along the route.

The estimated price tag is $1.4 billion for the entire 47-mile project, which also includes a portion of U.S. 281 from Loop 1604 to Comal County. Officials said little or no money would come from public funds because of a plan to use private investments to construct the start-up toll network and open the lanes to motorists sooner. That will free up more money from the state to be used for other needed projects, they said.

But critics of the plan say they doubt the transportation department’s need for more money and believe its plan to add toll lanes to relieve traffic will manipulate traffic congestion for profit.

“They overspend, and they are a picture of bloated government bureaucracy that needs to tighten its own belt and get its own house in order before it asks drivers to pay a toll tax to existing highways,” said Terri Hall, regional director and founder of San Antonio Toll Party, an organization opposed to tolls on roads or rights of way already paid for with tax dollars.

The group recently scored a victory when the Federal Highway Administration pulled environmental clearances on U.S. 281 toll road projects, halting construction for a year or more pending another environmental assessment.

But the department and the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority are moving forward with the Loop 1604 and U.S. 281 project. TxDOT lent $1 million to the ARMA to evaluate competing proposals to construct the project from two private consortiums, the Cintra Zachry Partnership and the Macquarie 1604 Partnership.

Hall said there are potential legal avenues that opponents can pursue with the Loop 1604 project, but TxDOT and RMA officials said they’re studying the environmental impact thoroughly.

Frank Holzmann, area engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, said there isn’t yet a construction timeline for the loop project, but he anticipates the department will receive clearance to begin in January 2008, pending environmental clearances.

The idea, he said, is to add two toll lanes in each direction in the median between the lanes that exist now. The current lanes will remain or may be moved out to make room for the toll lanes, he said.

“We’ve done the modeling, and the reason we’ve come up with the lanes we have is we think it will handle the growth (that’s expected on the North Side),” he said.

Drivers could have toll stickers the size of inspection stickers that would allow them to drive through tolling gantries that would electronically charge the driver at each station without requiring them to stop, he said.

“If you think about it, all that traffic that’s going there now, there will be the same people that will say they will never pay the toll, but others like me will pay the toll,” Holzmann said. “You’re paying for convenience, essentially.”

Although the toll rate hasn’t been set, TxDOT is reviewing an amount of about 15 cents a mile, he said. That will change according to inflation, he added.

Hall said the only way to make toll roads work is to price them high enough to keep them flowing. Making them affordable would cause them to be just as congested as the free roads, she said.

“If tolls were so cheap or affordable that everybody could drive on them, they would be so congested because everyone would drive on them,” she said. “To make them work, you have to have free lanes congested and make them so miserable so you want to drive on the toll lanes.

“Those that can afford tolls get congestion relief.”

On the Northwest Side, to expand the loop from Highway 151 to Interstate 10 West using only public funds would take another 19 years, Holzmann said.

“By tolling, we are able to accelerate these projects,” he said. “There is some funding, but it was a number of years out. By tolling, we’re able to accelerate the projects and get them constructed where they are needed.”

Hall doesn’t buy that.

“They promised this to us when they planned (Loop) 1604: It was supposed to be a six-lane highway, but they only had money to build four lanes so they promised money was programmed and set for other lanes within three years. But suddenly they said they were out of money and the only way we will have the highway fixed is if we have toll lanes,” she said.

Natalie Gonzalez, 23, has lived in North San Antonio all her life. She now lives off of Loop 1604 and Hausman and said she’s seen the city’s population explode over the years. It’s not a small town any more, she said, but she’s not sure toll roads are the answer. She may buy a toll pass if the lanes are built, but it all depends on how much it costs.

“Most people who live out here probably can afford it, but probably what would become difficult is multiple vehicles per house,” she said. “I think there are a lot against it, but ultimately we cannot deny the city has grown tremendously.”

Chris Lench, 56, lived in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. before moving to San Antonio. He said he knows something about gridlock, and based on his experience in Los Angeles, specifically the tolling of State Route 91, he also knows about toll systems that don’t work.

“It won’t work,” he said of the local proposal. “It’s doomed before the get-go.”

If people can drive for free, they will, he said. The toll roads will lose money and fail, he predicts.

The answer to transportation nightmares, Lench said, is public transportation.

“All the great cities of the world — Tokyo, Paris, London, New York, Moscow — have good public transportation (systems) that are cost-effective and efficient,” he said.

Jan Gabel, 53, drives Loop 1604 about five times a week. She said she’d pay for the convenience that toll lanes offer. As someone who lived with the toll system in Dallas, she’s used to it, she said. (Note to Ms. Gabel: you got to VOTE on the toll roads in Dallas, it was a brand new road, not slapping tolls on funded, existing freeways, it was a flat toll rate, not charge by mile, and the money stayed local and wasn’t turned over to foreign management in secret deals with no cap on how high the toll rates will go!)

“My time is worth paying a toll every once in a while,” she said. “I think it’s a great idea. I think it will free up traffic a lot and there will be a lot less accidents, especially with all the growth here.”