Houston Chronicle says: Toll Road Foes Crank Up Intensity in SA!

Read the article in the Houston Chronicle here.

Notice how much column space is devoted to toll proponents versus those of us against Perry’s toll plans. The reason for the article is our rally and the building of a political movement that crosses party lines and draws the attention of gubernatorial candidates. This is an issue that could well shape the outcome of the next gubernatorial election, and yet they allow Perry’s henchmen more space for their unanswered “claims” than we get to dispel them!

The article confirms what we’ve been saying about the tolling of 281 up into Comal County! Regardless of the promise from TxDOT IN WRITING to the Comal Judge that TxDOT wouldn’t toll 281, here’s what the article affirms: “The initial plan calls for tolled lanes on U.S. Highway 281 for the few miles just north of Loop 1604, but later the lanes would be extended into Comal County and north to the Blanco County line.”

To Ms. Brechtel, we’re not interested in voting on and approving every highway project, we are asking to vote on any toll roads (whether traditional or Perry’s shifting of existing freeways to tollways) that will increase our taxes and potentially be given to a private conglomerate to control in order to gouge Texans!

Toll-road foes crank up intensity in San Antonio
Politicians join opposition groups in denouncing plan for pay highways
Houston Chronicle San Antonio Bureau
Jan. 27, 2006

SAN ANTONIO – Preliminary construction of the city’s first tollway was abruptly halted earlier this month for an environmental impact reassessment, but the debate about clogged highways hasn’t slowed a bit.

Anti-tollway rhetoric turned caustic at a recent roadside rally where politicians joined 200 residents in denouncing state plans to build tolled lanes amid the city’s clogged far-northside freeways.

Comptroller and independent gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn said that if she’s elected, the Texas Department of Transportation “will not do whatever the hell they want to do.” “We’re not going to roll over and have them railroad a tollroad down our throats,” added Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson.

Supporters point out need
While demanding relief for traffic congestion, tollway foes assailed the five-year-old proposal’s necessity and expense. The first 3.5 miles of the project will cost $83 million to build, and motorists will pay an estimated 15 cents a mile to drive on it. “A couple of overpasses would certainly resolve a great majority of the traffic jam that’s been created out here,” said auto dealer Ernesto Ancira, who made one of his dealerships available for the anti-tollway rally. He opposes addition of tolled lanes to freeways.

Proponents say new lanes — free and tolled — are badly needed on several local arteries, and perennially inadequate government funding for highway projects makes tolled lanes a crucial part of the long-term solution to road snarls.

Upward trends in population growth and home and business construction in northern Bexar County are expected to continue, officials said.

Yet, the state’s proposed solution will have to wait. The reassessment is expected to take eight months, and even without new snags, completion of the first tolled lanes isn’t expected until late 2007.

The initial plan calls for tolled lanes on U.S. Highway 281 for the few miles just north of Loop 1604, but later the lanes would be extended into Comal County and north to the Blanco County line. Parts of Loop 1604 and Interstate 35 also are targeted for tolled lanes.

Six weeks into their work, crews stopped clearing trees from right-of-way along U.S. Highway 281 North on Jan. 12 after the Federal Highway Administration demanded a new environmental survey. Impact studies done in 1984, 2000, 2004 and last year were no longer adequate, officials said.

That move nullified a citizens lawsuit demanding a halt to the project. Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas had joined an anti-tollway group, People for Efficient Transportation, in pressing the suit, which was dismissed Jan. 17.
“When you have these two groups coming together, it just shows the depth and the strength of our cause,” said Texas Toll Party regional director Terri Hall.

“It’s a nonpartisan issue. It’s about highway interests hijacking our freeways and turning them into tollways. It’s an outrage and that’s why the public is galvanized on this,” she said.

A vote for Houston

Houstonians, who use 83 miles of tolled highways operated by the Harris County Toll Road Authority, “got to vote on their tollways. That’s a big difference,” Hall said.

Both sides are honing their strategies during the hiatus. Some toll opponents are calling for a “regime change” in Austin, targeting Gov. Rick Perry and other elected and appointed officials who advocate this and other tollways.

Proponents, meanwhile, hope to convince motorists that the proposed tolled lanes are justified and well planned and are a sure-fire way to hasten — perhaps by decades — funding of other inevitable upgrades.

“The growth is there. The demand is there. The need is now and the state is going to address that in one fashion or another,” said Terry Brechtel, director of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, a new entity formed by Bexar County to work with the state on innovative transportation funding.

The authority’s five-year strategic plan calls for a “starter system” of 22 miles of tolled lanes on U.S. Highway 281 North and Loop 1604, with a long-term goal of 50 miles. Wherever tolled lanes are built, free lanes would remain and in some areas will be increased, the plan states.

No tollbooths would be needed because officials are contemplating an electronic pass-card system. And while a Texas contractor has partnered with a Spanish firm in bidding to construct and operate Texas tollways, the local authority insists it will oversee tolled lanes. But getting started on them is essential, Brechtel added.

Though many residents resist tolls, “the state is pretty serious about tolled lanes plugging a gap that we have in our funding of transportation,” Brechtel said. Besides, motorists will “still have the choice of the non-tolled system versus the tolled lanes,” she said.

Responding to residents’ complaints that they never voted on a toll proposal, Brechtel pondered: “Can you imagine what the state’s transportation system would be like if we voted on every highway?”

Instead, residents are invited to another round of public hearings — the first were in 2001 — likely to begin in mid-March.

TxDOT area engineer Frank Holzmann said the state started the first segment because it could be a few years before the state awards bids for larger tollway projects.

“It’ll probably be late 2007, early 2008 before the CDA would go through, so we wanted to try to get this infrastructure in before that time,” Holzmann said.

Brechtel said the project delay gives proponents time to acquaint the public with the role tollways could have in solving the region’s “transportation challenge.”

Read Sal Costello’s, Texas Toll Party Founder, timely and well-stated Letter to the Editor as a response:

Dear Houston Chron Editor,

RE: Toll-road foes crank up intensity in San Antonio (1/28/06)

I enjoyed your article, but it missed one important element. The new tolls that shift our freeways to tollways are not like any other toll road that we’ve seen in this country.

Traditional toll roads have been brand new roads utilized as a means of raising money to pay for them. With traditional toll roads, investors pay to build it only after viability studies warrant the investment, and the toll revenue pays for the road. The public gets the important choice between driving the toll road or the public expressway.

In contrast, ‘Freeway Tolls’ permanently take the option of a free expressway away from us. Freeway tolls privatize and toll our public highways, are created using our tax dollars, and they come without viability studies. These tax booths will never be removed. The revenue is a slush fund that is NOT tied to the toll road people are driving on.

The Comptroller found that the new Regional Mobility Authorities (freeway tolling authorities) are unaccountable bureaucracies that set the toll rate for the roads we’ve already paid for. A double tax. The unelected board members of the first freeway tolling authority in Texas were found to give NO BID contracts to themselves and their friends: http://www.window.state.tx.us/specialrpt/ctrma05/

People for Efficient Transportation is not an anti-toll group, we are FOR traditional toll roads. But, we are AGAINST Gov. Perry’s freeway tolls that convert our public highways into tax collecting machines.

Sal Costello
Founder of People for Efficient Transportation (TexasTollParty.com)
Austin, TX

Feel free to submit a clarification of your own to the Houston Chronicle.