And from transportation expert, Bill Barker…
Greater Chamber – Problem Not Solution
February 9, 2006
Joseph Krier’s op ed response to Carlos Guerra is one more step in the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce’s long-standing efforts to promote development over the recharge area of our city’s principle source of water, the Edwards Aquifer. In the past, the Chamber even opposed the citizens’ successful referenda in both 2000 and 2005 to purchase land and easements over the recharge and contributing zones of the Aquifer.
In his op/ed, Mr. Krier asserts that paving over the aquifer recharge area and increasing transportation costs through tolls are good for us.
Mr. Krier did not mention, however, the impact of road projects on water quality. The U.S. Geological Survey has concluded that human activity is responsible for the detection of pesticides and volatile organic compounds (including at least one gasoline additive) in the Edwards Aquifer water. The regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency has commented that the US 281 toll project “…has the potential to increase the amount of contaminants reaching the aquifer.” Robert Potts, general manager of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal last month as saying, “If you keep building over the aquifer, you are increasing the pollution and also the chances of having a catastrophic spill.” A toll road over the recharge zone won’t make our drinking water cleaner or more abundant.
The air in the San Antonio region is unhealthy according to federal standards. The biggest source of this air pollution is motor vehicles. Building more roads will generate more traffic and increase emissions. Mr. Krier’s assertion that building a toll road will help our air quality and reduce energy consumption is baseless. The most detailed study to date of the environmental consequences of the U.S. 281 toll road, namely TxDOT’s flawed Environmental Assessment, did not prove this, so it is not clear where Mr. Krier is getting his information.
Mr. Krier compares traffic congestion in San Antonio to Austin, but he again leaves out some important information. Both Austin and San Antonio have commute times that are BELOW the national average. Austin’s average commute was one single minute longer than San Antonio’s in 2000, but Austin’s commute is described by Mr. Krier as “painfully long.” Give me a break. We already have 18% more lanes miles of freeway per person here in San Antonio than Austin does. Plus, we commute more by carpool, bus and walking than Austinites.
Both Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston have commute times that are longer than the national average, and these cities both have toll roads. Maybe toll roads actually cause longer commute times! Or, more probably, when commute times do get longer than average, people are more willing to use toll roads.
Mr. Krier has absolutely no proof that toll lanes will reduce congestion in San Antonio. Toll roads depend on congestion, as noted by local toll authority chairman Dr. Bill Thornton, which is why recent toll road agreements with private firms have required that public agencies do not make any improvements to parallel roads or public transportation. The result is much more congestion on the free lanes and roads so that people are forced into paying for tolls. Of course, you can always charge a toll so high on the toll road that it is uncongested, but what happens to the parallel roads and neighborhood streets when you do that? They become MORE congested.
Regarding Mr. Krier’s assertion that highways do not impact growth patterns, he would do well to review the Fannie Mae Foundation’s conclusion that no other government activity has had more impact on American’s cities over the last 50 years. Or, perhaps, the 1999 federal district court ruling that threw out the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the IH-355 toll road in Illinois. The judge rejected the EIS because it was based on the “implausible assumption” that the corridor’s population would grow by the same amount with and without the toll road. The judge also rejected the State’s assertion that there were no reasonable alternatives.
TxDOT’s Environmental Assessment for the US-281 toll road was also successfully challenged in federal court because it lacked any alternatives to a 16-lane toll road. TxDOT did not consider any other highway, transit, access control, or low-cost alternatives in its analysis, not even its original no toll plan for improving US 281. Incidentally, this no toll plan would already be under construction today if TxDOT had not decided to convert US 281 to a toll road. Bexar County Commissioners Adkisson and Larson as well as State Senators Madla and Wentworth have since sent letters to TxDOT requesting consideration of additional highway alternatives in the corridor.
Mr. Krier is correct to say that most motorists and voters do not want to increase the cost of transportation through taxes, tolls or any other means. Doing so will have a negative impact on the local economy. A recent study in Hampton Roads, Virginia, for example, found an improved economic forecast if existing tolls there were discounted to reduce the cost of transportation.
The best thing for our economy would be for TxDOT to live within its ample budget and for our elected officials to assert greater oversight of our transportation program. A December 2004, Texas Senate Finance Committee report concluded, “The sheer size of the budget of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) coupled with the significant new financial authority granted to the agency during the 78th Legislative Session calls for improvements to the agency’s financial reporting methods.” Among the larger cities in Texas, our local regional transportation policy group is the only one in which elected officials are the minority of voting members.
San Antonio is the only city in Texas that has a sales tax dedicated to state highway projects. Since TxDOT plans to improve US 281 with taxpayer dollars, why does it need to charge us tolls to use it? This is DOUBLE TAXATION! Why does San Antonio have to be the only city in the State with BOTH a sales tax for highways AND toll roads?
Bill Barker, AICP
San Antonio, TX 78213