MPO failing to lead

Here are my remarks successfully delivered to the MPO Board Members at today’s meeting though Mayor Jack Leonhardt and Senator Leticia Van De Putte tried to stop me from proceeding:

I’m glad to see all of our elected officials here today. We’re also glad to see this toll mandate being dictated to Texans is finally making some front page news. What’s been revealed in these articles puts our concerns in black and white. The improvements to fix the congestion problems on US 281 are 100% paid for with tax dollars.

Careful scrutiny of the words in the article that appeared in the Express-News December 1 (Link to Dec. 1 story in the Express-News) reveals many of the dirty little secrets about these toll plans that few people understood until now (when details finally make front page news). TxDOT has been saying we have no money for roads…yet there it was IN PRINT, $77 million in gas tax money dropped out of the sky to build an excessively large toll corridor–16 LANES–, when all that’s needed is 4 overpasses at the lights and it’s all done in less time for almost half the money ($48 million).

Also in that Dec. 1 article we find out they’re ADDING TWO MORE TOLL LANES in addition to the 4-6 toll lanes they revealed in the public hearings. In total, TxDOT wants to pave 16 lanes in the widest parts of the plan! This information has been kept from the public. BY YOUR OWN POLICY #5, you must tell the public about those extra toll lanes because they substantially change the scope of the project approved by the MPO. What we’ve been told by TxDOT as recently as the September 8 public hearing is that there would be 4-6 toll lanes and 4-6 frontage lanes. That would equal 12 lanes in the widest parts. Now that number is 16 lanes! There are laws governing this entity and TxDOT and we expect you to follow them. This information must be revealed to the public in a specific format.

In fact, this MPO, the ARMA, and TxDOT are in a heap of legal troubles already, do you honestly think the public is not watching and that you can get away with this illegal activity?

To get back to the project for a moment…so you would have us believe you have the money to build US 281 as a toll road (that’s nearly twice the cost), but you don’t have the money to build it as a free road? Note how the article states foreign companies are vying for these “most lucrative toll lanes” in the plans! I’ll say lucrative, that’s because the private firms aren’t paying a DIME of the cost to build and then they get to charge us tolls for the next 50 years!

OK, let’s make this real simple. Toll roads cost more to build & maintain, only about half of all motorists can afford to drive on them while 100% of taxpayers are footing the bill to build it, we’re being charged THREE times to drive on the same stretch of pavement (taxed to build existing freeway, taxed to pay for the improvements, then lifetime toll tax to drive on it), you want to charge us THREE taxes to drive on our highways elsewhere throughout town (gas tax, ATD sales tax, and tolls), the toll money is going to a foreign corporation for the next 50 years, and our elected officials are DICTATING this to us without a vote of the PEOPLE!

TxDOT’s figures and, more importantly, their rationale for this toll first mandate MUST BE CHALLENGED by this body who is charged with protecting our local interest. What’s the rationale behind these projects and why aren’t the costs of these GIGANTIC tollways being challenged? We found, in one of TxDOT’s own toll feasibility studies, the cost of toll gantry equipment at $1 million per MILE! We found projects where the cost of toll equipment equaled the cost to build the road. One of their studies showed 1604 improvements could be paid for 100% with bonds, and yet you’re tolling it.

We’re currently taxed approximately 3 1/2 cents a mile (on average according to graphic that accompanied Dec. 1 story) under the gas tax system. The national average for a traditional turnpike is 9 cents a mile, what on earth do they need with 14-39 cents a mile (I have the feasibility studies that show rates of $1 to use the new toll-only interchanges)? With 5 cost estimate changes on the toll starter system since June and the bait and switch change in toll rates found in the Austin plans, the public doesn’t trust the toll rates they’re quoting for 281 and the toll starter system.

I believe the burden is on YOU, our tolling authority, and elected officials to be above reproach at every turn, for your motives to be about the public good and not lining the pockets of private interests at the public’s expense, and for TxDOT’s figures and misstatements to be vigorously challenged.

What they’re doing on 281 defies common sense, good government, transparent government, and good fiscal policy. You bet this meets with tremendous public opposition. THEIR rationale MUST be challenged! We’ve put forth a good faith effort to bring alternatives to the table with our limited resources.

Let’s look at some of the alternatives to tolls put forth by SAMCo, for instance. EVERY alternative to tolls is LESS money! The hike in vehicle registration they mention is $100 a year compared to an average of $3,000 a year in tolls (this figure comes from TxDOT’s own online survey that quoted 29 cents a mile for a 20 mile commute on 1604 which equals over $3,000 a year just to drive to and from work). The claims that they’d have to raise the gas tax $1 is completely UNSUBSTANTIATED and would amount to quadrupling their current state gas tax revenue intake. The 25 cent per gallon increase is also less than tolls. Considering the average San Antonian uses roughly 1500 gallons of gas a year, they currently pay $300 a year in gas tax. Even a 25 cent hike would be less than tolls at $375 a year more, which is more than double what we give the state now. The size of this tax increase is also totally unsubstantiated in my mind–DOUBLE!–what do they need double the money for? Even an increase in property tax that they mention would be less than the $3,000 a year in tolls for most taxpayers.

If they get rid of just these toll equipment not to mention the toll lanes (that only half of all motorists can use) and just build what’s needed, the road is 40-100% less money to build and EVERYONE can drive on it. So the simple solution sure seems to be to CAN the toll lanes and vastly reduce this fictional $8.4 billion funding gap which is also unsubstantiated. SA gets $100 million a year in discretionary funds currently, they’re saying we need FOUR times the money we currently get (their $8.4 billion figure works out to $420 million a year over 20 years). The entire state of Texas gets $6.1 billion a year and they say SA needs $8.4 billion over the next 20 years? SA is number 5 in number of lane-miles per person in the U.S…how much money and how many roads do they think we need?

TxDOT known for waste, mismanagement
There are also questions about the legitimacy of TxDOT’s expenditures. Twenty states have lower gas tax than we do. Texas is second only to California in terms of disbursements. Caltrans spent $9.3 billion while TxDOT spent $6.8 billion. CA has a greater population than Texas, so it works out to be that Caltrans spent $259 per person to TxDOT’s $306 per person. Caltrans spent 24% of it budget on local roads and TxDOT only spent 6.5% on local roads. TxDOT spends $88 more a person than Caltrans spent on its road system, and remember CA is more populous!

According to the father of toll roads who publishes the Toll Road News wrote this just before Prop 9 went down in flames…“In Texas the tollers are behaving arrogantly and with extraordinary political ineptitude. They are over-reaching. Why six year terms for toll authorities? Four year terms would provide some insulation from sudden political change while constituting a more normal term of public office. There’s something sleazy too in that term ‘regional mobility authority’? It’s a toll authority. Why run away from that? Only people without the courage of their convictions or who are too tongue tied to explain themselves resort to silly euphemisms. Does it fool anyone anyway? Political support in TX has also been sapped by a bewilderingly unprincipled and unexplained intermixing of funding of projects by TxDOT. Wherever they go there’s a furor because no one can figure out who’s paying for what. They talk privatization but so far it is all politics as usual…TxDOT’s promiscuous approach to raising funds and their promotion of projects without even a semblance of study has been the anti-toll groups’ major recruiter.”

They’re asking us to pay $27.6 million PER MILE for a 3 mile stretch of improvements! I’m hard-pressed to find ANY highway project that expensive throughout the country and yet none of you are challenging these costs!

Look-up a report done by the Texas Public Policy Foundation in 1997 called, Sundown on Big Government. It was the last external audit of TxDOT. It shows that TxDOT is fraught with millions of dollars in waste and mismanagement, including stockpiling asphalt, gas, and other supplies. Some reforms have been made, but until TxDOT has an independent audit and these bureaucracies get their own houses in order in a way the public can trust, we should not be asked to pay a lifetimes of tolls for roads we’ve already paid for WITHOUT A PUBLIC VOTE!