MPO MUST vote to keep our freeways toll-free!

Link to article here.

Board must vote down NEW taxes to drive on 281, 1604
By Terri Hall
Published in Express-News & the Examiner
Oct 25, 2009

What began as a taxpayer revolt like the Boston Tea Party over four years ago known as the San Antonio Toll Party (later going statewide as Texas TURF), will culminate in a decisive meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Organization (or MPO, local board set-up by federal law that allocates highway dollars to local projects) tomorrow night at the Alzafar Shrine Auditorium at 6:00 PM. After petition drives, packing public hearings, grassroots organizing, working for change at the MPO and in the Texas Legislature, and even a recall campaign, angry taxpayers who oppose imposing tolls on our existing freeways (already built and paid for with gas taxes) will have a shot at reversing course tomorrow night.

In July of 2004, the MPO voted to convert 281 (north of 1604) and the entire northern loop of 1604 (from 151 on the west side to I-10 on the east side) into toll roads. Since then, parts of I-35, I-10, Bandera Rd., and Wurzbach Pkwy have been added to the toll plans. The voters have NEVER had a say about whether or not they approve of this new tax for driving on northside freeways, the lifeblood of daily living. We still aren’t getting a vote, but many of the elected officials on the MPO represent residents who live and work near 281 and 1604, and they need to HEAR FROM YOU and SEE YOU at tomorrow’s meeting at Alzafar Shrine.

The Express-News calls a non-toll plan for 281 and segments of 1604 the “Adkisson-Hall” plan, but the non-toll plan to fix 281 is TxDOT’s plan promised in public hearings in 2001 ( see for proof). TxDOT recently disavowed its own plan that had $100 million in gas taxes to fix the freeway (the gas taxes inexplicably disappeared last year), and said it was “old” based on an engineering study from 1984 that it now “can’t find.”Converting freeways to tollways — a DOUBLE TAX

Schematics for the lanes planned by the tolling authority (the RMA) for 281 and parts of 1604 clearly demonstrate that access roads, not conventional highway lanes, will be the only non-toll lanes if these freeways are converted to tollways. Tolled lanes are clearly overlaid onto the existing free lanes on 281, which under the RMA’s plans will no longer be free. This violates Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison’s federal law that prohibits imposing tolls on existing highway lanes, a practice that wrought the term DOUBLE TAXATION. Commuters should NEVER have to pay NEW taxes to drive on a freeway their tax dollars have already built and paid for (at a cost of $2,000-$3,000 a year on average)!

Today’s Express-News story explains how the MPO specifically asked for a side-by-side comparison of TxDOT’s original non-toll plan for US 281 and the RMA’s current toll plan, and after three meetings, none was provided. However, TxDOT’s Clay Smith made the case that a 2005 proposal by Zachry, for what was to be the first phase of the toll road on 281, was a valid plan and testified that the Zachry bid of $78 million for the first 3 miles (which went to contract) is the REAL cost of improving 281.

Rick Perry’s TxDOT in total rebellion, refuses to do non-toll fix on 281

After a complete failure by the MPO Committee tasked with providing the board vital detailed information about toll and non-toll options, Good Guy Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, Chair of the MPO, asked TxDOT to sponsor a non-toll option for 281 using the 2005 Zachry proposal (changing the highway lanes to free lanes versus all-tolled) for the Board’s consideration at tomorrow’s big meeting. TxDOT REFUSED to do that, too! Read it here.

If this doesn’t demonstrate the complete obstinance of this out of control agency, I don’t know what does. All the while they and the RMA, who are conducting what’s required to be a new unbiased environmental study of both tolled and non-tolled options, claim to be studying a non-toll option for both 281 and 1604. Yeah right!

It’s high time the MPO shows these un-elected agencies who’s boss, and insist a non-toll plan be implemented NOW! Exacerbating the long-standing problems with the San Antonio-Bexar County MPO, nearly half, 9 of its 19 members, are also UN-ELECTED, unlike MPOs around the state that average 2 unelected members. These rogue agencies have the pecking order reversed…it’s the MPO who directs TxDOT and the RMA what to do, not the other way around.

Claims of insufficient info is a ruse

Members of the MPO Board cannot claim they do not have data for a non-toll option on 281 upon which to base a decision tomorrow when TxDOT just testified October 9 that the 2005 Zachry plan and cost are valid. This plan was previously vetted by the MPO and actually went to contract. The total cost to fix 281 from 1604 to the Bexar County line (7.8 miles total) using Zachry’s hard numbers to get a cost per mile ($26 million per mile) comes to $202.8 million, nowhere near the tolling authority’s $475 million toll road cost. Just for the interest on PART of the toll road debt comes to a whopping $864 million over 40 years. That makes the minimum toll project cost $1.3 billion. RMA documents also affirm the toll tax will NEVER come off the road when the debt is repaid, so it’s a permanent new tax on driving!

On Monday, October 19, 2009, the RMA testified that they plan to enter into risky multi-leveraged debt financing of the Texas Mobility Fund money in order to finance the toll road. This is the sort of multi-leveraging (like taking out second, third and fourth mortgages on our highway system) that created the current global financial meltdown, and which the Texas Legislature rightly rejected during the special session in order to prevent TxDOT from doing so. Will the MPO allow such reckless financial schemes by the Bexar County RMA that racks-up unsustainable debt?

The 281 market value study shows that the toll plan requires 200,000 cars per day in the out years just to stay financially solvent (versus today’s 86,000 cars per day, on average). This level of traffic guarantees ongoing legal battles over environmental impacts to our aquifer.

Some also claim all options must remain on the table, however, the ONLY option currently on the table in the MPO plans are toll roads. So a vote for the status quo is a vote for toll roads. If you care to see who’s using YOUR taxpayer money to lobby for a new tax on driving on the northside, read about the partially tax-funded San Antonio Mobility Coalition, the chief lobbyists for toll roads and its list of road contractors and financiers who have a vested interest in raiding your wallet on risky toll road schemes here.

Skiddish MPO board members seem to be holding 281 and 1604 to a different standard and different level of scrutiny than when these plans were adopted as toll plans. For instance, when the project cost for 281 went from a $100 million freeway plan in 2004 dollars to a $475 million toll road by 2006, no one questioned it. Now when the taxpayers seek accountability for the “lost” $100 million in gas taxes that were promised to fix 281 and insist the non-toll fix be restored, board members shudder at a cost reduction and want more “data”?

RMA’s risky toll road financing scheme a house of cards

None of the RMA’s toll road plans on 281 and 1604 are toll viable, meaning they already know not enough people can afford to take the toll roads to even cover the cost of construction, so it needs to SUBSIDIZE them with MASSIVE amounts of public money. The RMA couldn’t even secure all the subsidies it needed for 281 last year before the environmental clearance got yanked, and at one point was considering an additional loan, this one for $95 million that would have required $700 million in interest!

It also sought $135 million in stimulus funds to subsidize the 281 toll road before the public outcry ensued over such TRIPLE TAXATION: gas taxes already paid for existing lanes, they planned to use more tax money (stimulus money) to turn existing lanes into toll lanes, and then charge a third tax, toll tax to drive on it. Bottom line: the RMA can’t show how it will finance its toll road other than to use the word “leveraging” a bunch of times and basically say “trust us.”

Can they name investors who will finance a start-up toll entity with a BBB rating (one step above junk bond status) using extremely risky multi-leveraging scenarios (using borrowed money to leverage another loan to get more borrowed money to use as down payments to “secure” yet more borrowed money and so on multiple times over) with this tight credit market where ratings agencies have gone sour on toll roads that are going into default all over the country? This is the rock solid “data” the RMA has provided to finance it’s $1.3 billion toll road that some MPO members argue they’re more comfortable keeping in place than a $202 million non-toll fix? What’s wrong with this picture? Politics and BIG MONEY!

Insist our elected officials stop playing politics with people’s lives, end the controversy and legal wrangling, and get our community moving forward again by voting against these ill-conceived plans to turn our freeways into tollways. Those being held hostage in congestion EVERY DAY because of TxDOT’s mismanagement of funds and two environmental studies (one inadequate, the other fraudulent) that caused the clearance to be pulled on 281 twice (then later affecting 1604), deserve better.

Contact MPO Board members here:

Be at Alzafar Shrine Auditorium Monday, October 26, at 6 PM and make your voices heard or be tolled!

One Reply to “MPO MUST vote to keep our freeways toll-free!”

  1. Grumpy in Austin

    The ONLY way to put an end to this underhanded practice of converting free roads to toll roads is to change the way that projects are selected and approved. Only by putting in place a system where each project is subject to a voter referendum will some form of control be in place.

    Otherwise, the construction/toll lobby will continue to dictate what we all must ante up in the form of double taxation.

    Time for pitchforks and torches…

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