MPO votes unanimously to add high gas prices to attitudes and perception survey, but…

Link to Express-News article on vote here.

What does it tell you that even TxDOT voted for this? What the good guys tried to accomplish was to get a study that the MPO already conducts and has money allocated for expanded to include a study of high gas prices on the region’s transportation. The study only gauges attitudes and perceptions of driving and congestion, and we asked that the study’s scope be expanded to include a study of the financial and economic consequences of high gas prices, not just public perception. Only a study of real data and a hard look at the financials can actually tell them if the toll roads and other highway projects are justified financially in light of high and climbing gas prices. They did not vote to expand the study beyond asking people’s perceptions about high gas prices.

So this perceptions study was scheduled for mid-2007, and the good guys like Adkisson, Larson and our new hero on the MPO, Melissa Castro Killen of Via, tried to do was get that study moved up to fall of this year and get the scope expanded to include an actual study of the impact of high gas prices on transportation projects not just public perceptions of the gas prices. Well, Chairman Richard Perez stepped in to make sure that any study stayed in 2007 “because the high prices haven’t really changed people’s behavior yet” (really, that’s not what Alan Greenspan is saying, does Mr. Perez have data Alan Greenspan doesn’t?), and he called for a vote before anyone knew what hit ’em. The vote was unanimous, but they only gave us a sliver of what’s really needed to turn this train around.

Jim Reed of the Alamo RMA was spouting to the press that they see no reason at all to stop proceeding with toll roads based on the numbers. His “data” says no matter what happens, people will pay tolls to get to work faster. They’re living in a dreamworld if they think continued hikes in gas prices means people can just endlessly afford to pay MORE to get to work. They won’t even LOOK at other data that says otherwise. As long as their “highway lobby” financial analysts tell them people will pay tolls to get out of peak traffic, they don’t seem to care how that effects the larger economic picture, nor what other aspects of our quality of life and even the County’s tax base get effected.

Interim MPO Executive Director, Syd Martinez, even admitted people will cut back other discretionary spending to keep filling their tanks…yeah, because people don’t have a choice! They have to get around and they have to get to work. But this won’t last forever. How will this impact the City and County’s tax base if people make fewer trips to the store or to movies, or out to eat? Can they not see the forest for the trees? This will HURT THE ECONOMY, thus hurt employers’ ability to keep jobs and expanding their businesses, etc. It hurts all of us!

If Alan Greenspan says we’re headed for economic crisis and says the high gas prices are finally starting to hurt the economy, he doesn’t say this based on speculation and conjecture. He’s got real data telling him this. Seems we need to get a hold of such data.

The bottom line, the elitist pro-toll crowd thinks we’ll all keep ponying-up endless amounts of money to pay for the extra costs of transportation they wish to impose. The reality is you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip. There’s only so much money a family can give to transportation before we start completely altering our lifestyles. What are they waiting for, people having to choose between taking a toll road and feeding their families? C’mon! From what small business owners tell me and what especially healthcare workers keep telling their employers, they will no longer be able to work in Stone Oak if they add tolls to their already skyrocketing costs of gas. Is the MPO going to ignore all of this? People need other options, not just to be taxed to death and priced off our freeways!

With the help of friends on the Board, we’ll work to get that study date moved up and the scope expanded whether through another official vote of the Board or through the committee they’ll appoint to shape the scope of the study. This ain’t over, and ultimately we must take this fight to the ballot box in November!

MPO Board Voting Members Present:
Rep. Carlos Uresti
Commissioner Tommy Adkisson
Councilman Chip Haas
Councilman Richard Perez, Chair
Amy Madison, NE Partnership
Joe Aceves, Bexar County Info. Svcs
Al Notzen, Bexar County
Melissa Castro Killen, Via Board
Dr. Sydney Ordway, Via Board
Emil Moncivias, San Antonio City Planner
Syd Martinez, Interim Executive Director of MPO
David Casteel, District Engineer, TxDOT
Clay Smith, P.E., TxDOT

Elected officials not present:
Commissioner Chico Rodriguez, Precinct 1
Commissioner Lyle Larson, Precinct 3
Councilman Art Hall, District 8
Councilwoman Elena Guadjardo, District 7

Toll Party Statement to MPO
June 26, 2006

With gas at $3 a gallon throughout the state, it not only seems prudent, but absolutely necessary to study the impact of these high gas prices on the region’s transportation, particularly before you proceed with 73 miles of toll lanes. People will not have the discretionary income to pay tolls when gas is astronomically high, and we have every indication that it will remain high.

I have an article here from a New Jersey newspaper article just a few months back that says two of its turnpikes have lost revenue due to high gas prices, initially from Katrina, but the loss of revenue has continued now that we are now back to Katrina prices. Just the New Jersey turnpike alone lost $5 million last year! Do you think these private investors are going to invest billions in our toll system to see multi-million dollar losses continue due to high gas prices? It’s not only prudent, it’s vital to the economic stability of the region to study the affects of high gas prices on toll feasibility. An investment grade traffic & revenue study on Hwy 183 up in Austin found that toll roads aren’t feasible at $3 a gallon for gas. Another traffic & revenue study for Hwy 130 states similar concerns.

Gas prices have changed significantly since the MPO put 73 miles of toll roads in its plans. Gas prices are beginning to show their drain on the economy in the manufacturing industry, with new housing starts shrinking, and in the higher cost of goods. Even Alan Greenspan, former chief of the Federal Reserve, testified June 7 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “rising energy prices are pushing up inflation and increasingly threatening the U.S. economy.

“He called for speedily developing alternative energy sources such as ethanol and liquefied natural gas” and said “there won’t be a significant retreat for oil prices in coming years.”

San Antonio is listed in Forbes Magazine’s Top 10 cities hardest hit by high gas prices. It’s incumbent upon this body to take a step back and look at the larger economic and regional transportation picture. People are driving less, not more (see USA Today article). A CNN poll released just weeks ago showed that nearly 60% of respondents said gas prices are affecting their ability to maintain their standard of living.

People are turning to public transit now more than ever due to high gas prices only making car ownership continue to be out of reach for more San Antonians. San Antonio has one of the highest percentages of folks who cannot even afford to own a vehicle, and high gas prices and tolls will make it further out of reach. There needs to be more than just building ever wider and more expansive highway corridors in our region’s transportation picture. Let’s give folks a true choice in transportation….not simply having to choose between not getting around efficiently at all and paying the high cost of tolls.

Since San Antonians already have to drive 19% more than the average resident of other major cities, we need better planning including having a regional approach to transportation along with sensible development, especially boosting arterial connections (which also enhances public transit’s usability). Dave Pasley, former Planner for the City of San Antonio, mentions this in an editorial last December. It would be grossly irresponsible to proceed with building 73 miles of toll lanes (with more lanes being studied) when they’re not viable at $3 a gallon for gas while starving residents of other realistic and more comprehensive transportation solutions. People can’t pay what they don’t have money for. It’s not a fair assessment to say people don’t change their driving patterns to get to work due to high gas prices (as Mr. Martinez’ presentation suggests). Just gauging the public’s attitudes and perceptions doesn’t go far enough.

There is real data, hard data that paints a different picture than the one MPO Executive Director Martinez tried to paint. Traffic & revenue studies, bond investors, showed toll roads in Austin are not feasible at $3 a gallon. That’s not perception, that’s hard data. We encourage you to expand the scope of the study to ensure you look beyond attitudes and perceptions to the real financial data telling you the sustainability and feasibility of your MPO plan.

Rep. David Leibowitz asks this Board to support this study. Thousands of San Antonians stand with me in asking you to VOTE YES on a study of the impact of high gas prices on our region’s transportation.