New MPO Chair: "I will leverage heaven and earth" to fix 281 & 1604

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MPO boss’ power remains intact

By Josh Baugh – Express-News
Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, a toll-road opponent and environmentalist, took over as chairman of the Metropolitan Planning Organization on Monday and dodged an attempt to dilute his agenda-setting authority.Adkisson was in line for the chairmanship two years ago but lost the position to then-City Councilwoman Sheila McNeil. The MPO vote that installed McNeil broke the organization’s long-standing tradition of rotating the leadership role between city and county leaders.

Because of his toll-road opposition, Adkisson lost the chairmanship in 2007, when one MPO board member said the organization didn’t want its image tarnished by electing a toll critic to be its leader.

The MPO oversees about $200 million in federal transportation funding and must approve most transportation projects within the county.

On Monday, Adkisson said he would “leverage heaven and earth” to fix congestion at U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 on the city’s North Side and prioritize mass transit. He fell short of saying he would quash toll roads during his term but said he doesn’t think they work well.

“All the toll-road arrangements I’m seeing around the country are losing money and traffic,” he said. “And if you can imagine when you have an economy like this, and you have extrapolated into the future a revenue stream that depends on people supporting it, I think you have to be very careful.”

Though Adkisson and Councilman John Clamp were unanimously elected chairman and vice chairman, the board split on a vote on whether to take up the issue of agenda-setting authority. In the MPO’s three decades of existence, the board chairman always has set the agenda for the organization’s monthly meetings. It became an issue during McNeil’s term because she removed an item that state Rep. David Leibowitz, D-San Antonio, had placed on the agenda, declaring that as chairwoman she had absolute authority to do so.

County Commissioner Kevin Wolff recommended Monday that the board vote to give the agenda-setting power to the MPO’s executive committee, composed of the board chairman and board members representing the city, the county, the Texas Department of Transportation and VIA Metropolitan Transit.

Leibowitz floated a motion to vote only on the nominations and leave the agenda-setting discussion for another day. Initially, the board vote was a tie, but Councilwoman Jennifer Ramos later changed her vote, tipping the count in favor of Leibowitz’s plan.

Whether the policy change will be placed on an agenda remains to be seen. Adkisson, who currently has sole authority over the agenda, said he has no problem letting the full board take up the issue. At the same time, he sees no reason to change things.

“This MPO has been around since the early ’70s, and it’s never had an executive committee,” he said. “(Agenda-setting) has been within the sole province of the chairman. So it’s really fixing something that isn’t broken.”

Terri Hall, founder of Texans United for Reform and Freedom, said she and her supporters were gravely concerned with giving the power to a committee with a large contingent of non-elected members. She also said Monday’s meeting would have violated the Texas Open Meetings Act if the board had voted to begin the process of shifting the power away from Adkisson because the issue wasn’t properly announced on the MPO agenda.

Wolff, who says toll roads are a tool to ease congestion, disagreed. He said proper notice was given. More importantly, he said, the authority should be spread over an entire committee regardless of who happens to be chairman. Wolff said he would continue to push for the policy amendment.

But Hall said toll-road advocates are “trying to change the rules in the middle of the game.” Still, she was thrilled with Adkisson’s victory.

“This is a breath of fresh air for everybody in San Antonio,” she said.