SA Current: 281 DOUBLE TAX freeway toll plan

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Tarred & weathered
Inaction on 281-N put SA on freeway to double taxation

By Greg Harman 8/29/2007

No joke, U.S. 281-N is crippled.

Drivers crunch along each other in a diesel-tinged wash even as fresh cement tonnage is draped across the denuded landscape. New roofs sprout like an alien fungus with each morning sweat.

It’s the “dark side” at work, with massive residential and commercial developments rocketing far beyond the pitiable roadway’s ability to fill them with sleepers and shoppers.

In engineering parlance, 281-N is an “explosive region” marred by “interrupted flow” (read: turn lanes and traffic lights), and gobs of “external costs” (car crashes, death, etc.).

“It’s the dark side of capitalism,” says UTSA engineering professor Jose Weissman. “It’s only going to get worse.”

From a safety perspective, this is the worst the city has to offer.

By allowing continued development in Northern Bexar County without keeping up with road capacity, regional leaders ensured the convergence of 281 and 1604 would climb to the summit of the city’s “Top 10 Crash Locations” list, where it has stayed since 2004. City records list 177 accidents at the juncture so far this year. The Texas Department of Transportation has recorded 856 accidents and 87 fatalities on 281 between 1604 and the Comal County line between 1996 and 2001.

So why has the road remained such a miserly worm and the backdrop for so many Blood on the Highway remakes?

TxDOT blames environmentalists and the anti-toll contingent. Others blame TxDOT and toll-road blackmail.

A major 281-N overhaul was taking shape more than a decade ago, but privatization fever rocked everything in 2003.

Across the county, the next wave of Big Business profits was predicted to occur as typically publicly owned assets such as ports and highways were auctioned off to the private sector. The Texas Legislature was wild with Trans-Texas Corridor wine. Toll roads were being bottled and sold as transportation salvation and Texas drank deep. It was in this increasingly gridlocked and giddy state that a directive came down from TxDOT: all future “capacity projects” must be tolled if proven viable.

Though critics argued 281, just months away from a major expansion, didn’t exactly qualify as a “future capacity project,” state brakes squealed in ’04.

Bexar County Commissioner Lyle Larson was chairman of the San Antonio – Bexar County Metropolitan Planning Organization at the time. He remembers those early promises of six luscious lanes, traffic-light-hopping overpasses, and business-friendly feeders.

Three overpasses that were to rise in 2004 didn’t. Instead, following the new toll directive, TxDOT borrowed from other state efforts to double size of the freeway expansion and convert it all into an $80-million toll project.

San Antonio’s Aquifer Guardians and People for Efficient Transportation sued after 281 was repo’d by the TxDOT toll roaders and additional lanes started popping up on engineering charts.

To those who fought the toll solution, TxDOT’s behavior smelled like blackmail.

“The slowing of capacity I think was in some ways intentional,” says Larson. The worse the roads got, the easier it would be to gain public acceptance of tolls, went the thinking.

Under pressure from the state to adopt the toll project, local planners buckled. “The whole state abdicated their responsibility here,” Larson said. “They said, ‘Either you toll or the roads won’t be fixed.’”

Larson conducted his own lobby of letters, drafting numerous communicades to Governor Perry and House Speaker Craddick. He wanted state gas-tax dollars, long an income stream siphoned for related (and not-so-related) purposes by the Texas Legislature, restored to the state’s highway fund and channeled back into Bexar County asphalt (See “Your gas-tax detour,” page 12).

Though most went unanswered, Larson’s request that popular votes be required before toll roads were unrolled across existing state highways received a mealy-mouthed reply from Perry.

“You may also be interested to know,” the Guv wrote blithely back for the first and last time on the topic in March of ’06, “that no urban community is required to build toll roads. These decisions are made by local officials, and only new lanes may be tolled – not existing lanes.”

Then the line to the state Capitol went dead.

Several more letters were sent out by Larson’s office. No response.

The full Commissioner’s Court joined him in requesting Perry’s help steering diverted gas-tax funds back to their intended purpose of repairing and expanding state highways.

“Since 1986, over $9.3 billion has been diverted from Fund Six, the State Highway Fund. The Bexar County region has immediate combined transportation infrastructure needs totaling over a billion dollars. As a result of these diversions, our region is unable to meet the transportation needs of this community using traditional funding mechanisms,” the Commissioners wrote.

Austin didn’t send a rescue party to Bexar, but an apparently repentant Lege followed their pay-to-play bacchanal with a sackcloth moratorium bill this year, declaring a two-year study period before new toll roads could get underway. However, virtually every project in the chute, about $15-billion worth, was exempted.

Meanwhile, as traffic on 281 climbed past 91,000 vehicles per day (from roughly 8,000 a day in 1980), the highway department’s expected fix-it costs have also taken wing. The cost of this 7.5-mile stretch running north from 1604 has leapt to $400 million for a collection of up to 19 tolled and non-tolled lanes. Add a nifty interchange and the total price tag noses $600 mil.

If ever there was a portrait of potential future environmental degradation, one would think a 400-foot swath of cement and asphalt cutting over the Edwards Aquifer’s recharge zone would be it. Still, TxDOT’s Environmental Assessment returned a clear-eyed wink and a FONSI, or Finding of No Significant Impact.

While transportation-related sites have leaked hazardous chemicals into the Edwards and Trinity aquifers along the road, the road itself shouldn’t be held responsible.

“There are no well-documented incidents of contamination of the Edwards Aquifer in Comal or Bexar counties from non-point sources of contamination,” the agency’s Environmental Assessment reads.

But considering the road stands to convert 142 square miles of land to “developed uses,” according to TxDOT’s report, surely the road should bear some responsibility. Not at all, the authors stress: Development is something for local officials to manage.

Of several spills that have reached the aquifer from the edge of 281, the worst involved 800 gallons of gasoline at the Texaco at 281 and Borgfeld Road – the current project’s northern-most terminus.

TxDOT’s District Engineer David Casteel says there is “no conspiracy” at play here. While his agency has come under increasing scrutiny for assigning millions of dollars to public relations to sell toll roads to a resistant public, Casteel runs a less-conspicuous lobby. For instance, decision-makers in San Antonio recently received a fax from Casteel, presenting them with pro-toll literature prepared by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. It claimed that to avoid toll roads in Austin, drivers would have to eat a 72-cent gas-tax increase. However, the chamber’s math is challenged by a report by the Governor’s Business Council, which proposed that the state’s major transportation needs could be met by an eight-cent-per-gallon fuel-tax increase, if properly adjusted for inflation. Casteel vigorously disputes the report, insisting the research suffers from many flawed assumptions.

Still, Casteel says TxDOT is ready with $102 million earmarked for U.S. 281 improvements (secured in ways he folksily compared to “borrowing money from your in-laws to build your house”) and blames the road delay on AGUA’s 2005 lawsuit.

While the suit appears to have delayed the toll road two years and cost TxDOT $2 million for additional study, the machinery is warming up again – this time with blessing from the Federal Transportation Authority.

For Larson’s part, he says that the toll roads can only be stopped by the Attorney General ruling against TxDOT logic by declaring 281 an “existing roadway.”

“If the Attorney General declares these roads as existing roads then 1604 and 281 will not be tolled,” Larson said.

Teri Hall, regional director for the San Antonio Toll Party, said her group is busily rounding up the lawyers and ink for another suit. “If we don’t challenge them in court, no one’s going to,” said Hall. She and many others still want the freeway expansion plan TxDOT scuttled in 2004.

“They have a less invasive, more affordable – more viable – alternative than that toll road. They have no argument to that.”

There is an argument, however. And it’s curt.

“There’s no money,” said a local TxDOT flak last week. There’s certainly not $600 million in the kittie, critics agree, but that $102 million could get things started. Or refunding some of those billions in diversions from the state gas tax from the state’s current surplus would be even better.

Your Gas-Tax Detour

Texans currently cough up 20 cents in state gas tax for every gallon they gulp. Intended to maintain and expand our highway system, the gas tax has been a go-to for numerous pet programs in Austin.

With TxDOT claims that a funding crisis necessitates toll-road solutions, an increasing number of voices are asking for the diverted monies to be restored to highway spending.

Already, about $8.6 billion in scratch has been scattered to hungry state agencies and programs, including Texas Department of Health parking lots, the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway, mobile refrigeration, worker’s compensation, and auto-theft prevention efforts, among others. Bills carried this past session by State Representative Robert Puente and Senator Jeff Wentworth meant to patch up the tax tank conked out in committee.

Where do Texas gas tax dollars go – other than SA freeways? Here are a few examples of your tax dollars are work … elsewhere.

Department of Public Safety: $5.4 billion
Medical Transportation Program: $111.8 million
Department of Criminal Justice: $30 million
Gulf Intracoastal Waterway: $11.6 million
Aviation: $208 million
Vehicle Sales Tax to General Revenue: $1.4 billion
County Roads: $77.2 million
Mental Health Mental Retardation: $13.9 million
Texas Historic and Arts Commissions: $9.6 million
Auto Theft Prevention: $20.4 million
Cemetery Land: $7.5 million

SOURCE: Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce