S.A.'s First Toll Road Supposed to be Free

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S.A.’s First Toll Road Was Supposed to Be Free
By Jeff Coyle
WOAI-TV Troubleshooters Reporter
July 29, 2005

Toll roads are coming to San Antonio. The Texas Department of Transportation says it cannot pay for new roads any other way. But News 4 WOAI Trouble Shooter Jeff Coyle has discovered that millions of your tax dollars were budgeted years ago to pay for a new highway that the state now plans to charge tolls on.

281 North of Loop 1604, from Sonterra to Stone Oak Pkwy, will be the first toll road in San Antonio. Construction begins in less than one year to add six new tolled lanes.

A 2001 TxDOT planning document shows the same segment of 281 as a “freeway project” that was already funded at the time. With $30.9 million budgeted, the project was supposed to be underway in 2004. We’ve learned TxDOT scrapped the plans in 2003, when the Texas Transportation Commission issued an order to consider building toll roads.

News 4 WOAI Trouble Shooter Jeff Coyle sat down with TxDOT Deputy District Engineer Julie Brown for an explanation.

Coyle: “The justification for tolls all along has been it allows us to build highways much sooner.”

Brown: “Correct.”

Coyle: “But this part of 281 was already supposed to be built and was being funded.”

Brown: “Under the old plan. That’s all we would be able to do, though.”

Without tolling 281, TxDOT says it wouldn’t be able to widen 1604. So tolls collected on what was originally supposed to a freeway are being used to issue bonds and make improvements elsewhere.

“It’s either wait and do one project at a time over many years or look at some innovative financial way to bring all of those projects to fruition a lot sooner,” says Brown.

But that answer doesn’t fly with toll road critics. A group called the Texas Toll Party is now calling for an outside investigation.

“There is gross misuse of funds, abuse of taxpayer money in this deal, and we are asking for an independent review of this toll plan,” says Terri Hall of the TTP. “We don’t need tolls there. Where did the (gas tax) money go?”

The original $30 million is still being used to build the 281project. It would be reimbursed to the state once a private company or tolling authority takes over the toll system. This is all legal, thanks to a HB 2702 (scroll to text of HB 2702) passed in 2005, which allows non-tolled highways to be converted to tolled highways, as long as construction has not yet started.