NOTE: Unedited version
Testimony limited to 9 minutes, then 3 minutes
281 Financial Terms & Texas Mobility Funds Vote
December 3, 2007
This board is about to cast one of the most controversial in its history.
Let’s evaluate the leadership of this Board. I have had a flood of email, blog comments, and phone calls expressing shock and outrage at the biased, divisive, and inflammatory comments made by Councilwoman McNeil about the northside and about those who cannot afford toll roads.
First, her comments were completely inaccurate, in fact, only the top 1% of income earners make $300,000 a year. Ms. McNeil tried to back away saying she meant average home value, but that’s also inaccurate. The average home value is only $159,000, and, in fact, you can hardly give away a home in Stone Oak right now. She repeated these comments TWICE, and referred to those who have worked long hours and sacrificed much to live up North, as “THOSE PEOPLE.” Ms. McNeil said exactly what she meant to say and no amount of spin can change it.
Second, her comments were extremely divisive in nature, pitting one side of town against another when we’re all in this together. These are the public’s highways and we all depend on them to live and work. What was most astonishing about her comments was the ease with which she told her own constituents that if they can’t afford the tolls (with the average income in her district at $14,000 a year, it seems few if any can afford tolls) they can be relegated to second-class citizens and take the congested access roads! Knowing I-35 is already in the toll plans, she defended her plan to vote to toll the northside, but indicated she wouldn’t be as eager in her own backyard. That isn’t leadership; it’s outright hypocrisy.
We ask that Ms. McNeil resign as Chair immediately and not preside over this vote since she’s clearly biased the Board and has used flagrantly false data to skew the debate in a discriminatory manner. I’ve received dozens of letters like these since her comments were made public:
“The MPO Chair has breached her duty to the citizens of San Antonio. She should resign. Neither my income nor my home value approaches $300K and even if they did, that is not justification for confiscating an existing right-of-way. Does the MPO Chair think that 281 is used only by the ‘rich’? Disband this atrocious body.”
“The MPO Chair has been exposed for what she really is. Put an end to this divisiveness. She should resign.”
“The video of Sheila McNeil’s presentation to her ‘constituents’ was an eye-opener…Ms. McNeil should not be on the MPO given her clear bias in favor of toll roads. She should be as embarrassed in making those comments as was in watching her make them. I was never motivated one way or the other about the 281 tolls, but incidents like this make it hard not to get involved.”
“I am extremely disturbed by (these comments)…(they) are not only totally inappropriate, they are completely inaccurate. I am a Mexican-American blue-collar worker who lives on the Northside. I acquired my home and my income level through hard work (10 to 12 hour days). Nobody has given me ANYTHING. EVERYTHING that I have, I have worked (my ___ off) to acquire. I do not appreciate your assertion that because I have what I do and live where I do, I should, therefore, be required to pay tolls on the roads that I use… Please resign your position on the MPO.”
You get the idea…Ms. McNeil needs to resign from the Board. A KSAT 12 poll last Friday showed 86% of respondents think McNeil should NOT preside over the toll road vote today.
Next, it’s DOUBLE TAXATION to toll an existing road:
“We have lived in the north central part of San Antonio area for 10 years. In that time TxDot promised to improve traffic conditions on 281N by building overpasses. The money was projected, the promises were made, taxes were collected, and nothing.
Meanwhile, the city and county has approved thousands and thousands of homes to be developed up and down the 281 corridor. Still no traffic relief. No overpasses. Nothing.
For the last few years the new idea is tolling 281. Why? Where are the overpasses? IF they had been built when promised we would know definitively if they improved traffic (which in all theory they would.) However, (TxDOT says) the monies for overpasses have been spent elsewhere.
We do not need toll roads. We need what has been promised, funded and denied.”
Hwy 281 needs overpasses, not a toll road. The ORIGINAL gas tax funded plan promoted in public hearings in 2001 included overpasses AND expanding the highway to 6 lanes, AND adding access roads to get to existing businesses. This plan as evidenced in the MPO’s and TxDOT’s own documents was supposed to be let in 2003, and TxDOT FAILED to install the promised fix, which has NOTHING to do with a lawsuit filed in late 2005.
The pricetag for the gas tax plan, $100 million in 2004 dollars. TxDOT has confirmed repeatedly in several news stories that it has $100 million in gas taxes for 281. They had the money and failed to fix the road. So the blame for the situation on US 281 rests solely at TxDOT’s feet. As Ms. McNeil so nicely stated, they have targeted where they think the money is, on the northside, and they want to extort money from commuters and make them buy back the road they’ve already bought and paid for.
That brings us to today. Let’s adjust the cost of the original gas tax plan using the construction index to today’s dollars, it’s up to $170 million. TxDOT is NOT making an apples to apples comparison when it compares the gas tax plan cost to today’s estimated toll road costs. The toll road is up to 20 lanes, the original plan called for only 10. They’re not the same plans; therefore, the cost of the gas tax plan cannot be compared to toll road costs as if they were the same plan. Given the Texas Mobility Funds available, there is NO EXCUSE to spend $475 million to toll 281 when a $170 million gas tax plan would do the job. With FHWA stats showing the growth has slowed in this corridor, this plan is indeed more than sufficient to fix the road and keep it a FREEway, though TxDOT will always claim otherwise, either though the gas tax plan is their own plan based on aggressive MPO growth patterns in the first place. The only thing that changed was TxDOT’s leadership who is shoving toll roads down our throats and asking you politicians to follow them into your own political ruin.
Given the information in an Express-News article on the Park & Ride controversy at 281 and Marshall Rd. just yesterday, portions of this toll road will traverse over the most sensitive area of the Edwards Aquifer Recharge zone and yet TxDOT after one lawsuit and more than a year later has FAILED to do an Environmental Impact Study and claims there is “no significant impact” in building a 14-20 lane toll road over the aquifer. Clearly, the facts say differently as Carlos Guerra’s column addressed yesterday.
NEXT, CONFLICTS OF INTEREST:
This Board ought NOT to give equal weight to what started as a stealth email campaign by the highway lobby. It was hatched in a backroom at Valero, October 19, and meant to give the appearance of legitimate public opinion in favor of tolls when supporters should have come clean and stated where they work and that they have a financial interest in toll roads when corresponding. When a person has something to gain financially, they need to DISCLOSE IT when trying to influence the vote. A public official or RMA board member has to recuse him or herself from any votes or even the debate they have financial ties to what’s being discussed.
The emails you received in favor of tolls have to be considered on this basis. In contrast, what does count is the LEGAL RECORD at the 281 & 1604 NEPA public hearings with over 90% of the OFFICIAL public comment being opposed. There was no official, nor announced process for this MPO to collect public comments for this vote.
But in response to the SAMCO and Chamber-led email campaign, you received nearly 1,200 emails opposed to tolls. Over 35 businesses including dozens of CPAs and Independent consultants wrote in opposition to tolls as well as active duty & retired military and public school teachers.
Then, I personally witnessed Sheila McNeil and 2 TxDOT employees, one that sits on this board, Clay Smith, enter that closed door meeting at Valero where the stated purpose (in this SAMCO memo: READ EXACT WORDS) was to win approval of the terms and funding for 281/1604 toll projects on December 3. Since Vic Boyer who is also an ex-officio member of this board, was also there, this starts sounding an awful lot like collusion to me.
Despite a sham letter from David Casteel to a few of our elected officials, the meaningful financial guts of the 281 toll rates are still secret. It’s tantamount to malfeasance to vote on this without knowing whether or not there is a non-compete agreement, what the impact of gas prices are on toll viability since other studies have shown toll roads are NOT viable once gas hits $3 a gallon, and what other factors can potentially affect toll rates if the assumptions used change! Essentially, you’re being asked to make a FINAL decision to approve a “draft” document without reviewing a single Traffic and Revenue Study and without knowing CRITICAL financial terms and impacts.
What’s most egregious is the study that has been done says that given the toll term assumptions made, “US 281 has a negative net present market value” and a “tax subsidy” would be required to complete the project. They repeatedly say these toll rates are based on the assumptions made but what happens if those assumptions don’t become reality and we have an oil embargo, or development slows or traffic continues to stay flat and fails to grow at the rate both TxDOT and MPO demand models show?
Here is a chart of the FHWA TX stats that shows traffic (VMT) has NOT GROWN and remained FLAT since the steady of rise in the price of gasoline began in 2005. (SHOW SLIDES)
The Government Accountability Office points out that benefit-cost analysis can be a valuable tool for helping decision makers. Local and state officials here have been denied this tool having never even conducted one, they’ve only taken the benefit-cost ratio as gospel with no documentation of it whatsoever.
Richard Perez’s op ed yesterday notes that “…costs for roadway construction projects have risen 72 percent in the last five years.” Instead of cutting back, Perez says “We can’t wait.” At some point, the cost of a project exceeds the benefits. We don’t know the full costs and benefits of any of these projects and whether the benefits exceed the costs.
When the toll road only goes the same distance that should have built in 2003 and you’re being asked to scramble today in order to extend the RMA project to the county line using a hefty tax subsidy that roughly equals the cost of the ORIGINAL gas tax plan, it’s clear tolling this freeway is a tax grab. There’s a viable, more affordable, less invasive and most importantly QUICKER option, so there is NO ACCEPTABLE EXCUSE to do this toll project when your own study says it’s a net LOSER! The highway lobbyists in this room are the ONLY reason to proceed because that’s who will make money off this boondoggle!
At this point, there’s more that you as decision-makers don’t know than you do know. You don’t know whether there’s a BIG FAT GOTCHA in these plans, but judging by everything else TxDOT touches, you can bet there is one. You ought to know by now the devil is in the details, and you don’t have the details upon which to make an informed public policy decision.
TxDOT and the RMA will say and do ANYTHING to get toll roads. Remember The State Auditor and the Texas Transportation Institute both found TxDOT’s figures are bloated and the Auditor specifically stated their figures “cannot be relied upon to make public policy decisions.” Commissioner Larson called them snake oil salesmen for a reason. You cannot trust what they say or believe any assurances they give you. If this is truly the best option, when why the secrecy? Why can’t they be open about it with the public and even MPO Board members and legislators who have oversight over TxDOT?
Leroy Alloway of the RMA alluded that there is a non-compete agreement and he tried to assure opponents that it wouldn’t prevent TxDOT or the City from expanding the roads, only the RMA. But the City is rabidly pro-toll and TxDOT has a policy that all new capacity will be tolled, too! This will guarantee congestion on our neighborhood streets, this is an OUTRAGE, and you can’t let it happen on your watch!
Among our politicians on the federal level –
Senator Hutchison and Senator Cornyn are opposed to the state tolling existing federal highways. The entire South Texas congressional delegation opposes the state plan.
Hutchison who passed a moratorium on tolling existing interstates said:
“My bill will protect drivers from paying tolls on roads that were already paid for by taxpayers.”
“Tolling existing freeways — the lifeblood of moving goods and services — is bad public policy, and states like Pennsylvania and Texas would incur irrevocable economic damage,” said Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa.
Then, Congressman Ciro Rodriguez who was instrumental in getting the moratorium passed said:
“Using toll roads to double-tax Texans is just plain wrong. I am very pleased that the final Transportation conference agreement contains an anti-tolling provision for federal highways in Texas. The citizens of Texas have spoken and they do not want the federal highways they have already paid for to be converted into toll roads. Working with Senator Hutchison, we put progress over politics for the benefit of Texas.”
We urge the Board to do just that, put special interest politics aside for the benefit of ALL Texans. Do not make the Texas taxpayers pay tolls for what’s already paid for. Give us the gas tax plan NOW!
We notified the public what is happening here today by doing over 200,000 automated calls over the weekend. We will also notify them how each of your voted tomorrow.
Will those who were able to take off work to be here to stand against the toll tax increases today, please stand to be recognized by the Board? This concludes my remarks…
Texas Mobility Funds discussion –
At the May 2006 TX Bond Review Board Meeting, the record states TMF funds DO NOT NEED TO BE TIED TO TOLL ROADS, they can be used to build FREEWAYS. Prop 15 that the voters passed explicitly states they can used for FREEways. It is merely a TxDOT policy, NOT LAW, that is strong-arming this Board into applying them strictly to leveraged toll projects.
Use these funds to fix the most critical areas of 281 and 1604 NOW! This MPO designated these highways as high priority yet refuses to fund them other than as toll roads, which is the same method TxDOT uses. So how is this Board or the RMA “locally controlled”?
This $325 million total available TMF funds combined with the $100 million in gas taxes for 281 could build all of the needed improvements to 281, the interchange at 1604, and the most critical overpasses on Loop 1604 giving us the most critical fixes without endebting generations with risky bond debt at a time when gas prices continue to rise and put toll road viability at risk.
We all know the Legislature MUST address transportation funding next session. Sen. John Carona, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman, is already calling for indexing the gas tax and stopping the hemorrhaging of those gas tax revenues by ending the diversions through Constitutional Amendment to bypass Governor Perry. And we can all be thankful Mike Krusee, the single biggest impediment to getting meaningful funding addressed, spared us the time and expense of booting him from office by resigning first. If only the other tollers would do the same. If not, we’ll work hard to remove them.
Given that previous toll viability studies for 281 show 20 cents of every dollar collected in tolls goes to administration, it’s the very same problem we have now with the gas tax….diversions, not all of the money collected goes to transportation. So building more toll roads means we’re not actually fixing anything, we’re playing a more expensive ponzi scheme than we have now.
Then, the Sunset Review, a top to bottom review of TxDOT’s books, will also reveal the waste, fraud, and abuse of this agency run amok and allow Legislators to accurately determine the true transportation needs we need to fund, not bloated wish lists that are totally unrealistic at a time when concrete and asphalt prices will force changes to our government’s road building and toll road frenzy and force a change to driving habits now that even the International Energy Agency says cheap and easy access to oil has disappeared. We need GENUINE and REALISTIC transportation options, not more of the same, which is MORE DEBT and the biggest, most expensive toll road the highway lobby can dream up to enrich their own pocketbooks at the expense of the taxpaying public.
Toll roads cost anywhere from 10 to 40 times more money per mile than we pay now in gas taxes. Increasing the cost of transportation only HURTS the economy by sucking more money out of taxpayers pockets to travel to where they need to go, AND extracts more money from businesses who then have to charge their customers more which makes us all have to pay more for everything whether or not we take the toll road.
Why? To enrich a single industry, road contractors and their financiers? It’s downright criminal to crush our economy, and levy the largest tax increase in TX history to benefit the special few. We need to retain our seamless, efficient, freeway system EVERYONE CAN USE, not chop up our highways into a two-tiered system of expressways for the wealthy, and congested access roads for everyone else.
Use these TMF funds to fix 281 and 1604 as FREEWAYS NOW!
A representative list of businesses (whether the owner or its employees) who wrote in opposition to tolls:
Bill Reiffert & Assoc., Inc., Structural Engineers
Macina, Bose, Copeland and Associates, Inc.
TXCO Resources Inc. formerly: The Exploration Company
TEXAS INDUSTRIAL RUBBER & GASKET COMPANY
Food Safety Concepts International
Brandt Engineering Co.
Kersey and Associates
Kirk Kothmann, DVM
Potters Wheel Productions
Edgar Chew & Associates
A-Bear Air Conditioning L.L.C.
Ince Distributing, Inc.
Findling, Milam & Pyle
Barrett & Sons, Inc.
Training, Rehabilitation & Development Institute
Corporate Express Business Interiors
Trinity University professors and employees
Scientific Aerospace Research Consulting (SARC), LLC an SDVO SBC (Service-Disabled, Veteran-Owned, Small Business Concern)
Pratt & Whitney, Serviceable Military Assets (SMA)
Traugott, Inc. Painting & Decorating
CONSTRUCTION MANAGEMENT SPECIALTIES, INC
Macina, Bose, Copeland and Associates, Inc.
CDF Properties, Real Estate Investments
Dozens of CPAs, active duty & retired military, public school teachers, and Independent consultants like pre-paid legal, Arbonne, Desktop Graphic Systems Consulting, etc. wrote in opposition to tolls as well.