TxDOT irks local officials as it pursues giving 1604 to private entity

Link to article here. Once again, TxDOT flouts the LAW, this time SB 792, which put 281 and 1604 under the private toll moratorium. TxDOT has no use for the law, so it’s seeking to go around it against the will of the Legislature and our local officials. At best, they’re burning every bridge they ever had with the Bexar County Commissioners. At worst, they’ll break the law AGAIN! Even TxDOT’s PR campaign won’t be able to spin their way out of going to jail!

Toll road control splits state and locals
By Patrick Driscoll
Express-News Staff Writer
09/22/2007

Local and state officials once again are tugging for control of planned Loop 1604 toll lanes.At issue is whether toll lanes to be added to the freeway, arcing across the North Side from Braun Road to FM 78, should be operated by a private corporation or a public agency.

At stake is how high toll fees could be, and maybe how fast lanes can be built.

The project is far from a done deal — environmental clearance, funding and staunch opposition sit in the path — but the scuffle over setting and collecting tolls has been revived.

Texas Department of Transportation officials argue that private companies have more cash to throw at projects and can get more done faster.

But TxDOT also wants to set fees as high as motorists can stand, and some of the profits would leave town. So, the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority wants to put a lid on the rates and keep all profits to use on other projects.

The disagreement opens a wound from two years ago over the same issue, when Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said TxDOT was being pushy and rude. The standoff ended when TxDOT promised not to do anything without local blessings.

“Apparently they’re switching gears again,” Wolff said Friday. “They know I don’t like it. They make it very damned difficult to get an understanding of what the hell they’re trying to do.”

The difference now is last spring’s Senate Bill 792, which rearranged the tolling game.

RMA officials say the new law allows them to take over toll projects in San Antonio. They decided Tuesday to seek bids on rebuilding U.S. 281 into a tollway, at least from Loop 1604 to Marshall Road and maybe as far as Comal County, and plan to do the same with Loop 1604.

However, TxDOT officials say the part of Loop 1604 that is a freeway is exempt from a local grab, and they’re evaluating whether it still makes sense to let a private consortium develop and operate toll lanes there under a concession contract. They expect to decide soon.

“Just because we’re looking it over doesn’t necessarily imply that it won’t end up being an RMA project,” said Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission. “It just means we’re doing what we’ve always done, and that is we’re assessing the best contract procedure.”

RMA Chairman Bill Thornton said that breaks the spirit, if not the letter, of SB 792 as well as a 2001 state law that created regional mobility authorities to develop transportation projects. Both laws gave local officials more control of toll roads.

“Why are they resisting us?” Thornton said. “Tell me why? I simply don’t get it. We, more than TxDOT, represent what the local citizens are saying and certainly what our local elected officials are saying. I’ve not heard one local elected official tell me they want the concession.”

Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President Joe Krier said it would be worthwhile to at least see what TxDOT comes up with.

“We ought to look at it and see whether or not it makes sense for the driving public and taxpayers,” he said. “The business community’s message is, ‘Guys, let’s get this worked out pretty quick.'”

RMA Director Terry Brechtel said the disagreement might simply have to be sifted through legal and political channels.

“We’re not in a big fight over anything,” she insisted.

Nevertheless, both sides have trump cards for a stare down.

TxDOT needs Commissioners Court, which has to approve any toll concessions in Bexar County, including for Loop 1604, according to SB 792.

“I would say it would be very difficult to get it through the court,” Wolff said.

But the RMA needs TxDOT, which loaned $8.5 million to the local agency because it has no dedicated source of funding yet, and the latest terms don’t allow spending for Loop 1604.

“We do want a good working relationship with them,” Wolff said of TxDOT.

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