By Terri Hall
April 6, 2017
A funny thing happened on the way to handing over a public highway to a private toll operator —a sister city said an unequivocal, ‘No!’ A small suburb of San Antonio, the city of Cibolo, inked an irrevocable deal to hand an existing public highway, FM 1103, over to a private toll company so it could place express toll lanes down the middle, granting it the exclusive right to operate both the toll lanes and the existing free lanes for the next 50 years. FM 1103 runs through the city limits of Schertz before it connects to Interstate 35. But what Cibolo didn’t count on was its neighboring city not cooperating with the scheme.
Here’s the back story. The connection to I-35 is critical to the financial viability of the private toll road that will branch off of FM 1103 and head south through existing rural farms to connect to Interstate 10. Cibolo’s development agreement with Cibolo Turnpike Corporation was inked in haste in February after its details were kept secret from the public. It requires asking the state to hand over FM 1103 to Cibolo, who will subsequently cede control to the private company.
The Schertz City Council held a special meeting this week to allow its residents to sound off about the proposal. The toll road went up in flames as residents lit into the plan that would use eminent domain for a for-profit, private toll road, and allow a private company to hijack an existing freeway and turn it into its own private ATM, charging toll rates as high as possible without any accountability to any elected official. Neither council members nor the public felt any love for the proposal.
Residents expressed concern over the disruption to the plan that was already underway to expand FM 1103 with state funds as well as bond money voted on by residents of both cities. The voters were not informed of any future toll lanes being part of the expansion project and voters now feel betrayed that their road is being turned into a profit-making center for a private company without their consent. The city’s presentation described the changes as radical compared to what the voters approved, and several residents questioned its legality. The express lanes project will require more right of way, condemning more land using eminent domain - treading on sacred territory in the strong private property rights state of Texas.
Having to reconfigure the expansion project to make way for toll express lanes will cause delay in the much needed widening of FM 1103. Residents also objected to Cibolo receiving 50% of a certain portion of future toll revenues on a project that runs, in part, through Schertz. Mayor Michael Carpenter couldn’t fathom how Cibolo could gain control of a highway that runs through another city’s sovereign city limits. He described the plan to improve a public road and then hand it over to a private company to profit from as ‘ludicrous.’
“I have zero interest in that,” exclaimed Carpenter. “It is not coming through our city and stops at the city limits.”
Schertz residents also conveyed a concern about gaining access to FM 1103 once toll lanes are imposed since toll lanes are limited access and a for-profit entity has an incentive and the means to degrade free routes (ie - make them more circuitous, add stop lights, slow speed limits — all of which has happened on other toll projects) in order to force more traffic onto the toll lanes.
Council member Angelina Kiser and many of her colleagues expressed dismay that they were just now hearing about this project when discussions began in 2015. Both residents and council members complained about the massive influx of new housing subdivisions in Cibolo flooding FM 1103 with traffic that spills over into Schertz. They also questioned the need for the private turnpike that will split off from FM 1103 and connect to I-10 since there is no traffic problem down by I-10. The traffic problem is getting to I-35.
Council member Scott Larson honed in on the universal principle that galvanized the collective opposition, “Taking land at a value the government decides and forcibly giving it to a private, for-profit company is the only fact I need to oppose this toll road. We have a fundamental right to private property.”
Even Cibolo residents testified during the meeting and commented on how they appreciated the welcome reception by the Schertz city council and how they’re listening to their residents in stark contrast to the Cibolo mayor and council.
Without the connection to I-35, the private toll project is likely doomed. Cibolo’s population is only 25,000, and there are not enough residents to repay a $150 million project without a massive influx coming from outside the city via I-35. The Mayor told the residents they could expect the city to ‘overcommunicate’ about this project and the developments as they unfold. They also plan to hold at least three public meetings with the first one scheduled for April 18 at Cibolo Valley Elementary School at 6:30 PM.