Victory for open government, but not complete transparency

IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Small victory for open government at MPO
New agenda complies with Texas Open Meetings Act, but not MPO bylaws

(San Antonio, TX - August 27, 2012) Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) is celebrating a small victory today, now that the San Antonio-Bexar County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) agenda includes more specificity about its proposed action for toll projects on US 281 and Loop 1604. However, there's more work to be done, since the board is seeking to amend its short-range (TIP) and long-range plans (MTP) at today's meeting, and the MPO's bylaws require a two-step process, which includes a 30-day public comment period, and an even greater level of disclosure on its agenda before any action can take place.

"While we welcome the board's compliance with the Open Meetings Act, open government still demands the MPO follow its bylaws for proper public disclosure when making changes to the short and long-range plans," notes Terri Hall, Founder/Director of TURF. "Changes to the TIP & MTP are more permanent than merely adopting a proposal, and the bylaws rightly require that when the scope of a project or pots of money change, that the public is properly notified and given 30 days to submit public comment before any final decisions are made."

Policy 6 of the MPO bylaws state: "Amendments to the TIP require a two-step process. To permit adequate public review and comment, amendments to the TIP will be presented at a Transportation Policy Board meeting with action on the amendment occurring at the following Transportation Policy Board meeting (approximately 30 days after initial presentation)...amendments to delete a project or significantly change the scope of work of a project will be explicitly listed on both the presentation and action agendas for the Transportation Policy Board meetings."

Today's agenda does not specifically list the changes in scope of the toll projects nor did the agenda last meeting. The agenda last meeting also failed to notify the public on its agenda that the MPO was planning to make changes to the TIP at its next meeting, nor did it notify the public of a 30 day comment period. Therefore, TURF believes the two-step process required for amending the short and long-range plans has not commenced until these requirements are met.

Though the board can vote to bypass the two-step process, they still have to call a special public meeting within today's MPO meeting specifically to solicit public comment on the proposed changes to the TIP, and this special meeting must be posted on the agenda, which it is not.

For instance, TURF points out that the scope of the project on Loop 1604 changes from adding 4 new lanes (currently in the TIP as tolled, would now be non-toll) to adding 8 new lanes (4 non-toll, 4 toll). On US 281, the scope is changing from the current TIP which would add two new toll lanes and convert all the existing main lanes to toll lanes, to a new plan that would not add any new highway lanes, and that would shrink existing free highway capacity by converting the center main lanes into dedicated bus-HOV-toll lanes and keep the remaining four non-toll lanes free.

The proposed change on 281 will not meet the traffic needs for the corridor based on the MPO's own traffic data since it doesn't add any new highway capacity, nor does this amendment (or the current TIP) comply with federal law that prohibits the conversion of free lanes to toll lanes.

Background
TURF sent a demand letter threatening to sue to the MPO July 20, addressing the MPO's violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act on June 25, 2012. TURF asked the board to nullify its action and to re-post the proposed action in a manner that complied with the Texas Open Meetings Act. The board sought to adopt a specific financing proposal to toll portions of US 281 & Loop 1604, but didn't properly inform the public due to its vague agenda item which merely read: "Action on additional Federal and State Funding Opportunities."

Watch the MPO's actions unfold in this video.

"Complying fully with the Texas Open Meetings Act and noticing agenda items with the requisite specificity ensures the public's business is conducted in public," notes Arif Panju, at attorney with the Austin law firm Cantilo & Bennett, L.L.P. which represents TURF.  Panju also sits on the board of directors of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. Panju is available for comment at the contact information above.

"The Texas Supreme Court has held that governmental bodies are responsible for properly notifying the public, and anything less than full disclosure of agenda items is not substantial compliance," says Panju.

TURF informed the MPO that it would seek an injunction to halt any further action on the proposal and a court order declaring the action void unless the MPO voids the action it took on June 25.

TURF believes the June 25 meeting warranted legal action because it so flagrantly sought to keep the public in the dark about what the MPO was adopting. Not only did the agenda item even fail to mention the names of the two highways involved, but it involved a proposal seeking to convert an existing free lane into a toll lane on US 281, taking money from US 281 and giving it to Loop 1604 (US 281 has already had $130 million in non-toll funds taken away that could have been used to fix it without tolls), and turning the middle toll lanes on US 281 into dedicated bus-HOV toll lanes.  Clearly, an agenda item simply noting "Action on additional Federal and State Funding Opportunities" does not give a reader, as a member of the interested public, proper notice of what the MPO was planning to do.

The plan also takes the power to toll away from the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (the toll authority) and allows the ATD Board the discretion to determine who operates the toll road (and hence collect the tolls), including itself. This effectively grants the ATD board the right to raid the toll revenues to pay for mass transit projects, like the controversial downtown streetcar.

Some board members caught by surprise by last minute changes
Not only was the agenda item vague, but changes to the proposal were made after the agenda was posted and the board's meeting packet distributed -- changes that weren't posted or ever discussed until the MPO walked in the door for its meeting on June 25 (see the documents here). Though significant changes were made, the board took action on the proposal.

State Representative Joe Farias, an MPO board member and the only dissenting vote, asked how the MPO could vote on such a measure when he only found out about the changes by "reading about it in the newspaper over the weekend."

###

TURF pursues legal action against policy board

Group seeks investigation by District Attorney for board’s action on vague agenda item

(San Antonio, TX - June 29, 2012) Yesterday, Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) filed a formal complaint with the San Antonio Police Department White Collar Crime Unit seeking to open an investigation as to whether the San Antonio-Bexar County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) violated the Open Meetings Act on June 25, by taking action on a specific financing proposal to toll portions of US 281 & Loop 1604 when the agenda merely read “Action on additional Federal and State Funding Opportunities.”

Board reneges on promise, votes to toll anyway

(San Antonio, TX) - It's apparent that the fix was in before a single citizen ever walked into the Bexar County San Antonio Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) meeting Monday. The tumult and chaos surrounding transportation decision-makers in Bexar County has hit a feverish pitch and it's getting plain ugly for taxpayers.

Where should the $2 billion go? Fix US 281 without tolls

Taxpayers want US 281 fixed without tolls

(San Antonio, TX) - TxDOT recently 'found' $2 billion in extra money ($700 million anticipated from the federal government and $1.3 billion gained from 'efficiencies').

"The San Antonio-Bexar County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and ALL of our local elected leaders have the obligation to aggressively seek enough of these funds to fix US 281 WITHOUT TOLLS," contends Terri Hall, Founder/Director of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom. "The controversy surrounding the US 281 project has gone on long enough. The citizens have spoken out against tolling US 281 by overwhelming majorities, forcing two lawsuits to stop the toll road. Enough is enough. Let's move forward without saddling already stressed commuters with higher taxes, tolls, to get to work."

Citizens file lawsuit to halt 281 toll project

IMMEDIATE RELEASE
TURF, AGUA file lawsuit to halt 281 toll project
Citizens call for gas tax funded improvements be installed immediately


San Antonio, TX, February 26, 2008 - Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), a grassroots group defending citizens from tolls on existing roads, and Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas (AGUA), advocates for protection of the Edwards Aquifer, have joined together to file a lawsuit in federal court today asking that plans to convert US 281 to a toll road be stopped pending full compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The lawsuit alleges TxDOT failed to do a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for this massive project over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, the sole source of water for over 1.2 million people as well as failed to study the cumulative effects of the combined 281 and Loop 1604 projects on the region’s economy, property values, tax revenues, businesses, residents, neighborhoods, and motorists.

“The controversy is indisputable. The overwhelming majority of citizens do NOT want their freeways converted into toll roads. This practice is now against the law without a public vote (HB 2702), but that hasn’t stopped our politicians from continuing this highway robbery,” Terri Hall, founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), fumed.

SMOKING GUN
PROOF THEY’RE TOLLING EXISTING ROADS

TURF posted a video on YouTube of State Representative David Leibowitz asking Alamo RMA Executive Director Terry Brechtel if, in fact, they are tolling existing roads/right of way already paid for by the taxpayers, and she answers, “That is correct.”

Together the highway expansions and toll projects of US 281 and Loop 1604 will cost well over $1 billion (US 281 is now up to $475 million, and Loop 1604 is approximately $1 billion). Yet TxDOT's environmental assessment claims there is "no significant impact" to residents, motorists, and businesses who will now be charged a toll to use what today is toll-free.

Hall pointed out that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) forced TxDOT to do a full EIS on the Bandera Road toll project (http://texasturf.org/images/stories/pdf/FHWA-Letter_Bandera-Road-EIS.pdf) citing the toll controversy as the reason. She noted the obvious contradiction of FHWA’s own policy of recommending a full EIS on controversial projects by its approval of 281 without an EIS compared to its mandate forcing an EIS on Bandera Road.

Hall thinks the only difference is that the politicians near Bandera Road are reflecting the citizen opposition against the toll road (Helotes, Grey Forest, and Leon Valley have all passed resolutions against the Bandera Rd toll project) while the politicians in the 281/1604 area, Frank Corte and Jeff Wentworth, are not.

“The politicians representing this area are pro-toll even though over 90% of the public feedback is opposed to the toll projects. It’s that stubborn refusal to step in and stop this double taxation that lands us in court today,” Hall concluded.

"Charging a toll will only hurt local businesses and residents who have invested in the 281 corridor. This is clearly taxation without representation. School boards and municipalities have to come to the voters to approve massive bond measures, and yet the Alamo RMA is about to sell $1 billion in toll revenue bonds without voter approval. What a horrific injustice to taxpayers!” said Hall.

Hall continued, “Special interests will profit from these tolls, since road contractors stand to make four times the money ($475 million) for converting 281 into a toll road instead of making the promised freeway improvements that have been funded with our gas tax money since 2003 (total freeway plan cost: $100 million). TxDOT and our politicians who enable them have continued to jam this down the taxpayers' throats over the public's opposition. It's time to install the gas tax funded overpass & expansion plan now.”

In public hearings in 2001, TxDOT promised improvements to 281 would be begin in 2003, but then did a bait and switch and decided to convert the entire 281 freeway into a toll road. Prominent businessmen auto dealer Ernesto Ancira and Tetco President Tom Turner both sent letters asking the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) to revert back to the gas tax improvement plan in January of 2007 to no avail. The citizens have done the same.

Concerned citizens through TURF feel TxDOT and elected officials have forced them to go to court just to get them to comply with the law and to halt the toll project. Once the toll project is on hold, the citizens are demanding the gas tax FUNDED plan for overpasses be installed immediately.

“Most people believe TxDOT and the RMA’s lies that the ONLY way to get congestion relief is toll roads, which is patently false. They’ve had the cash in hand to fix 281 for 5 years, but they’ve hijacked our freeway simply to raid our wallets,” says Hall.

“This lawsuit is really about common-sense. It is ridiculous to say there is no significant impact from adding $1 billion worth of infrastructure over the recharge and contributing zones.” said Enrique Valdivia, President of AGUA. "TxDOT and US Fish & Wildlife issued a 'Finding of No Significant Impact' (FONSI) for highway 281, and a 'not likely to adversely affect' finding for endangered karst invertebrate species and the golden-cheeked warbler. Obviously,we think paving over 300 acres of recharge is pretty significant to everyone who depends on the aquifer."

The Edwards Aquifer is a karst aquifer that is highly vulnerable to water pollution because surface water quickly enters the aquifer through recharge features without significant filtration. Many toxic pollutants, such as benzene, are being found in aquifer wells and are common components of highway and parking lot run-off.

The plaintiffs are represented by Save Our Springs Alliance. SOS Alliance’s litigation docket and information on the adverse affects of highways can be found at www.sosalliance.org.

TURF also has a lawsuit pending against TXDOT for its misuse of taxpayer funds to "sell" the public toll roads and the Trans Texas Corridor and for lobbying using taxpayer money.

View the filed complaint

AGUA's website is www.aquiferguardians.org

TURF's website is www.TexasTURF.org

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