Opposing Op/Ed columns on tolls in San Antonio - you decide

The San Antonio Express-News published a pro-toll and anti-toll Op/Ed. Below are the columns that appeared July 11, 2014. Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom was asked to write the anti-toll position. The pro-toll lobby group, the International Bridge, Tunnel, and Turnpike Association, wrote the pro-toll column.

Toll is a user fee, not a tax
By Patrick Jones
Op/Ed - July 11, 2014
San Antonio Express-News

SAN ANTONIO — As San Antonio moves closer to tolled lanes on U.S. 281, drivers are about to learn why tolling is an increasingly popular option across Texas and in 35 states.
When you just can't afford to be stuck in traffic, managed lanes are a proven way to beat the bumper-to-bumper congestion that has become a day-to-day reality for too many San Antonians.
The saga of U.S. 281 goes back many years, and over that time, the region's traffic problems have grown into a full-fledged crisis.

Read the rest of the Op/Ed here.
Link to the anti-toll Op/Ed here.

Tolls a rip-off that won't ease congestion
By Terri Hall
For the Express-News
July 11, 2014

SAN ANTONIO — Forcing drivers to pay tolls to get U.S. 281 expanded in north Bexar County is a double-tax rip-off that won't solve congestion. Here's why.

The expansion of U.S. 281 was already paid for with gas taxes. Official documents showed $100 million allocated to the project until mid-2008 when the money vanished into thin air and no one ever accounted for where it went. Now officials want us to pay a new tax — tolls — to get U.S. 281 expanded.

It doesn't stop there. Tolls are planned on Interstate 10, Interstate 35 and Loop 1604.

Tolls are the most expensive option. Officials plan to use variable toll rates that change based on the level of congestion, so drivers will pay the maximum rate to use it during peak hours when people actually need to get to work.

How much? Up to 50 cents per mile. If you had to take the toll lanes for the full length, one round trip for one person will cost $8 per day. That's more than $2,000 a year in new taxes. Tolls could easily top $4,000 per year per household, and officials acknowledge they plan to charge tolls in perpetuity.

To make matters worse, the inside toll lanes do not connect to the ramps for Loop 1604 and have no exits to neighborhoods south of Stone Oak Parkway. So those who live in the corridor cannot access the toll lanes to get where they need to go, even if they wanted to. Adding insult to injury, those residents can't get improvements to the surrounding roads due to “noncompete” clauses lasting 30 years.

There are six non-toll highway lanes on U.S. 281 today. When the toll project opens, two will become toll lanes, leaving only four freeway lanes. So the non-toll highway capacity will actually shrink, squeezing all the non-toll traffic into fewer freeway lanes than exist today.

Considering the toll lanes have no exits between Loop 1604 and Stone Oak Parkway, only travelers who live outside the corridor (or live north of Stone Oak Parkway) will have any use for the toll lanes, and that volume is inadequate to pay for the toll lanes. Rather than scrap a toll plan that's not financially feasible, officials are seeking a taxpayer-backed loan from TxDOT. Every Texas taxpayer will be on the hook for the losses if the toll revenues are insufficient to repay the debt.

It gets worse. North of Stone Oak Parkway, all of the non-toll highway lanes end, and all six main lanes turn into toll lanes. There will be no non-toll freeway option north of Stone Oak Parkway. So expect a mass exodus from the highway onto the access roads for those who can't pay tolls. They're literally designing a bottleneck into the toll project hoping to force drivers to pay tolls to head north as well as double taxing drivers by converting freeway lanes into toll lanes.

Toll roads put runaway taxation in the hands of unelected boards and even private corporations, like the one going bankrupt on Texas 130. The taxpayers are on the hook for a $438 million federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan on that project. When it goes bankrupt, taxpayers will be left holding the bag. In fact, every remaining toll project on the books will require vast sums of public money. So everyone pays, whether or not you can afford the toll lanes.

What now? The original gas tax money that could have expanded U.S. 281 without tolls is gone. The project cost has soared to more than $430 million.

How do we fix our roads without tolls? Start by killing the San Antonio streetcar and get the $92 million in road funds back for U.S. 281. Next, end the raid of gas taxes for non-road purposes. Then, dedicate the tax collected on vehicle sales that's currently being dumped into general revenue to roads. Just dedicating all the existing taxes we pay on gasoline and vehicle sales to highways will fix the road funding shortfall without raising taxes and without tolls.

Toll roads will drive up the cost of everything we buy, hurt the Texas economy, and deter job growth. The quicker we stop this madness, the better off all taxpayers will be.

Terri Hall is founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom and Texans for Toll-free Highways. For more information, go to www.281overpassesnow.com, www.TexasTURF.org and www.tollfreehighways.com.