Straus, Wolff attempt to rewrite history on toll roads at election time
By Terri Hall
February 16, 2016
It’s always interesting to watch politicians try to re-write history when election time rolls around. A case in point is State Representative Joe Straus, Speaker of the Texas House, and Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff. Both have supported tolls in the past and they’ve put up persistent roadblocks to removing tolls from San Antonio road projects, but now they’re taking credit for expanding US 281 without tolls. Of course, this was after a total rebellion from the grassroots and residents in the corridor for over a decade. We heard repeatedly why we had to ‘accept’ tolls, why it was a ‘done deal,’ and why these powerful men ‘could do nothing about it.’
It wasn’t until Governor Greg Abbott campaigned against toll roads and advanced the largest infusion of new road funding in Texas history during his inaugural first year in office that either Straus or Wolff actually made a major effort to expand area highways without tolls — and that was largely due to the fact that grassroots anti-toll groups like Texans for Toll-free Highways advocated and won protections for taxpayers in the legislation prohibiting the new funding from being used on toll projects. That’s when the dominos started to fall.
Well, voters, it’s time to say ‘baloney’ at the ballot box and call their bluff. Early voting starts today in the Texas primary and runs through Friday, February 26. Election day is March 1. Both Straus and Wolff have strong anti-toll challengers. In House District 121 to unseat Straus, grassroots candidates Sheila Bean and Jeff Judson are making a strong run at the Speaker. Both are opponents of toll roads, and tolls will be an issue in that race. Incumbent Kevin Wolff, also has a strong anti-toll challenger with Ret. Lt. Navy Commander Michael Koerner seeking to unseat one of the members of a political family dynasty in Bexar County — the Wolffs. Tolls will also be an issue in the race. All three challengers face an uphill battle, but at a time when voter outrage with the political landscape — local, state and national — is at an all-time high, a perfect storm just may be brewing — enough to unseat these two entrenched incumbents of the political class.
Straus is arguably one of the most powerful men in Texas politics as Speaker. All House bills are controlled by his committee chair appointees. No legislation passes without his approval. Even if you get your bill out committee, it can again be stymied by the House Calendars Committee, stacked with Straus lieutenants, where bills go to die by not being placed on the House calendar for an actual floor vote. Straus has been the regular target of conservative challenges both during the election of a Speaker by House colleagues and on the ballot box for the State Representative seat. Straus has repeatedly blocked key conservative legislation like Abbott’s ethics reform, banning sanctuary cities, and even delayed the passage of Abbott’s road funding bill until the very last minute, watering it down and placing a sunset date on the vehicle sales tax fund transfer where it expires just one year after it kicks in.
Straus’ committee chairs over House Transportation have repeatedly blocked anti-toll reform bills, like making the tolls come off the road when it’s paid for to prevent perpetual taxation, removing loopholes that allow free lanes to be converted into toll lanes, and blocking the use of gas tax and other public funds from propping up toll projects that aren’t financially feasible.
Wolff sits on the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, or AAMPO, charged with deciding what area road projects are funded with tolls. He’s repeatedly voted to toll 281, Loop 1604, I-10, I-35 — literally dozens of toll projects across the Alamo city. He twice allowed funds to be stolen from 281 to fund Loop 1604 as a freeway, forcing tolls to stay on 281. Over one billion in uncommitted funds have come through the AAMPO since the citizens have challenged area toll roads, yet Wolff and Straus never fought to insist the previously allocated non-toll funding for 281 be restored or that those funds be prioritized to remove tolls from AAMPO plans. Wolff even told voters they could ‘fry me for it later’ when he voted to keep tolls on 281, despite new funding making non-toll possible. He allowed the 281 funds to be taken for Loop 1604 to appease his liberal Democrat colleagues on Commissioners Court.
Both Straus and Wolff support the latest version of the 281 debacle, too. Rather than return 281 to a complete non-toll expressway, they simply removed the toll element and kept the controversial conversion of two existing main lanes into HOV-bus lanes, that few cars will be able to access. So they’re shrinking highway main lane capacity from six lanes down to four.
They extol the virtues of the project and repeat the toll authority’s lie that they’re ‘doubling’ capacity on 281. Yet, all they’re actually ‘adding’ are frontage roads, not highway main lanes, and in fact, they’re taking away lanes by converting two lanes into the HOV-bus lanes. AAMPO officials, Via, and TxDOT admit the purpose of this road diet is to force Stone Oak, Fair Oaks, and Boerne commuters out of their cars and onto a bus.
While I-10 will also include an HOV-bus lane, that corridor will see a net increase of actual highway main lanes from four to eight, with two of those new lanes being the HOV-bus lanes. But no such luck for 281 users. Their misery will be made permanent, thanks to Kevin Wolff.
Wolff supports his father, County Judge Nelson Wolff’s, liberal attempts at behavior modification by forcibly imposing the HOV-bus lane conversion on 281 and the addition of an HOV-bus lane on I-10 because he won’t stand up to his dad and his love affair with unpopular Via projects. Nelson Wolff’s big government policies will hijack one of the remaining bastions of freedom Texans have enjoyed since the dawn of the highway program — freedom of mobility. Now a government bureaucrat will control when and how you can access highway lanes built with your tax money.
Straus and his staff defend the HOV-bus lane conversion on 281 to try and fool constituents into thinking they’re getting new highway capacity, when, in fact, they’re having two main lanes open to all cars today taken away and turned into restricted lanes controlled by Via. So even with the addition of overpasses, there will still be congestion in the 281 corridor for our lifetimes. Straus has also failed to deliver road funding to the Alamo city. Cities our size, like Ft. Worth, get triple the road funds of San Antonio, year after year, on Joe Straus’ watch. He promised to end the diversions from the state gasoline tax for several sessions but never got it done until Abbott made it a priority.
San Antonio deserves and must insist on more responsive, fiscally responsible leadership. Thankfully, voters have the opportunity to send these entrenched establishment politicians packing on March 1.
For a complete list of Texans for Toll-free Highways endorsements, go here: http://tollfreehighways.com/.