Tone-deaf politicians vote for WHOPPING 57 toll projects!

Despite the overwhelming outcry against toll roads in our community, the San Antonio Bexar County Metropolitan Planning Organization (or MPO) voted to put 57 toll projects into its long-range plan yesterday. There will be no escaping the reaches of this new tax on driving in Bexar County. Removing controversial private toll contracts that hand our public roads over to private, usually foreign, corporations for a half century from the MPO's plan is a HUGE victory, but seems of little consolation when the Board voted for a plan that will amount to the largest tax increase in the history of Bexar County. Todays' Express-News article makes it appear as though tolls were just kept as an "option," however, the Federal Highway Administration has stated if a project is designated in an MPO plan as tolled, they will only approve what's consistent with the MPO's plan. So non-toll options are NOT on the table for these projects.

Sampling of the toll projects just approved:

-Hwy 90 (from 410 to 211)
- I-10 (from 410 to county line)
- ALL of Loop 1604 (not just the north half)
- 281 (from Loop 1604 to Comal County line)
- I-37 (from 410 S to the Atascosa County line)
- Bandera Rd (from 410 to 1604 still appears despite amendment to remove it)
- interchange at I-10 & 1604
- interchange at 281 & 1604 (northbound ramps)
- interchange at 1604 & 151
- interchange at 1604 & 90
- interchange at 1604 & 1-35
- interchange at I-35 & 410
- Kelly Pkwy/Spur 371 (US 90 to SH 16)
- ALL of I-35 (from Atascosa to Comal County line), and more!

Two elected officials on the board were no shows, Senator Jeff Wentworth and Bexar County Commissioner Chico Rodriguez (Councilwoman Jennifer Ramos attended but left the meeting prior to the vote on the 57 toll projects), so yesterday's decisions were largely made by appointees who don't even answer to the taxpayers, including two votes by TxDOT employees that cast votes for their own projects in a colossal conflict of interest.

TxDOT, despite its total lack of credibility having presided over a $1.1 billion "accounting error," two botched environmental studies for the US 281 toll road, and the abuse of taxpayer money to hire registered lobbyists and implement a PR campaign to lobby for toll roads and the Trans Texas Corridor, has convinced most MPO Board members that the sky will fall and all projects marked "toll" will fall out of the plan if they don't continue to do Rick Perry's bidding and designate virtually all new capacity to our roadways for tolling. This same chicanery is being played out in all the urban MPOs.

There are other solutions, like changing the financial assumptions to include the most fiscally conservative way to fund highways, a modest gas tax increase, instead of reliance on tolling, but TxDOT persistently manipulates the numbers to make any gas tax solution appear to fall short of the "need." A study done by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M stated that an 8 cent gas tax increase indexed to inflation would preclude the need for a single toll road in the state of Texas, yet TxDOT sticks to its talking points that it would take $1.00 or more gas tax increase to fix our "unfunded" roads.

What's truly amazing is that anyone would fall for such nonsense coming from an agency that's lost the trust of lawmakers and taxpayers alike. The Sunset Commission issued a scathing review of TxDOT two years ago and it's clear this agency is broken, but how to fix it is what's gnawing at many lawmakers. We say, elect a new governor and fumigate the TxDOT Greer building in Austin for a total house cleaning for starters.

Locals to pick-up the tab for STATE highways

Though there are conflicting reports about when this language showed-up, the MPO just adopted a plan that requires ALL available funds to be "leveraged" and requires the locals to come-up with the cost of maintaining any new capacity to STATE highways. TxDOT District Engineer, Mario Medina, told the MPO Board in no uncertain terms that "if you want to build new roads, you're going to have to find a way to pay for the maintenance of them."

This is yet another unfunded mandate coming from an unelected, out of control state agency in Austin that's making local taxpayers pay for what's the State's job - to build and maintain STATE highways. Last I checked, TxDOT has its own budget for road maintenance and many lawmakers have complained about TxDOT dumping more and more of its money into maintenance and diverting it away from new construction in order to push tolling.

Requiring ALL available funds to be leveraged means an increase in local taxes or tolling. Leveraging also means DEBT, heaps of it. So this means we won't be able to take gas tax money and build an overpass or expand a road, now the local MPO will have to leverage ALL its monies by borrowing against it or matching it with local tax money in order to get access to the money we already pay the state for state roads.

Representative David Leibowitz tried to strip these unfunded mandates from the plan, but the same culprits who voted to keep 281 and 1604 toll roads after 5 1/2 hours of public testimony AGAINST the toll roads on October 26 at Alzafar Shrine, voted to keep these requirements in the MPO plan.

MPO members who voted to increase debt, taxes, and the likelihood of massive tolling:

Commissioner Kevin Wolff
Councilman John Clamp
Councilman Ray Lopez
Selma Councilman Bill Weeper
Two TxDOT votes
Two Via votes
One county employee
Two city employees

The only board members voting for the taxpayers were:

State Representative David Leibowitz
Commissioner Tommy Adkisson
Mayor of Leon Valley Chris Riley
Councilman Reed Williams

The board also unanimously voted to find the money to do an independent study of non-toll options for 281 north (advanced by Com. Kevin Wolff) and the west side of 1604 (from Bandera Rd to Hwy 90, advanced by Rep. David Leibowitz). Leibowitz noted that such a side-by-side comparison of toll versus non-toll proposals should have been studied years ago prior to the board turning these projects into toll roads. Exactly! In fact, for US 281, TxDOT already has a valid non-toll plan that it refuses to acknowledge or sponsor that is less than half the cost to build as the RMA's toll road (one-tenth the cost when you factor in the toll road debt). It's truly an egregious waste of $500,000 of taxpayer money to hire outside consultants to do what our highway department run by Rick Perry refuses to do.

TURF Statement to MPO Board prior to vote

(Edited for clarity) Having 57 toll projects in your long range plan will reap severe economic impacts on this community, impacts that have not been properly studied nor considered before entering into such a plan. A very conservative estimate of the debt required to get these projects off the ground is $20 billion dollars! The level of discretionary income in this community cannot sustain this level of debt much less the level of new taxation required to pay it all back. TxDOT's current two-year budget shows that anticipated toll revenues ($1 billion) do not even cover half the debt service payments ($2.5 billion in payments for just the next two years, we're $12 billion in debt TOTAL) we already require as a state. It's folly to think there will be enough money from the taxpayers to pay all this debt back. In fact, much of our current gas tax is going to cover debt service for toll roads. This is, in part, why the money to fix our roads without tolls is disappearing.

The overwhelming public feedback at the MPO's visioning sessions that began several years ago was not only opposed to tolling, but especially handing our public roads to private, usually foreign, corporations using CDAs. Your draft long range plan even states this in the public involvement section. Given this information, what is the point of federally mandated public involvement if this board submits a plan to the feds that does the exact opposite of what the public feedback asks you to do?

We believe the way this plan was drafted has serious problems.

The RMA revised the project list, including changes in the scope and costs of its projects, and submitted it as late as December 3, just 4 days before scheduled adoption today, December 7. For instance, the RMA lists the cost for the northbound ramps to the 281/1604 interchange as $59 million, yet it's bloated the cost for the southbound ramps to $140 million (we found out during the MPO meeting that $20 million of that is going to the RMA to "manage the project"). We believe the higher cost is to eat-up the stimulus money on fixing anything but 281 north.

Originally the RMA promised to fix 281 north non-toll "if a pot of money dropped out of the sky from somewhere." In came the stimulus money...but documents submitted to a legislative committee showed it submitted the 281 project as a toll road, though it would have been paid for with stimulus money. Then, the RMA dropped 281 altogether and promised to build the WHOLE 281/1604 interchange non-toll with stimulus money, then they cut the project in half and never revised the cost downward. The RMA wants to toll the northbound ramps to connect to a future toll road on 281, so since it's tied to the 281 toll project, the feds told them they couldn't build the northbound ramps until the new environmental study for 281 is complete. So now we're paying for the cost of a WHOLE interchange and only getting half of it simply because the tolling authority, the RMA, wants to toll those northbound ramps!

The latest road project list removes some of the toll language (I believe from the unfunded list), yet the projects are still anticipated for tolling and this smacks of chicanery meant to hide information and deceive the public as to what the MPO is really putting in its plans. In fact, the initial presentation of the MTP draft to this policy board was Sept 28 and the MPO staff completely re-wrote parts of it and distributed a totally different draft just 3 days later at its October 1 Open House, including a totally new set of financial assumptions and the inclusion of CDAs. Again, this wreaks of trying to hide the truth. Also, parts of the draft given to the public on October 1 weren't even filled in and had key financial figures filled in with merely "XXX."

Having the project list and parts of the MTP revised multiple times since the ONE public hearing held October 1 (which was to fulfill the requirement in the MPO bylaws Policy 5 for public involvement to have at least one public hearing for any major updates to the MTP. There's also a requirement that the MPO follow its two-step plan for MTP/TIP updates and allow a 30 day public comment period), there should be a new public hearing held in order to brief the public on the new proposed changes to the MTP (like the project list, number of toll projects, CDAs, and a review of projects costs, etc.) and a subsequent 30 day review for public comment (basically start the 30 day review over again since the MTP draft has changed multiple times without notifying the public and starting the 30 day process over again). Neither the MPO's two-step process nor the public hearing requirements were properly fulfilled in how this plan was put together, especially considering the cost and scope of several projects were changed at the last minute.

We'd like a parliamentary ruling on whether or not it's permissible to take a vote on this plan today.