SCOUNDRELS: MPO fails to give 281 Prop 12 money

You can thank pro-toll Councilman Ray Lopez (who lives nowhere near 281 and argued I-35 is “more important”) as well as Commissioner Kevin Wolff (who represents the 281 corridor) for urging the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) Board to sandbag taxpayers and rush a vote on what project would get the coveted Prop 12 money AFTER the MPO Executive Director assured everyone at its workshop last Thursday that a final vote would NOT take place at yesterday’s MPO board meeting.

Lopez’ office told me Friday that the Councilman agreed 281 should be the first project to get the funds in keeping with the MPO bylaws that require a project that had funding bumped be the first project to get funding restored. He also agreed more time was warranted to study the options.

Yet yesterday, he did a complete 180. As did Wolff who also assured me Friday that he was working to get Prop 12 funding allocated to 281. He was relieved he didn’t have to vote on this Monday in order to take more time to thoroughly study the options, knowing TxDOT and the toll authority would obfuscate. Yet he actually gave the board permission to take the vote yesterday, when the public was told otherwise and had little chance to weigh-in, when he said: “I’m okay with voting on this now. I guess we just don’t have a choice.” What happened to studying options outside what the toll authority wants you to believe?

They took this monumental vote on a day when three vacancies had not been filled — one for a state representative and two for city council members (that were supposed to be appointed by Mayor Julian Castro, Castro also controls 2 city staff votes on the Board). Neither Sen. Jeff Wentworth nor Councilwoman Jennifer Ramos were present either. That’s 5 seats that were either absent or vacant, leaving the citizens of this region without full representation on such a critical vote. Perfect time for TxDOT and the toll authority to pounce.

The bureaucrats naturally framed all arguments in such a way as to appear the MPO had no choice but to rubber stamp what the toll authority wants — which is to ensure no money can be made available to fix 281 without tolls so it can impose tolls on an existing freeway later. It’s our elected officials’ duty to protect taxpayers from such DOUBLE TAXATION and targeted tax grabs and to see through the smoke and mirrors — not hide behind it.

It’s no surprise, both Wolff and Lopez previously voted to toll in October 2009. Wolff has repeatedly promised to get 281 fixed without tolls as soon as money was available and called for an independent study of non-toll options (outside the biased toll authority’s study of options). Neither have come to fruition. Wolff faces re-election next year. One would think that would give him a mega-incentive to fix this gaping wound with commuters on the northside posthaste. Talk is cheap when they’ve experienced a trail of deception and broken promises for 10 years waiting to get their road fixed.

Guess we can throw out all those rankings on the 100 Most Congested Roads List that’s supposedly determined by ‘scientific’ measurements at the Texas Transportation Institute, that ranked 281 higher than I-35 in congestion levels — hmm, ya think it’s maybe cuz there are stoplights in the middle of the highway? This list is only useful to politicians when it gives them ammo for what they want to do, only to later readily kick it to the curb when it suits them, as was the case yesterday.

While you were at work (the MPO meets in the middle of the workday at 1:30 PM), they decided they know what’s best for you…gridlock on 281 and a free pass for I-35, despite not one citizen asking for I-35 to be funded ahead of 281. The Regional Mobility Authority (RMA) and TxDOT have been lobbying your elected officials and city and county staff to use the only new transportation money released by the legislature for the next two years to go to a lower priority project — I-35.

The taxpayers on the other hand, along with Rep. Lyle Larson, asked the MPO to restore the funding for 281 by using the Prop 12 money where the congestion is far worse. TxDOT added an overpass at Vance Jackson & 1604 to the Prop 12 list, when that project isn’t even on the Top 100 Most Congested Roads list, and neither were several segments of I-35.

How the dirty deed was done
First, TxDOT and the RMA said the environmental study on 281 would not be completed in time to use the Prop 12 money (by a lousy three months…convenient, the toll authority controls the timeline for its own self interest, to line its pockets with our money — c’mon, who believes this garbage?). The 1604 study and the 281 study started at the same time, and the 1604 draft document (for a 36 mile project) is already complete and on TxDOT’s desk, yet the 281 study (for an 8 mile project) is supposed to take an extra year to complete. Yeah right, they blamed the extra time on “studying” a non-toll option that was later yanked. The RMA could expedite the study if the MPO dropped the toll element since the study of the economic impacts would be moot. They want every opportunity to fund 281 without tolls to be off the table so that when they release their study, they can say claim there’s no money to fix it without tolls.

Second, they argued $50 million isn’t enough to fund the whole 8 mile project, so the mentality was, why try? Because the taxpayers of this region deserve to have the non-toll funding for 281 restored. Estimates have jumped around from $100 million as a non-toll project to upwards of $500 million as a toll project.

The first 3 miles were already funded in 2003 and that phased-in approach was okay BEFORE toll roads became Rick Perry’s flavor of the month, but it’s suddenly unworkable AFTER it was determined a toll road slush fund could be tapped from congestion weary commuters along 281. The majority of the problem on 281 is the first 3 miles outside Loop 1604 and $50 million would just about fix it (based on previous MPO allocations).

Every road project in history is done in phases. So these claims are excuses, not legitimate reasons for failing to follow its bylaws and restore funding to 281! The MPO bylaws require that a project that had funds yanked should be the first one back in the pipeline when funds become available.

TxDOT District Engineer Mario Medina lowered this boom in trying to convince the Board to steer money away from 281: “A $400 million dollar bag of money could appear today and we still wouldn’t be able to use it on 281.”

What nonsense! No project even begins to move forward unless funding has already been identified. In the case of 281, it’s presently identified to be partially toll financing and the remaining funds are other taxpayer subsidies. What the citizens are asking is that 281 be returned to a non-toll project using Prop 12 as the placeholder, along with other existing non-toll funds.

Once a pot of money can be allocated, it sits on the books until the project’s environmental clearance and engineering is completed. Every road project in the MPO’s plan has money “sitting” there awaiting its clearance.

To say otherwise is to purposely mislead and play upon the ignorance of the MPO Board members who have no earthly idea how these projects get approved and funded. They ask the bureaucrats at TxDOT and the RMA why it can’t be done, and the bureaucrats tell the Board only what they want them to know, always framing every issue as though there’s only ONE solution and only ONE scenario that will EVER work, and that’s toll roads. Then the Board repeatedly rubber stamps the bureaucrats’ pre-determined deal brokered in back rooms by those who don’t answer to the taxpayers.

MPO Chairman Commissioner Tommy Adkisson and Leon Valley Mayor Chris Riley were the only members to really challenge the bureaucrats planned talking points, while Wolff played helpless. Riley went through our concerns one-by-one and TxDOT’s answers always steered the Board to direct money away from 281.

Though public testimony offered several scenarios to restore funding based on research of MPO and TxDOT documents and past precedents, Lopez said he hadn’t heard anything that would make 281 qualify for the Prop 12 funds and called the $50 million a ‘non-starter,’ as if the testimony, the phased-in approach previously adopted by the MPO, and the RMA’s claim to be studying a non-toll option using a phased-in approach hadn’t even occurred or weren’t valid options. With that attitude, the 281 superstreet would never have happened, nor the 1604 superstreet in his own district.

Frustrated with the run around, Riley asked Chairman Adkisson to place the 281 debacle up for discussion during a retreat when all the issues can be debated out in the open (“out in the open” is what the special interest . Adkisson answered, “Of course.” Pro-toll Commissioner Chico Rodriguez quipped, “We could hold several retreats before 281 will ever be ready to go.”

It’s by design, Mr. Rodriguez, by an animal the Commissioners Court unleashed and refuses to tame (albeit Rodriguez was the lone ‘no’ vote initially against forming an RMA, but has since committed himself to voting to toll the northside in exchange for projects in his district). So the voters need to tame our politicians who are ineffective and refuse to fix the festering congestion problems plaguing our city without raising taxes by imposing tolls on our existing roads.