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Alamo planning board hastily obligates Prop 1 money, adopts more toll roads
By Terri Hall
December 9, 2014
Yesterday, the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (or AAMPO) voted to adopt its long-range plan, Mobility 2040, that will add 4 new toll projects and 34 other new projects that will obligate ten years of Proposition One money. The AAMPO has long promised that when new funding became available, they would turn previously planned toll lanes back into free lanes on projects like US 281 in San Antonio. Prop 1 passed with 81% of the vote on November 4, and voters overwhelmingly approved the measure precisely because the funds could not be used for toll projects. Now taxpayers are facing still more toll roads.
The betrayal taxpayers feel kicked into high gear when the AAMPO voted to add yet more toll roads to the plan instead of turn toll lanes on existing major corridors back into free lanes as promised. Voters do not get to select which elected officials are appointed to the AAMPO, so there’s no direct accountability.
The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority's (ARMA) taxpayer-funded PR campaign for the US 281 toll project sent 30,000 mailers to households in the corridor promising if new funding became available, some or all of the toll lanes could go away. AAMPO officials have also repeatedly promised taxpayers that tolls are just a 'placeholder' and when new funds become available, those funds can be used to make previously marked toll lanes, free. Two previously designated toll roads on Loop 1604 W. and Wurzbach Parkway have been expanded without tolls, and on Loop 1604, in part, with money that came from US 281.
The AAMPO unanimously passed a resolution for a complete non-toll 281 and Loop 1604 W in 2012. However, the AAMPO Executive Director, Sid Martinez, expressly told the elected officials on the board yesterday that the 2012 resolution only pertained to Prop 12 funds and that they fulfilled the resolution already. That’s patently false. The resolution doesn't even mention Prop 12 and addressed an impending $2 billion the state had available. It reflected the AAMPO’s express desire to fix both US 281 and Loop 1604 W completely non-toll, and at the end of resolution it states they’d continue to seek non-toll funding options for Loop 1604 (from I-35 to I-10). Loop 1604 W is now being completed without tolls, and US 281 is still waiting.
Politics, not planning
Now Prop 1 will immediately infuse $1.7 billion into the State Highway Fund, and more will follow annually. Commuters are growing weary of the ‘there’s not enough money’ excuse, and they know it’s as flimsy as a wet noodle. At yesterday's meeting, the public spoke overwhelmingly in favor in prioritizing Prop 1 dollars to fund US 281 expansion without tolls, and urged the board to make fixing San Antonio’s major corridors - I-10, US 281, Loop 1604, and I-35 - without tolls its top priority.
Some of the new rural representatives on the board expressed concern about the tax burden tolls would impose, but also said that if the MPO prioritizes only major corridors that their smaller projects wouldn’t get any funding. So they basically agreed to toll the urban areas, in San Antonio, so that they could get their projects funded for free in the Hill Country. What these politicians fail to grasp is that those same residents in the Hill Country are the very residents who will be paying the most to use these tollways since every single highway into and out of the Hill Country is slated to be tolled. On US 281, it’ll cost 50 cents/mile or $8/day to take the toll lanes during peak hours when most commuters have to be at work. That’s a big price to pay to get some other projects done without tolls.
MPO defies elected officials in the corridor
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and State Senator Donna Campbell sent a letter to the Transportation Commission last May asking for Prop 1 funds to go to more non-toll lanes on US 281 if Prop 1 passed. It passed and decision-makers at the MPO aren't doing it. This is in addition to the letter Campbell and Rep. Lyle Larson sent to the Commission asking for the $92 million in road money, originally swapped to fund the now defunct streetcar, to be reprogrammed to US 281 to prevent tolls. Meanwhile, Commissioner Kevin Wolff who was the architect of the AAMPO’s 2012 resolution, represents the corridor, and has promised to get more non-toll lanes on US 281 was nowhere to be found yesterday.
The AAMPO plan adds $605 million in TOLL 'managed lanes' on:
I-10 (from 410 to SH 130)
Hwy 151 (from 410 to 1604)
I-37/US 281 (from the Southeast area into downtown)
I-10 (from Boerne Stage Rd to Boerne)
This is in addition to the existing toll projects on:
US 281 (from Loop 1604 to Bexar County line)
Loop 1604 (from Bandera Rd to I-35, eventually the whole loop)
I-10 (from Loop 1604 to Boerne Stage Rd.)
I-35 (from downtown to Loop 1604, & eventually to the county line)
War on cars
This plan also includes bike lanes or 'complete streets.' The MPO intends to spend $48 million on bike lanes using road money, in just the next 4 years. Mobility 2040 is chalk full of anti-car initiatives and admits the AAMPO’s goal is to get as many people out of their cars and into other modes - bikes, walking, or busses. Shrinking free road capacity (known as a road diet), tolls roads, granting special access for bikes, busses and HOV users, as well as stiff parking fines are all part of the AAMPO’s master plan to punish those who choose to drive alone in their personal vehicle. All told, the plan adds $993 million in road projects as well as many transit projects, including transit stations in Boerne, New Braunfels, and Seguin.
Public testimony stated that no one wants mass transit centers in the Hill Country, and that it’s social engineering and misplaced priorities to fund them. Bike lanes and transit centers where there is no demand for them is an unacceptable waste of money, and it demonstrates the chronic misallocation of funds at the AAMPO.
Yet Boerne Councilman Jeff Haberstroh tried to defend the action and said fixing I-10 is a priority for Boerne. However, there is no connection between fixing I-10 and the addition of a mass transit center in Boerne. His argument was, essentially, we’re doing this to play along so we get what we want on I-10. In other words, the decisions being made are all about politics, not planning. They hold their nose at all the waste as long as they get their project in the plan - never mind that the I-10 project will be tolled, so the majority of the traveling public will be unable to access or benefit from that new capacity.
San Antonians nor most residents in the Hill Country can afford this new tax to get to work. Tolls will be an additional tax of thousands of dollars more per driver, and even more per household, annually. Those who can't afford them will be second class citizens on congested alternatives.
Sloppy rush to consume all the new money
The AAMPO made this decision hastily and sloppily before the Texas Transportation Commission has even announced how much Prop 1 money the area will receive and ignoring the Legislature’s intent on how these funds are to be spent. House Select Committee on Transportation Funding Chairman Rep. Joe Pickett insists Prop 1 be spent on major corridors and high priority projects, not on new projects that just came on the scene.
If officials say they can't afford to fix our major corridors - I-10, I-35, US 281, and Loop 1604 - without taxpayers being asked to pay more in tolls, then the AAMPO has no business adding more projects to the plan. Who is deciding which ones are free (using Prop 1) versus which ones get targeted for toll taxes? Martinez made it clear it was the bureaucrats at the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), not elected officials.
Staff dismissed elected officials’ concerns
Guadalupe County Commissioner Kyle Kutscher, a new board member, inquired if it was indeed the MPO’s goal to use tolls as a placeholder with the intention of turning toll lanes back to free lanes as funding becomes available, but Martinez fumbled around and tried not to validate the fact that past board members had promised this and that, yes, their intent was to try and remove toll lanes at a later date if funding comes through.
Both Martinez and TxDOT District Engineer, Mario Jorge, steered every question elected officials asked back to their pre-ordained agenda - keep all the major corridors tolled so that non-priority projects could be added to the plan and consume all the new Prop 1 money.
Martinez led elected officials to believe that since US 281 has experienced another delay (U.S. Parks and Wildlife insists they do a better biological assessment of the corridor, which TxDOT and the ARMA failed to do after a 5 year environmental study) and won’t be ready until 2016, that Prop 1 couldn’t be allocated to it. Martinez and Jorge gave the distinct impression that if the board didn’t obligate the 2015 Prop 1 money to projects ready to go in 2015 that it would look bad and that they could lose that money to a another region, even though the Transportation Commission has not formally adopted the official formulas or policies for the use of Prop 1. Since the legislation states TxDOT has to use existing formulas, when a region is allocated money, it keeps and controls that money and it’s routine to embargo funding on a corridor until it’s ready to go. The only money up for grabs by other regions is TxDOT’s discretionary funds, not formula funds.
In fact, outgoing Commissioner Tommy Adkisson suggested the 2015 Prop 1 funds be allocated to US 281 and stay there until the project is ready to go in 2016, and he went on to make an impassioned speech to the new members of the board warning them that TxDOT, the ARMA, and special interests are effectively in charge of decisions at the AAMPO, not the elected officials. Adkisson has been an anti-toll advocate and worked to change the composition of the AAMPO in the Texas legislature to make it more accountable to taxpayers.
Regardless of the politics and double talk, in the public’s mind, the state highway fund just had $1.7 billion dropped into it from Prop 1, and public testimony demanded that these revenues be used on US 281 and priority corridors, not on Johnny-come-lately projects. But the majority of the board would not be swayed, with the notable exception of San Antonio Councilman Mike Gallagher, who gave a brief speech acknowledging that his constituents’ concerns were reflected in the public comment and he couldn't support any plan with toll roads, all voted in favor. The bureaucrats lied and misled their way into keeping the elected officials on the board in line, so the board adopted the plan despite the public outrage and their own misgivings about toll roads.
With new leadership coming at the state level and promises to address both the funding shortfalls and reforming TxDOT and the decision-making process for toll projects, the taxpayers will undoubtedly demand positive changes and greater accountability for MPOs, too. The current process is hopelessly broken. Let’s not forget there’s always the ballot box as a means of accountability for these rogue board members, too.