Fails to turn toll lanes back to free lanes on 281 as promised
By Terri Hall
Jan., 26, 2015
Today, the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) decided how Prop 1 funds would be spent on area roads. Notably absent, again, was Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff whose precinct encompasses the controversial toll project on US 281. His father, the County Judge Nelson Wolff, sent a letter to the Transportation Commission asking for Prop 1 funds to be used to turn toll lanes into free lanes on US 281 if Prop 1 passed, and yet there's a deafening silence from both Wolffs now that Wolff was re-elected county judge.
Rather than turn toll lanes back to free lanes on US 281 as promised and as its own policy requires, the board unanimiously chose to spend $124 million in new money that voters approved, which can only be spent on non-toll projects, to non-priority minor fixes to frontage roads on I-10 near Boerne and on Hwy 90. Neither project is on the state's 100 Most Congested Roads List. US 281 has been consistently on the list for years and even ranked the #1 most stressful road in the state per the Commuter Stress Index. None of the new funds will be used on major congestion relief projects that add capacity to major corridors - all of which are slated to be tolled.
Board members raised valid questions seeking out ways to do what the public testimony asked, and sadly, Executive Director Sid Martinez was disingenuous. I’ve witnessed more MPO meetings than I care to count, and they always end up the same way. The elected officials want to do what the public wants, and then Martinez and TxDOT re-direct all inquiries to a tolled outcome or adoption of proposals that the bureaucracies want.
Martinez is interpreting a letter from the Legislative Budget Board dated December 15, 2014, about the use of Prop 1 funds to be construed to mean that no Prop 1 funds could be used on a project unless the whole thing could be funded without tolls. I know from the legislative hearings during the special sessions and through the interim, that this is NOT the legislative intent of this amendment.
While they clearly do not want any of this money to be used on toll roads, that’s not to say that it can’t be used to revert toll lanes back to free lanes on segments of a project. It’s called one bite at a time and incremental progress. Policy makers do it all the time since there’s NEVER enough money to do everything you want at any given time. Given the fact virtually all the major projects in every metro area are marked for tolling, and since Prop 1’s allocations are insufficient to make each entire project toll-free, Prop 1 by definition will NOT go to fund major congested corridors as the Transportation Commission and the Legislature directed if that’s the interpretation of this letter.
Then, Martinez outright LIED to the board members telling them they solicited public input on Prop 1 projects during the MPO's latest round of public hearings on its long-range plan, but that’s patently false. Prop 1 didn’t pass until November and those hearings took place in October.
Next, when Boerne Councilman Jeff Haberstroh and others asked about carrying the 2015 Prop 1 funding over to next year, if needed, to combine two rounds of Prop 1 together, Martinez shut that down, too, saying it looks bad that we say we need money and then don’t spend it as soon as we get it.
Then the Councilman asked if the board could get a plan together and present it to the legislature to show them what we want as a community and what fits our needs and ask them to work with us on getting these roads fixed the way the citizens are asking, and Martinez again slapped that down saying its long-range pan known as the MTP basically does that. Well, no it doesn’t. The MTP fits federal parameters and constraints not necessarily our community’s.
Follow the money - US 281 can be done non-toll!
If you look at the MPO’s current short-range plan, known as the TIP (see page 16) and take TxDOT’s cost at face value, the $124 million in new Prop 1 funding could fully replace the toll elements on US 281. When you remove the $60 million for the Loop 1604 interchange ramps funded with roughly $26 million from the city bonds and $28 million in various TxDOT funds, the actual cost for US 281 is $400 million. The TIP doesn’t break out the right-of-way cost, but it’s been estimated to be $85 million in MPO, Regional Mobility Authority (RMA), and TxDOT documents. That cost should be picked up by TxDOT’s ROW budget, and not counted against the MPO’s allocation for construction costs. If the RMA does it as a toll road, this cost is picked up by local taxpayers, not through the taxes we already pay for TxDOT road construction and right-of-way - another form of double taxation.
So actual construction cost is now down to $315 million. Between the two segments in the TIP, there’s a total of $192 million in non-toll funding. That leaves $123 million in toll-related loans. The AAMPO’s 2015 Prop 1 allocation for congestion is $124 million. With a thorough examination of what’s truly needed (for instance the number of access lanes and the planned 9 overpasses in just 7.8 miles is too many and too close together) and an efficient design, it’s very do-able to fund US 281 completely non-toll with these Prop 1 funds.
Now the total is up to over $1.2 billion in unallocated funds (similar to Prop 1) that have come through Bexar County in the last 10 years and not a dime of it ever went to US 281. That way Martinez, TxDOT, and select elected officials can continue to claim there’s no money to fix it without tolls. The public knows better. We’ve watched a decade of misplaced priorities at the MPO and our major corridors languish in perpetual crisis. The board members need to unleash the grip the bureaucrats have on this board. They need to assert their authority and insist taxpayers are protected from this double taxation and taxation without representation.
The voters don’t get to select who sits on the MPO and since not every local elected official has a seat, they're there as a representative of their city or county and called to do what’s best for the entire community, not necessarily one's own district. Other areas have taken their MPO back from the bureaucrats, asserting their authority, and put the public and their elected officials back in charge of planning. It's high time the politicians in San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country do the same.