Alamo city to impose bus-toll lanes on every freeway

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Alamo city to impose bus-toll lane network on every freeway
By Terri Hall
May 19, 2015

Monday, the Alamo Area Transportation Policy Board known as the AAMPO debated and eventually adopted a study to impose a managed toll lane/transit priority lane system across virtually every San Antonio highway, including Interstate 410, US 90, US 181, and more (which up until now have not been in the toll plans). The board originally voted to initiate the study back in July of 2013, taking until now to whittle down the bidders to the final winning contractor - Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Casting a cloud of cronyism and raising a possible conflict of interest, Parsons Brinckerhoff recently hired former Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) District Engineer Mario Medina, who is also a former AAMPO board member himself that introduced the toll-transit priority lane concept to the board and pushed for its adoption on the US 281 toll project in 2012. But the fate of toll roads is in doubt. A new board and a wave of anti-toll sentiment has not only swept across the Alamo City, but across Texas.

Public testimony questioned the wisdom of spending $300,000 on a study to add even more bus-toll lanes to the long-range plan given the backlash to the existing toll projects on all north side freeways, and the new board’s reluctance to commit to something they know their constituents do not support. Mostly board members from outside Bexar County raised questions about moving forward with something that they hadn’t been briefed on yet and that the board as a whole had yet to adopt a formal policy on. The board was scheduled to have a workshop on managed lanes in this month, but it was recently postponed to August. So several members felt awarding a contract to study imposing tolls and exclusive bus lanes across the entire city was premature.

Another concern raised by Mayor Pro Tem Ron Reaves and Comal County Commissioner Kevin Webb was whether or not the bus-toll lanes would be new lanes or the conversion of existing freeway lanes. The AAMPO Executive Director Sid Martinez said ‘for the most part’ it would include adding lanes. However, he left open the possibility if right of way were not available to expand the highway, then they may convert existing free lanes into bus-toll lanes. Dr. Richard Gambitta of Via Metropolitan Transit noted federal law prohibits such conversions, but that clearly didn’t stop the bureaucrats on the board from hinting that could change in the future. Both the current federal and state statutes regarding freeway to tollway conversion are riddled with loopholes.

‘Protect’ buses from auto congestion

According to the Request for Proposal's (RFP) scope of work, this isn’t a mere ‘study.' Its stated objective is to adopt it into the AAMPO’s long-range plan, and its stated purpose is to carve out exclusive bus lanes across the entire freeway network. The lanes will also double as tolled ‘managed lanes,’ but it’s clear the intent is to ‘protect' buses from congestion. When 1-3% of all users use a bus versus 97% of users traveling in their personal auto, this exclusive lane concept will do more to create congestion than relieve it.

This plan amounts to social engineering, pure and simple. Attempts to force drivers out of their cars and into a bus or carpool have failed in Texas and across the country. Even in very progressive transit-oriented cities like San Francisco, California, 81% still commute by personal auto. Nationally statistics show more people walk to work than ride a bus or bike, and the percentage of people who walk is bleak at best. Uber and other ride share programs are about the only new form of transportation that’s caught fire, and it still involves a rental of a driver who uses their own personal auto to transport a rider for hire.

Overall transit ridership has not appreciably increased over time. High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes have likewise not been successful in reducing congestion or encouraging widespread carpooling. In fact, in most U.S. cities, HOV lanes are being converted into toll lanes to ‘sell’ the ‘excess capacity’ in the HOV lanes. Also, the increased tax burden of having to pay tolls in order to get out of congestion is a non-starter for most San Antonians.

The purpose of the study is:

The Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization desires to develop a long range regional, multi-modal system-wide congestion management plan through the use of managed and/or transit priority lanes to reduce congestion and provide for commuters more reliable destination trips to activity centers. These highway corridors include, but are not limited to US 281, IH 35 North, IH 35 South, IH 10 West, IH 10 East, SH 151, Loop 1604, IH 410, IH 37, US 90, US 87, US 181, and SH 16/Spur 422.

It states the problem:

There is a need to strategically plan for an extension of the managed lanes as high capacity transportation lanes within a highway corridor in order to provide exclusive lanes to achieve the greatest possible protection from congestion for high-occupancy transit vehicles that links regional activity/economic centers in the Alamo Area. These links should function in concert with the future high capacity transit corridors and transit stations.

It states the objective:

• To develop a long range regional multimodal vision and strategic plan for managed and/or transit priority lanes on high capacity and express bus route corridors to be included in an update of the MPO’s Metropolitan Transportation Plan as a congestion management strategy.

So the sole purpose of this study is to impose an exclusive bus lane system (that doubles as toll lanes) across San Antonio, leaving no freeway untouched. Anti-toll advocates have long contended that these toll lanes were not going to stop with an 8-mile stretch on US 281. It was never about a lack of funds, it was ultimately about a master plan to social engineer motorists out of their cars (through gridlock or punitive toll taxation) and into mass transit in order to gain mobility.

The people of Texas overwhelmingly elected a new Governor Greg Abbott who campaigned on the promise to fix Texas roads without raising taxes, fees, or tolls. The Lt. Governor Dan Patrick also campaigned on reducing the reliance on tolls. So this plan to impose bus-toll lanes across every freeway in San Antonio is NOT what the taxpayers voted for.

Bottom line, why move forward with a study of a bus-toll lane network if you don’t intend to act on it? Guadalupe County Judge Kyle Kutscher asked precisely that and noted If toll roads were off the table, there wouldn’t be a need for the study. Kutscher pointed out he’d likely get calls from angry constituents if they’re stuck in traffic and buses go whizzing by unimpeded by congestion.

In the end, board members amended the scope of the study to say it was for ‘possible inclusion’ in the long-range plan (as opposed to it being included in the plan with certainty as originally written). They also left open the possibility to block the final contract should the Texas legislature act to prohibit more toll roads. With two weeks left in the session, an outright prohibition doesn’t seem likely.

However, HB 2612 does direct TxDOT to formulate a plan on how to eliminate tolls from all existing toll roads and submit it to the legislature by September 2016. It passed the House and looks likely to pass the Senate. So the direction of the legislature is clearly one of restricting and removing tolls, not adding more.

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