RMA targets toll opposition in taxpayer-funded PR campaign

Link to article here.

RMA targets toll opposition in taxpayer-funded PR campaign
By Terri Hall
September 18, 2014

You’ve probably heard the radio ads with Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (RMA) Chairman John Clamp touting the benefits of the US 281 toll project. If you’re like me, you got steaming mad that a toll authority is using our tax money to convince the public that tolling our existing freeways is a great idea.

I wanted to find out just how much money they’re sinking into this public relations campaign. An open records request revealed that they’ll spend up to $371,294 for radio and television ads, extensive newspaper ads, billboards, and a massive public ‘outreach’ campaign selling their toll road to your homeowners associations, civic groups, churches, chambers of commerce, and anyone that will let them in the door.

The primary contractor, HNTB, hired Trish DeBerry for the task, whose firm previously bid on the 281 toll project as part of a design-build team before her run for Mayor. Ultimately, the RMA has retained her PR services at a cost of $25,000 a month.

In a presentation to the board and RMA employees, DeBerry says the purpose of the campaign is to control the message and posit the RMA as the ‘reliable, knowledgeable, trusted’ source of information on the project. She instructs the RMA not to engage the opposition and control the message. There’s a slide labeled ‘Opposition’ (see slide 15) that claims opponents of the tollway “will continue to take every opportunity to delay, rile the public and create misleading or downright false information.”

The slide then goes on to say that ensuring the RMA is the “authoritative” source of information “reinforces the notion that this is a done deal (emphasis mine) and we’re ready to get moving.”

There you have it. The purpose of the campaign is to paint the opposition as liars and unreliable sources of information, and to convince the public the toll road is a ‘done deal’ even before the project has received final clearance from the Federal Highway Administration.

Indeed, the RMA’s Fact Sheets being mailed to 30,000 households says of its toll plan: ‘It’s the only (emphasis mine) solution.’ The Alamo RMA "wants to control and own the message” even when the final configuration is still in doubt.

Just a few months ago, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Texas State Senator Donna Campbell sent a letter to the Texas Transportation Commission requesting Prop 1 funds (if it passes in November) be used to replace some of the toll lanes with more free lanes. So it’s still possible US 281 could get the needed overpasses and road expanded without tolls.

We also obtained an email where DeBerry’s consultant cautions them not to say too much in the early ads because they ‘haven’t gotten final approval of the EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) yet.’ So which is it? It’s a done deal or it’s not approved yet. They know they’re treading on thin ice. None of their messaging says the word toll - who’s misleading who? Slide 27 lists County Commissioner Kevin Wolff as a spokesperson for the plan who they plan to ‘train.’

The Express-News was paid $6,500 for ads for just one month of ads. It’s easy to ‘buy' positive press with that kind of money flowing from the RMA to the only major paper in town or at least to ignore the facts that don’t go along with the RMA’s pre-ordained ‘messaging.’ They’ve also met with the News Director of WOAI Radio, Jim Forsyth, and Phil Lane at KSAT 12, who they said was “very supportive of the plan on 281,” yet they came up with talking points to have for their meeting with him because he asked about having the toll come off the road when paid for.

Their answer was: “That’s up to transportation planners and the community 30 years from now.”

RMA Director Renee Green asked in an email, “What’s all this talk about the toll coming off the road? Is it Terri Hall’s group trying to make something stick?”

She fails to give Lane credit for asking these questions on his own. I’ve never had a conversation with him. I don’t get that kind of access - but our taxpayer dollars can apparently buy that kind of access. No one wants to volunteer for perpetual taxation, especially not one as expensive as tolls. Considering the early turnpikes in Texas promised the toll would come off the road when the debt was retired, that’s likely what Lane was after - a promise. Well, he clearly didn’t get one.

Former Executive Director of the RMA, Terry Brechtel already testified before the local policy board in 2009 that they plan to keep the toll in place in perpetuity, but Ms. Green would rather stick to their nebulous talking points to persuade the public that it’ll be their call down the road. Just like the choice to slap tolls as a targeted tax on US 281 commuters is our call? The decision has never come before the voters, and the opposition has been overwhelming. Polling earlier this year in the corridor revealed over 80% opposed tolls.

The RMA’s ads claim the US 281 project will double existing capacity, however, what they don’t tell you is that most all of that new capacity consists of frontage roads, not highway lanes. They also don’t tell you that the existing inside lane from Loop 1604 to Stone Oak Parkway will be converted into a transit-toll lane, shrinking existing capacity on the highway. Cars cannot enter or exit those lanes except at Sonterra and Stone Oak (so local travelers couldn’t get the fast ride even if they wanted to). Cars also can’t access the Loop 1604 interchange ramps from the toll lanes.

Nor does the RMA tell you all the non-toll highway lanes end at Stone Oak where all of the existing freeway lanes get converted into toll lanes. Those who cannot or do not pay tolls up to 50 cents a mile ($8/day for the full 7.8 mile trip, $40/week, and over $2,000/yr in new toll taxes), will be forced to exit and travel on frontage roads. They’re designing a major bottleneck at Stone Oak and planning to degrade the travel options for those ho can’t pay tolls, while promising to fix the congestion problem.

Prior PR campaigns & abuse of funds
This is the second time the RMA has wasted hundreds of thousands on PR campaigns. In 2005, they hired the same company, HNTB, for a campaign that cost $300,000. HNTB is also among the shortlisted firms hoping to snag a 5-year engineering contract for all RMA projects, which is a conflict of interest. The RMA also routinely hires registered lobbyists with state funds - a violation of Texas Government Code Chapter 556.0055 that prohibits hiring lobbyists with state funds.

Let's not forget the still outstanding loans owed by the RMA to the City of San Antonio ($500,000) and Bexar County ($750,000). Yesterday, the Express-News published the article "Muñoz angling for that coveted toll road money." The same Henry Muñoz who once sat on both the RMA Board and VIA board and lobbied for and voted for the toll-transit priority lanes. If the RMA hadn’t hired PR firms and wasted taxpayer money on ad campaigns, they could have paid off the loan they owe to the city and made some progress on the money owed to the county.

On the 281/1604 interchange project in San Antonio, the Alamo RMA charged the taxpayers $20 million in ‘management fees’ to supervise TxDOT doing the environmental work for the project. Pure duplication of duties and an outrageous waste of money. We brought it to the attention of the local transportation policy board, the press, the legislature, both Transportation Committees, and the Select Committee on Stimulus Funding and no one stopped it from happening.

The Alamo RMA also hired a firm known for bid rigging and gave a no-bid 5-yr contract to Vinson & Elkins (V&E) as bond counsel (in 2011). V&E was involved in the Enron scandal. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) fined JP Morgan and First Southwest $51 million when they rigged a bid on the Central Texas RMA’s Hwy 183 project. Then to make it worse, the Alamo RMA hired the same company, First Southwest, as its fiscal agent even after the SEC fined them for bid rigging on the CTRMA’s project. When we found out the Alamo RMA hired First Southwest, we alerted them to the fact these people were criminals, and to our knowledge, they never severed the contract.

Eternal revenue stream to continue the abuses
In 2013, San Antonio elected officials, including Republicans Sen. Donna Campbell and Rep. Lyle Larson, voted to give the Alamo RMA a $10/yr vehicle registration fee hike on Bexar County residents. This gave the RMA eternal life as it will cover their operating expenses and allow them to forever subsidize their toll projects that can’t pay for themselves with the just the toll users. It will also assure they’ll continue to hire lobbyists with our taxpayer money and wage PR campaigns to try to persuade the public to accept their ever-expanding, perpetual toll system.

RMAs, with TxDOT’s help, also use tax money to subsidize and support their toll roads. The Texas Transportation Commission in its July meeting ‘forgave’ its $55 million loan to the North East Texas RMA for Loop 49 in Tyler. The Alamo RMA is seeking a $230 million loan from the state for the 281 toll project. Will it too, be forgiven?

No tax money should ever be used to support toll roads. Even loans are a form of subsidy and taxpayers aren’t a bank. When TxDOT supports these RMAs and their toll projects, they’re asking us to pay back our own money with interest through tolls. What a racket!

To outright ‘forgive’ the loan makes it a direct subsidy of every Texan’s tax money. So it’s a double tax to build a toll road with tax money, and then charge drivers again to use it. Tolls are no longer a 'user fee' but a tax-supported shell game. We have no audit or other easily discernible line item on TxDOT’s budget to show how many millions in grants and loans of state money have been funneled to RMAs.

To have any prayer of stopping this railroad job, the legislature needs to get rid of these unelected, unaccountable RMAs, and this fee hike the voters never approved needs to be taken from the RMA and given back to the county who collects and distributes registration fees.

So who is the reliable source of information? This unelected bureaucracy known for licentious abuse of taxpayers and public money, or those shining the light on their misdeeds? You can decide for yourself, but the award winning documentary film series Truth Be Tolled is essential viewing for anyone who wants to witness the lawlessness and misdeeds of transportation officials, and to better understand how big money interests and government bureaucrats are bent on tolling Texas highways in spite of overwhelming taxpayer opposition. You can also find more information at www.TexasTURF.org, www.281overpassesnow.com, and www.tollfreehighways.com.

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