TxDOT keeps toll study SECRET, refuses to divulge financial terms ahead of 281 vote
MPO Board asked to vote FOR possible non-compete agreement preventing expansion of free roads
San Antonio, TX, Thursday, November 15, 2007 – Ahead of a monolithic vote to approve toll rates for 281 at the San Antonio Metropolitan Planning Organization (SAMPO) on December 3, citizens and MPO Board members alike have more questions about the 281 toll rates than answers. The MPO is likely being asked to vote FOR a non-compete agreement that would prevent the expansion of free roads surrounding the US 281 tollway like Bulverde Rd., Red Land Rd., Stone Oak Pkwy, and Blanco Rd because the bond investors require them to guarantee a return on their investment. But we don’t know because TxDOT is keeping it SECRET!
“The public and even public officials are being kept in the dark on critical financial terms in the 281 toll study. This is an assault on open government!” cries Terri Hall, Founder and Director of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF).
Here’s a sampling of vital information that we don’t know:
1. Is there anything that could make the annual toll rate increase at a rate higher than CPI (like higher cost of construction or high gas prices)?
2. How much traffic will divert from the tollway onto neighborhood streets to avoid paying tolls thereby increasing traffic, putting the safety of neighborhood streets in jeopardy, and increasing the cost of road maintenance for the City or County?
3. Where are the entrances and exits to the tollway so a person can calculate how many fees or other hidden costs add to the cost per mile?
4. Is the tollway feasible with gas prices at or above $3 a gallon (as other studies have concluded)?
5. And most importantly, will the bond investors require a non-compete agreement that would prevent any new roads or the expansion of existing roads near the 281 tollway, like Bulverde Rd., Red Land Rd., Stone Oak Pkwy., and Blanco Rd.?
On October 17, TURF did an Open Records request to see the 281 market value and toll feasibility studies performed by TxDOT and the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (ARMA). The Governor’s counterfeit toll moratorium bill, SB 792, includes a nice wide-open loophole [SUBCHAPTER B. OVERSIGHT Sec.A371.051.10 (d)] for TxDOT to leap through to make these financial studies perpetual “draft” documents so they don’t have to release them to the public until after the bonds are sold and contracts signed. This language appears to apply only to private toll contracts, but TxDOT is invoking it for a public toll project!
“TxDOT wants to have it both ways. They’re asking the MPO to vote on the ‘final’ toll rates but conveniently call the document ‘draft’ to keep the financial guts SECRET,” notes Hall. “This maneuver now enshrined in law isn’t government in the sunshine, and refusing to disclose vital tax information prior to a vote for final approval is malfeasance, plain and simple!”
In SB 792 under SUBCHAPTER D. Sec.A371.151, DISCLOSURE OF FINANCIAL INFORMATION, it requires public hearings disclosing financial information on all toll projects, and the only hearing the Alamo RMA is holding is on December 10 at Barbara Bush Middle School (“to transfer the project from TxDOT to the RMA,” but no mention of financial disclosure, AFTER the MPO December 3 vote to approve the terms.
“The taxpayers are being had! The purpose of this provision in the law, which we testified in favor of, is to allow for full disclosure, transparency, and a chance for the taxpayers to weigh in BEFORE any final decisions are made,” Hall voices.
TxDOT SHROUDED IN SECRECY
Then, State Representative Nathan Macias whose district is affected by converting 281 into a tollway, asked for the 281 studies. TxDOT also refused to give the studies to Rep. Macias UNLESS HE SIGNS A CONFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENT! This means the Legislature approved a bill, SB 792, at the behest of the Governor and special interests that prohibits a public servant from getting access to information on a tax hike prior to a contract being signed and let [SUBCHAPTER B. OVERSIGHT Sec.A371.051.10 (d)]. What happened to open government! If he or any other elected official were to sign a confidentiality agreement, he cannot share any of the information in the toll studies with ANYONE, including the press, his constituents, other legislators or the MPO Board members! This provision also seems to contradict the financial disclosure section of the same bill, SB 792.
Ironically, Rep. Macias is the one who tried to strip this problematic language from SB 792 (after we brought it to his attention for this precise reason, knowing TxDOT would use it to keep more document SECRET), only to have it thrown in his face when he tried to get access to toll tax information prior to any final decisions being made.
IN THE DARK
The MPO Board is being asked to approve the market value study and toll rate formulas on December 3 without knowing ANYTHING other than what the RMA or TxDOT has told them in a 10 minute briefing.
“We all know how horrifically the public has been betrayed regarding toll rates and financing to date, so this ‘trust me’ is certain to have a BIG FAT GOTCHA for politicians and taxpayers just around the corner! How can a SINGLE ELECTED OFFICIAL sign-off on anything while still being in the dark and prevented from openly discussing any toll tax variables, especially whether or not the City or County can expand nearby streets? Make no mistake, the taxpayers will be fleeced or forced onto congested surface streets if the MPO Board approves this plan,” predicts Hall.