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More toll road resistance in San Antonio

I’ve written several times about the issue of toll roads, and the passionate resistance their implementation has spawned. I believe, and I continue to believe, that it’s an issue that will change how people vote this fall. I don’t know how many people – I wish someone would take a poll! – and I admit that I may well be overestimating the effect. But this is an issue that gives common cause to urban and rural voters, and unlike school finance (where those two factions also have commonality) there are few ideological distractions to wedge them apart. I feel like a lot of this is below the radar – and really, it should be until school finance is resolved – but it’s there, and it’s an opportunity for an underdog candidate to make some headway.

The Chron reported over the weekend on some of this activity in San Antonio, where a proposal that includes converting some existing roads to tollways has people up in arms.

Anti-tollway rhetoric turned caustic at a recent roadside rally where politicians joined 200 residents in denouncing state plans to build tolled lanes amid the city’s clogged far-northside freeways.

Comptroller and independent gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn said that if she’s elected, the Texas Department of Transportation “will not do whatever the hell they want to do.”

“We’re not going to roll over and have them railroad a tollroad down our throats,” added Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson.

Someone in San Antonio, help me out here. The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority was created by the authority of the Bexar County Commissioners’ Court in 2003-04. Was Adkisson always opposed to it, or has it just turned out not to be what he expected?

The initial plan calls for tolled lanes on U.S. Highway 281 for the few miles just north of Loop 1604, but later the lanes would be extended into Comal County and north to the Blanco County line. Parts of Loop 1604 and Interstate 35 also are targeted for tolled lanes.

Six weeks into their work, crews stopped clearing trees from right-of-way along U.S. Highway 281 North on Jan. 12 after the Federal Highway Administration demanded a new environmental survey. Impact studies done in 1984, 2000, 2004 and last year were no longer adequate, officials said.

That move nullified a citizens lawsuit demanding a halt to the project. Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas had joined an anti-tollway group, People for Efficient Transportation, in pressing the suit, which was dismissed Jan. 17.

“When you have these two groups coming together, it just shows the depth and the strength of our cause,” said Texas Toll Party regional director Terri Hall.

“It’s a nonpartisan issue. It’s about highway interests hijacking our freeways and turning them into tollways. It’s an outrage and that’s why the public is galvanized on this,” she said.

Houstonians, who use 83 miles of tolled highways operated by the Harris County Toll Road Authority, “got to vote on their tollways. That’s a big difference,” Hall said.

Whether we’ll get to vote on a possible proposal to sell off the toll road system is not known to me at this time.

Both sides are honing their strategies during the hiatus. Some toll opponents are calling for a “regime change” in Austin, targeting Gov. Rick Perry and other elected and appointed officials who advocate this and other tollways.

Well, yeah. Perry certainly isn’t going to change his mind about toll roads, so it’s either get a new Governor or keep holding rallies here and there. I know which option is likely to be more effective. It’s just a question of how many people who are making that “regime change” call would have voted for Perry otherwise.

And would that same idea translate to downballot races? Larry Stallings has been writing quite a bit about toll road issues in his race for HD122. If there is an issue that can crack a solid-red district like that, I’d say it’s toll roads. Once again, some polling would be nice.

Finally, Carlos Guerra reminds us of a situation to watch out for.

As is now promised here, Californians were told they could keep taking the free — and perhaps, slower — lanes if they chose to not pay tolls. And so many drivers took that option that the state started preparing to widen the free roads and better maintain them.

But the state was stopped because the investors had exacted a non-compete clause that prevented California from building or improving state roads within 1 1/2 miles of the toll lanes. In the end, the state bought the toll lanes that cost $125 million to build for $207.5 million, which was raised with bonds that will be repaid by —you guessed it — toll-lane revenues.

Perhaps we’ll be smarter in our contract negotiations here. And perhaps no private operator will want to run a toll road without a similar noncompete clause. Anyone want to take bets on either of these?

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One Comment

  1. Dan Thompson says:

    I have heard all the arguments. All I have to say is build the freaking thing. I don’t care who does it or who profits. 14 cents a mile is nothing compared to the time saved in my opinion. They should have residents who live on 281 north of 1604 vote on it. It would be a resounding….build the damn thing already.