For Whom the Ledge Tolls

The tollman cometh: Bill Thornton will again chair the Alamo
Regional Mobility Authority

By accepting Governor Rick Perry’s invite to again chair the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority — described as a mini-TxDOT and endowed with special powers by the state lege to find money to build and operate roads (read: to usher in a shiny alloy era of Bexar County toll roads) — Dr. William Thornton starts his second term with the Alamo RMA and extends a long career of enduring angry, contorted faces. (You’d think he’d have his fill as a practicing oral surgeon and former SA mayor and councilman.)

Toll-opposition groups like Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas, the San Antonio Toll Party, and city councils in Helotes and Leon Valley have thrown symbolic stuff into a figurative harbor to protest the Alamo RMA’s pending toll projects. In August, Helotes and Leon Valley adopted resolutions condemning a proposal for an elevated (or maybe not) toll road along Texas Highway 16, aka Bandera Road, that would be a 6.5-mile link from 410 W to 1604 W — just one of four tolling projects that Thornton’s RMA is working on. The project with the most traction to date, a proposed 47-mile toll connecting U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 (currently delayed by legal challenges to its environmental studies), involves TxDOT, Cintra (a Spanish company) and Cintra’s minority partner Zachry Construction of San Antonio — aka Governor Perry’s little darlings, who won the bid to fund, build, and collect user fees along the first leg of proposed tollway behemoth the Trans-Texas Corridor alternative to I-35.

The Current caught up with Thornton at Jim’s on 410, where the oral surgeon was wearing blue scrubs, eating an omelette, and extolling the virtues of tolling.

With the recent flap over Dubai’s port deal, you can see why people aren’t happy about selling vital infrastructure to foreign companies, right?
Do they have a problem with Toyota? Toyota’s from Japan. Look, there’s no way the toll roads are going to pick up and move to `Cintra’s homeland` Spain. It’s an investment. It’s a financing of a significant, important infrastructure to meet our needs. If they’re going to take the risk in that investment, they should get a return. And because of that, we’re able to accelerate from 20 to 7 years our transportation projects.

But what if cities still don’t want tollways? Look at Helotes and Leon Valley’s resolution to reject the elevated tollway.
Look, there were 10 to 12 different options discussed on Bandera. There’s not much patience around this community project. There are 17 significant intersections from 1604 to 410. I find it interesting that at the public hearings people went so far as to suggest roundabouts, you know, the ones you see in quaint European movies. That’s what some of the toll opposition has suggested instead. Can you see between here and Selma 17 roundabouts? Somewhere reality’s got to come into play.

Nationwide, though, the track record for tolls even as a revenue source is iffy. And an AP story said tolls are more dangerous — Indiana’s I-90 toll road has many accidents. They’re also seen as a double taxation particularly hard on low-income people.
I would argue that the low-income individuals who use it, will come to depend on it to get to work, and that the loss of potential income if they didn’t have a toll road makes up for what they’re spending … I would challenge those who say it is not affordable for lower-income people and say the discretionary income factor is more important … The only other option is to raise property taxes, or the gas tax.

C’mon, isn’t there money out there for transportation projects? Look at that $286-billion Republican highway bill just signed by President Bush that’s earmarked with all kinds of pet projects, like that $223 million bridge to nowhere in Alaska.
Well, you need to be talking to the state legislature, then Congress. The percentage of dollars that comes to Texas, that we’re competing for, and right now we’re working to involve every voice in San Antonio that we can get to address things now. We can’t wait for the federal dollars, because in the meantime, we sit here in gridlock.
And another thing about the gas tax — as a funding source, there’s a concern because it’s diminishing. People are getting better gas mileage. Twenty years from now, if things continue and cars get more fuel efficient, a future based on a gas tax won’t be as predictable as it used to be. I think one of the things in talking is we’re trying to present more options. One of the options people are calling for is to do nothing and I think that’s irresponsible.

But what about the man at a Bandera hearing who said he didn’t want to pay 25 cents to go up to H-E-B and get bread …
WT: They need to go to an H-E-B closer to the house.

What if it’s along a route he normally takes to the store, now suddenly made into a toll …
WT: No, no existing roads would be converted into a toll. We don’t even know where the entrance or exits would be on our projects yet. This is a way for us to take control of what will be done and how money will be spent locally. Maybe we can create a multi-modal mobility authority that works with VIA and the City and County and, dare I say, somewhere in the future maybe explore mobility opportunities for light rail.
It’s easy to sit on the outside and shoot arrows toward the middle, it’s easy to talk about what the future might be if the legislature were to raise the gas tax. The reality is we have a problem today and I don’t see that many additional sources of revenue to solve this problem. If someone can tell me what these sources are, I’ll join hands with them and skip down the road.


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