News For whom the roads toll

Toll-road opponents lash out at MPO

About 40 commuters, retirees, and disgruntled citizens who could be affected by the proposed widening of Highway 281 from Evans Road to F.M. 306, bombarded members of the Metropolitan Planning Organization with threats and colorful language last Monday. Yet their tactics didn't affect the MPO's vote to move forward with preliminary studies of toll lanes on existing highways on the far North Side.

State plans include the possibility of installing toll lanes along Loop 1604 from Highway 151 eastward to I-10 East and along Highway 281 from Evans Road north to the Canyon Lake area. If a "comprehensive development agreement" is reached between local government and the Texas Department of Transportation, a section of I-35 could have toll lanes from Loop 1604 southward to near its intersection with Loop 410.

The toll road proposals include a TxDOT contract with Cintra-Zachry, a consortium of corporations `Cintra of Spain, Zachry of San Antonio` to build the toll lanes and collect the tolls to pay for the projects for a period of 50 years as part of the Trans-Texas Corridor plan to connect North Texas to México. The citizens who attended the Monday meeting protested that keeping the contract from public view violates the transparency of government; that turning over a public entity such as Highway 281 (already paid for by taxpayers) over to a private interest would create a cash cow for the state and the corporations and is a system of double taxation.

"When TxDOT takes a $30.9 million project and turns it into a nearly $80 million project, something stinks," says Terri Hall, director of the San Antonio area branch of The group's website accuses Governor Rick Perry and other elected officials of looting taxpayers' pocketbooks, and "disregarding the public outcry and the Republican platform" with "4,000 miles of toll roads, rail, and utility lines that will carry oil, gas, water, broadband, and electricity, all in one easy 1/4-mile span, a terrorists dream come true."

Hall accuses TxDOT of manipulating a solution to traffic congestion on Highway 281 by shelving an already-funded project in favor of installing toll lanes. "We demand an independent review of this toll plan and of these highway funds, and we demand accountability for the flagrant abuse of taxpayer money."

SAISD teacher Helen Rodgers drives to and from work 44 miles each day along Highway 281. Rodgers says she would have to quit her job rather than pay a projected 45 cents per mile to drive on a toll road. She gave MPO board members a photo of toll lanes in the middle of a publicly funded freeway in Orange County, and contended there were much fewer automobiles using the toll lanes than there were in the free lanes. "That tollway ended up costing the state in a big way. Motorists do not use the toll road. I will not pay that toll."

Jerry Morissey told MPO members that toll lanes would create two classes of citizens, "those who can and cannot afford to pay a toll. Building more miles of highway to chase traffic problems (has) never been solved by more miles of highway."

MPO board member Hank Brummett inquired whether the MPO could stop plans for toll roads in San Antonio. TxDOT spokesman David Casteel replied the state has already approved of proceeding with studies to develop the toll lanes.

"It would be nice to tell these people this is already a done deal `at the state government level`," Brummett said after many of the protesters had departed the meeting. "Don't beat up on us."

By Michael Cary

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