San Antonio tollroad battle heats up in Austin

Greg M. Schwartz

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The San Antonio-Bexar County Metropolitan Planning Organization held its regular Transportation Policy Board meeting this afternoon, with nary a mention of the controversial toll road issue that's become a hot topic in Texas. But there's a mad scramble in Austin surrounding two different bills that could authorize toll roads in the Lone Star State.

The only substantive opinion offered in today's meeting was when board member and Bexar County Commissioner Nelson Wolff said, “I think we're way overdue to index the gas tax.” This came in response to a presentation from David Casteel of the Texas Department of Transportation regarding how pavement quality is projected to decrease from 83 percent in good shape now to 79 percent in 2012, along with worsening congestion problems in need of a $15.6 billion fix.

But San Antonio Toll Party Regional Director Terri Hall says that an indexing bill to increase the gas tax by inflation rates died in the legislature last week.

“The lege has kicked the can again, so there's no other options on the table besides toll roads,” said Hall, who was on her way back from lobbying in Austin against the toll road provisions in HB 300 and SB 220.

Hall's group has been fighting toll road legislation since 2005. They argue that such tolls would give an unelected bureaucracy and the unelected Alamo Regional Mobility Authority the power to tax San Antonio drivers without limit and with no accountability to voters. The Toll Party calls this a classic case of taxation without representation and argues that the Transportation Commissioners appointed by Gov. Rick Perry are simply out to sell Texas' highways to the highest bidder. Roadways in San Antonio in current toll plans include 281, 1604, I-35, Wurzbach Parkway, Bandera Road and I-10.

The Toll Party is asking Texans who oppose the toll roads to call Speaker of the House Joe Straus and ask him to kill SB 220 by keeping it off the legislative calendar. The bill would allow for the reconstruction of existing tax-financed state highways with tolls if at least the same number of untolled lanes are also provided.

HB 300, aka the TxDOT Sunset bill, is a convoluted piece of legislation with a number of amendments that are being haggled over. Hall says that 50 percent of the bill is about toll roads and that the Senate has gutted the bill from protections against toll roads.

“All the protections got taken out in the Senate today. You can tell this is the chamber controlled by the governor to do his bidding,” said Hall.

She added that “the guy to watch in the House that's doing the Governor's bidding is Larry Phillips.” House Democratic Leader Jim Dunnam said last week that some members fear an amendment by Phillips would create new law that would cancel out amendments designed to limit toll roads.

Hall says that Phillips is also responsible for trying to sneak in an amendment that allows for private toll contracts called Comprehensive Development Agreements.

“These are sweetheart deals signing over our highways for up to 50 years at a time,” said Hall. She said the wording of the contracts allows contractors to prohibit the state from building competing roads, but that the CDAs will sunset this fall unless a law is passed this session to reauthorize them.

“Our fear is that `the legislature` won't hold TxDOT on a short leashâ?¦ that they'll cave to the governorâ?¦ and it will all come down to conference committee next week. That's when all hell will break loose,” said Hall.

As to the local Metropolitan Planning Organization and it's Transportation Policy Board, Hall says they're in a holding pattern waiting for the incoming city council to decide who the next chair will be to replace the outgoing Sheila McNeil. Hall anticipates more hell breaking loose in the board's plans to enact toll roads after the legislative session is over.


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