Toll Roads: Speak or Forever Hold Your Peace!
Commissioner Tommy Adkisson
September 1, 2005
As you may know, I have written about how much I hate traffic jams. They are not just a vexation to the spirit, they are a huge waster of what limited time I have to spend on God's green earth. Due to growth of population, our community is faced with a challenge as to how we should best manage our traffic.
I serve on an intergovernmental entitiy (with a number of representatives from various local and state entities) called the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). It considers and then directs the flow of federal and state dollars to invest in the most intelligent ways to solve our traffic problems. Lately we have been considering toll roads and in the process, determining just what kind of partnership this community will have with its major transportation planning agency (TXDOT) in Austin.
Recently the Texas Legislature and Texas voters through a Constitutional Amendment approved county Regional Mobility Authority's (RMA's) as an innovative transportation tool to accelerate projects and create new revenue streams for local projects. I joined four of the five members of Commissioner's Court in voting to establish the RMA for Bexar County. I do not oppose all tolling. I do oppose all strong-arming or fast-tracking of an issue of this magnitude by anyone or any agency.
Many good but unknowing citizens will not understand the basic dimensions and information about tolling if there is no time to be better informed about this proposal for Bexar County. So, I have sought an independent review of TXDOT's tolling plan for our County.
What I have found is an interesting scenario that eludes the naked eye of even former legislators and current county commissioners like me. Against the backdrop of very curious behavior of the TXDOT Chair, I now find that toll revenues coming from the large urban centers appear to be used to take the place of traditional sources of state government funding in order to finance a whole range of non-highway uses.
The whole idea of an RMA is to give us locals a voice in the process of tolling some, not all of our lanes. Ever since the hatching of RMA's however, the prospects of us having a voice have been continually eroded by the words and deeds of the TXDOT in Austin! Statements from the Chairman of TXDOT in Austin as well as policy-swerving along the road to tolling have shaken the confidence of many, to wit:
- "in your lifetime most existing roads will have tolls" (October 11, 2004)
- "It's either toll roads, slow roads or no roads" (May 2004)
Not too long ago, TXDOT in Austin said that if we would create the Alamo RMA we could have a measure of control in how toll roads were to be configured for our County. So we created the RMA to give the region the authority to among other good things:
- Deliver toll lanes while always providing a choice of nearby non-toll lanes as an alternative;
- Provide local government more control in transportation projects.
- Prohibit tolling of existing roadways along with other additional restrictions on the design of toll facilities in Bexar County.
The legislation called for Commissioner's Court to appoint 6 members and the Governor appointed the Chair. I appointed the best possible person, General William McBride. He has been and is a real credit to the RMA.
Again, following TXDOT-Austin's missive, Commissioner's Court invested $750,000.00 and has set aside another $500,000.00 for 2005-2006 to kick-start the local Alamo Regional Mobility Authority.
Midstream however, TXDOT has now come up with a private–public partnership under a Comprehensive Development Agreement (CDA) to operate the toll system in Bexar County. In other words, the RMA is relegated to little more than an observer status not knowing among other questions, where money collected from Bexar County toll roads is to be spent. It is against this backdrop of experience that the County finds the current relationship with TXDOT to be rather ill-defined relative to toll roads.
The defining and detail-filled document containing the fine print spelling out a number of critical issues such as which roads are to be tolled and which are to remain toll-free is the CDA. Apparently, we are not permitted to see the CDA without signing a non-disclosure agreement and would be prohibited from speaking about its contents publicly.
I have asked that we have an independent study of the toll roads proposal for Bexar County just as Austin has done. Any complaint about delay of process is obviated by the procurement process for the CDA taking up the next 13 months. To be an effective local partner, we should have full knowledge of financial details and equity in funding by TXDOT, including local funds relative to other parts of the State.
Alternative Solutions Underway or Available
Without travel options, our economy is at the mercy of the price of gas! At present, we have no serious emphasis on mass transit on 281 North or Loop 1604. We do not know of its relieving effect on traffic were it given proper support. We have not done any study of which I am aware of the effects of $4 to $5 per gallon of gas on the number of commuters. We have no projection of the relief available to 281 North when the Austin-San Antonio Commuter Rail begins operation. We have no idea of the relieving effect of the recently passed Advanced Transportation District monies of an estimated $18 million annually.
Yet we are willing to spend billions on a fading model suitable for today, but a misfit for tomorrow. Added to this is the sheathed comprehensive development agreement. Let us take time to look closely and know what it is that we should be doing or not doing.
What We Should Do!
All of this suggests that our leadership continue planning and implementing our transportation system, but take a moment to understand and collaborate with our citizens. Specifically, let's understand:
What money is already allocated to build roads at present?
What is the extent of the tolling necessary?
How much will tolling cost?
What appeals process will be in place for redress of excess rates setting?
Where the toll money will go?
Is there still a possibility that the RMA can do the toll roads instead of some private consortium?
How will the roads be specifically configured?
What are the details of the CDA?
What provisions safeguard us against an unresponsive or hostile contractor?
What environmental considerations are to be made in our recharge zone and other areas?
All of these are questions that deserve an answer. The many special interests are working intensely on these plans. Part-time public officials are struggling to keep up or appear to be merely relying on the judgment of the few who have much to gain financially, but do no necessarily have the best long-run interest of the community at heart! And that is what impels me to make an intelligent inquiry now!