Another Bait & Switch on a Non-Toll Plan for San Antonio Freeways?


By Terri Hall l May 17, 2012

Boston Tea Party December 16, 1773

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that in a recent closed door meeting of a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) subcommittee, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (the tolling authority – aka, RMA) unraveled the policy board’s decision to do segments of US 281 (north of Loop 1604) and Loop 1604 West non-toll, advancing a financing plan (see p. 17-21) that would NOT add any new capacity to 281 and that could put the future tolled lanes in both corridors in the hands of a foreign toll operator.

Sadly, time and again, TxDOT is living-up to its reputation as snakeoil salesmen by repeatedly reneging on its promises. However, this time, its unprecedented in its brazen arrogance. Undoubtedly at the behest of the RMA, gasping to keep its doors open by levying tolls anywhere and everywhere it can, TxDOT is defying the expressed will of the elected officials on the MPO Policy Board. Appointees, not elected officials calling the shots?

This is Rick Perry’s legacy on transportation – get the taxation out of the hands of the people so the bureaucrats can carry their big stick and beat the taxpayers into submission.

In 2003, a marked shift away from affordable gas tax funded freeways to tolling all new capacity in Texas occurred through a massive omnibus transportation bill, HB 3588, which was preceded by changes to the Texas Constitution in 2001 that deceived voters with vague ballot language that lawmakers used as political cover for this new taxation. Now that Texans are seeing tolls pop-up virtually everywhere (there are 500 toll projects being contemplated right now), coupled with the fact that diversions of road taxes for non-road uses continue unabated on both the federal and state level, a taxpayer revolt has ensued.

Taxation without representation; it started a taxpayer revolt in 1773 with the Boston Tea Party, and eventually instigated a new Nation born in liberty. Apparently, another taxpayer revolt is needed if our freedom to travel and escape from DOUBLE TAXATION is to prevail.

The grassroots across Texas worked hard to get laws changed to make what’s been dubbed a rogue agency, TxDOT, cooperate with local MPOs. After seven years of advocacy to keep 281 and 1604 free of new toll taxes, the elected officials on the MPO Board finally heeded the cry of the citizenry and voted to do segments of 281 and Loop 1604 without tolls on March 26.

They held a press conference and there was much fanfare declaring victory on a non-toll 281 & on a key segment of 1604. That was then and this is now. The bureaucrats swung into action to overrule the expressed will of our elected representatives and their constituents.

Follow the money

An MPO subcommittee tasked with coming up with a non-toll financing plan for the projects, came back with a defiant ‘non’-plan. For the first three miles of US 281, their plan is to spend $170 million in leveraged debt and still add NO NEW CAPACITY to the freeway. Why? So they can still toll the NEW lanes as soon as they can. On Loop 1604, their proposal is to use $146 million (San Antonio’s allocation from the recent $2 billion TxDOT windfall) to build 4 non-toll expressway lanes, along with needed overpasses on a nearly 7 mile stretch from Wiseman Rd. to Bandera Rd. BUT, they still include 4 toll lanes alongside those free lanes. On both corridors, the financing plan shows a possible public-private partnership (PPP) will be utilized to build, operate, and control the toll lanes.

A 2007 moratorium on these controversial contracts, rescued 281 & 1604 from falling into the hands of a Spanish firm, Cintra, or an Australian firm, Macquarie. The MPO, at the direction of Com. Kevin Wolff in December 2009, resolved NOT to use these concession-type contracts that ceded control of our public infrastructure, and hence the tax rate, to private corporations. Yet, TxDOT put it in the recent financing plan for these corridors anyway.

Where is the OUTRAGE?

PPPs are government-sanctioned monopolies that allow private interests to charge punitively high toll rates (75 cents a mile or more) and to gain control over public roadways up to 52 years. They also include non-compete agreements (that prohibit or penalize the expansion of free lanes surrounding the foreign-owned toll lanes), as well as massive public subsidies – all designed to guarantee private profits at taxpayers’ expense.

Facts are stubborn things

So let’s look at the facts.

A TxDOT document shows US 281 can be fixed all the way to the county line for $347 million. That’s one new expressway lane in each direction, overpasses, frontage roads, everything! Now we’re being led to believe that we can’t add ANY new highway lanes for a measly $100 million (the proposed plan is to spend $170 million, but $60 million is for the northern ramps of the interchange, who knows how they plan to blow the other $10 million)?

Who do they think they’re fooling?

Some original cost estimates for Loop 1604 (adding new expressway lanes, overpasses, and frontage roads) from Hwy 151 to IH-10 was $257 million (about 11 miles in 2004 dollars and that includes toll equipment/costs – about $18 million/mile). Now they’re saying for $146 million they’ll add 4 expressway lanes and 4 overpasses from just south of Hwy 151 to Bandera Rd. (just under 7 miles at about $22 million/mile). Yet to do essentially the same thing on US 281 would cost $56 million/mile.


Can you see how the US 281 corridor has been hijacked by the duplicative bureaucracy of the tolling authority?

If you take the current plan before the MPO to expand 1604 non-toll at a cost of $22 million/mile and extrapolate that to US 281, TxDOT could do the entire 7.8 mile corridor for just $171 million, not the $440 million the RMA is claiming it will cost (their current estimate is $500 million, but that includes $60 million for the northern ramps of the interchange, the total tollway cost is estimated to be $440 million).

Part of the reason for the explosion in cost on US 281 is the RMA has to pay $85 million for the acquisition of the remaining right-of-way (ROW), whereas TxDOT already has funds set aside for acquisition of right of way. So having the RMA do this corridor will automatically DOUBLE TAX the taxpayers by paying twice for ROW we already pay taxes to TxDOT to acquire. But even considering that extra ROW cost, nothing justifies the overblown cost to fix US 281.

Note the word choice in this Express-News article very carefully. The RMA is claiming that toll lanes are still in the future on both Loop 1604 and US 281. DFW officials were also promised a non-toll expansion of lanes next to the planned toll lanes on I-35E, only to have TxDOT pull the rug out from under them. TxDOT later told them there wasn’t enough money to do the non-toll expansion as promised so they’d be building the toll lanes first (the non-toll lanes would come later when, presumably, the funds dropped out of the sky).

Tolls are NOT financially feasible

Locally, this assumption that tolls are the only remaining option to fix or build the rest of these freeways is a failure to face economic reality. The RMA just got rejected for a federal TIFIA loan on Loop 1604, making the likelihood of financing this as a toll road very slim. These are NOT toll viable roads, in other words, the toll viability studies show NONE of these segments on either 1604 or 281will bring in enough toll revenue to cover the cost of constructing, maintaining, and operating these toll roads.

On US 281, even when the RMA planned to toll EVERY SINGLE existing and new main lane (all 6 expressway lanes), the project was NOT toll viable, not even 50%. How on earth will charging tolls on just 2 lanes (with 4 non-toll free lanes beside it) make the road more toll viable? It won’t. They can’t toll it without heaps of YOUR tax money subsidizing the losses, yet the RMA will still charge you tolls forever to drive on it. It’s a boondoggle and makes no sense.

But rather than scrap the toll idea as not financially feasible, the Alamo RMA marches onward fishing for tax money to subsidize its loser toll projects. The state can’t borrow any more money, and without the federal subsidies the RMA was counting on, where will the money come from? Local taxpayers either way – whether tolls (which we already know won’t be enough), property taxes, sales taxes, or whatever.

It’s fiscally unsustainable and they know it.

So you have to ask…why are they still doing it? Because no matter how fiscally reckless their plans are, they know the taxpayers will be on the hook to bail out their bad decisions down the road. It’s about tapping a new revenue stream, and by putting the tax in the hands of unelected agencies that will own the road in perpetuity, politicos think an eternal gravy train is a comin,’ and that if they build it, we will come.

When the price of gas shot up over $4 a gallon nationwide, just look at what happened. People stopped buying it. Now the prices are coming down. There are just not enough Americans that can afford such out-of-control fuel costs. Likewise, there are not enough Texans who can afford to pay 50 cents a mile in additional taxes to get to work. So it’s incumbent upon the citizenry to pressure our elected leaders to insist these pie-in-the-sky toll plans be chucked out the window and a fiscally sustainable, more affordable solution be put in its place.

Money that’s ours to lose

The Texas Transportation Commission has yet to allocate $400 million of its magical-out of thin air $2 billion windfall. One of the top priorities for Bexar County is to address congestion on 281 north of Loop 1604. US 281 has been waiting the longest to have its non-toll funding restored, and it’s tied for first place as THE most congested in the state on the Texas Transportation Institute’s 100 Most Congested Roads Commuter Stress Index. Even with the current MPO proposal on the table, nearly 7 miles of 1604 is being done non-toll ahead of finishing the job on 281. Our local leaders need to run, not walk, to get some of this unallocated $400 million to fix the entire 7.8 mile 281 corridor non-toll and end the political and legal wrangling once and for all.

We’re sending plenty of money to Austin and Washington, but we’re not getting it back. Before we seek to add punitive taxes onto local San Antonio residents (tolls at 50 cents PER MILE!), our elected officials must hold these agencies accountable, trim down these overblown cost estimates, and get the money back that we already pay out so we can fix our roads WITHOUT NEW TAXES.

Terri Hall is the founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), which defends against eminent domain abuse and promotes non-toll transportation solutions. She’s a home school mother of eight turned citizen activist. Ms. Hall is also a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.