Texas Toll Road Antics

FHWA has no trouble changing the rules in the middle of the game and flouting the law.

By Terri Hall l June 22, 2012

San Antonio Bexar CountyUS Highway 281 NorthNorth State Loop 1604
Source Maps: TexasHighwayMan.com

Following the latest Texas toll road antics has been an exercise in yo-yo politics. Rife with recent temper tantrums, resignations, insurrection, and flip flops, transportation policy has been hi-jacked and it’s time we get it back. So here’s the scoop on what’s been happening and what’s on the docket for next week.

Flip flop #1

Last week, the San Antonio local transportation policy board (San Antonio Bexar County Metropolitan Planning Organization or MPO) met with Mike Leary and Salvador Deocampo of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to clarify the board’s options for fixing parts of the San Antonio Area Freeway System – US 281 and Loop 1604 in phases – without tolls. If you recall, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) told the MPO it COULD NOT do these segments without including tolls, too, but federal law allows the roads to be fixed in phases which would allow them to proceed without tolls. The FHWA affirmed this could be done.

The MPO also had concerns that the new hybrid plan (toll & non-toll lanes) would cause the environmental documents to be re-done since the alternatives analysis was already complete for both corridors. Leary told me via conference call in May that indeed the whole environmental study would have to go back to the beginning in order to study this new alternative. Yet before the MPO June 15, he reversed himself and said it could be added at this late date (when the drafts are already complete) and would necessitate only a minor delay as long as they added a token public hearing.

So the FHWA has no trouble changing the rules in the middle of the game and flouting the law to run interference for a recalcitrant TxDOT.

Flip flop #2

Meanwhile, a prominent elected official in the 281 corridor and anti-toll stalwart sent out an email newsletter appearing to support some tolls on 281, only to retract it a few days later. With so much jockeying back and forth going on, it’s obvious TxDOT is exerting tremendous pressure on our elected officials, perhaps even making threats (they’ve already tried a few in closed door meetings), to get them to play along with tolls, even though funds have been identified to fix 13 miles (10 miles on Loop 1604 West, 3 miles on US 281 North) of these corridors without tolls.

Rollercoaster at the toll authority

To add to the drama, Bexar County Commissioners resolved at their June 12 meeting to absorb the functions and operations of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (ARMA, a vague way of saying toll authority without using the word ‘toll’), citing inefficient project management and lavish salaries. Within a week of that, the ARMA Chairman, Bill Thornton, and another board member, Jim Reed, resigned.

Thornton’s resignation letter reads more like a temper tantrum than a dignified, diplomatic departure. He blames the public, who opposed the new toll taxes by an un-elected board, for foiling their master plan for creating an unaccountable slush fund for roads, mass transit projects, and anything else they could dream up. He rails against the Bexar County Commissioners Court for what he believes is giving up local control over toll projects by absorbing the ARMA into the county. However, state law allows the county to exercise the right of refusal and to gain development rights over the corridors should it so choose, without any further need for the ARMA or Mr. Thornton’s services.

Next Thursday, June 28, the Texas Transportation Commission will take its final vote on which projects will receive funding from its recent $2 billion windfall. On Monday, June 25, the MPO will vote to allocate its portion, $146 million, of the new funding to Loop 1604 (from Bandera to Wiseman), ahead of Thursday’s Commission hearing.

But expect more sparks to fly as well as more insurrection from the highway department, because the MPO will soon make actual amendments to its short and long-range plans to make them consistent with the resolution it passed on March 26 to do segments of US 281 and Loop 1604 non-toll.

Shortly after the March 26 resolution, TxDOT came back with a financing proposal that failed to implement the MPO’s wishes – it still includes tolling alongside the non-toll. However, on US 281, it not only failed to add ANY non-toll highway lanes as the resolution specifies, it actually takes away an existing main lane and converts it to a toll lane (which is against both state and federal law, but TxDOT couldn’t care less – it continues to operate as though its above the law and awaits lawsuits to stop them).

So the upcoming amendments will include changing the current designation of this 13 miles of US Highway 281 & Loop 1604 from toll to non-toll. If TxDOT gets its way, the transportation board will still adopt tolling throughout both corridors and will convert an existing free lane on 281 into a toll lane, without adding ANY new capacity though there’s $110 million to do it. However, MPO Board members, particularly Bexar County Commissioners Tommy Adkisson and Kevin Wolff, have already sent a shot across TxDOT’s bow stating last Friday they fully intend to enforce the MPO resolution to do these segments without tolls.

Game on…

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.