Tolls Forced on San Antonio Freeways

It’s the duty of our elected officials to hold unelected government agencies like TXDOT and ARMA accountable to the taxpayers.

By Terri Hall l June 12, 2012

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (ARMA) declared war on the elected officials who sit on the Bexar County-San Antonio Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) at its last board meeting by refusing to abide by the MPO board resolution to add non-toll capacity to segments of US Route 281 and Loop 1604 unless the board capitulates to adding toll lanes, too.

In a resolution spear-headed by Bexar County Commissioners Tommy Adkisson and Kevin Wolff, State Representative Jose Menendez, and TxDOT prior to the March MPO board meeting, the ARMA was intentionally left out since it’s the toll authority and Menendez and the commissioners insisted the added capacity be done without tolls. Once the resolution passed unanimously, the ARMA sprung into action to lobby to ensure these roadways still have added toll lanes, despite the MPO board’s decision. TxDOT was all too happy to accommodate their demands and both agencies have worked 24/7 against the taxpayer to force the board into tolling anyway.

Ever since TxDOT announced its $2 billion windfall of unexpected revenues, cities across Texas have been scrambling to advance projects that have long been awaiting funding. In Bexar County, the two hot spots remain US Route 281 north of Loop 1604 to the county line and Loop 1604 across the northside, particularly on 1604 west from Bandera Road to Hwy 90 that, like US 281, is plagued with stop lights on the highway. The public has long rejected tolls as the answer, so Adkisson, Wolff, and Menendez pounced on the opportunity to get these sore spots fixed without tolls.

In keeping with TxDOT’s persistent snubbing of Bexar County by shorting the region the revenues its owed because of the public backlash to tolling, Bexar County only received a paltry $146 million out of the $2 billion when it should have received 10-11% of the state total — or $220 million. Such a move by TxDOT is quite brazen considering the sitting Speaker of the Texas House, Joe Straus, hails from San Antonio and essentially controls the size of TxDOT’s budget. Straus’ powerful position apparently hasn’t helped Bexar County receive its fair share of road funding.

An MPO committee controlled by TxDOT was tasked to come up with a financing plan to add non-toll lanes and complete the highways along US Route 281 from Loop 1604 to Stone Oak Pkwy and on Loop 1604 from Hwy 90 to Bandera Rd., which was presented to the MPO board this week. In a glaring display of defiance, TxDOT included toll lanes alongside the free lanes, and threatened MPO board members saying they could not get environmental clearance for the projects unless they included tolls, too, despite the fact that the non-toll improvements were paid for and would take care of the traffic problem. All but a handful of board members wilted like lettuce and failed to show any inclination of challenging TxDOT. They have until June 25 when the MPO votes to adopt TxDOT’s proposed financing plan or another one that’s completely without tolls on these segments.

Still a bit short

The $146 million is not near enough to fix the entire 36-mile Loop 1604 corridor currently under environmental study, nor is it enough to fix the entire 12-mile stretch Menendez wants fixed without tolls. Much of the discussion at the MPO surrounded the desire to extend the project from Bandera to Potranco instead of stopping at Wiseman Rd. as TxDOT proposed. And that still leaves US Route 281.

Wolff had the county step-up with $100 million in local Advanced Transportation District (ATD) revenues to address the first 3 miles along US Route 281. But that plan is hitting a snag. Fellow Bexar County Commissioners Paul Elizondo and Chico Rodriguez are threatening to vote down the ATD money for 281 unless Wolff helps them get another $20 million in local funding to match TxDOT’s commitment to come up with the remaining $32 million needed to extend the 1604 project to Potranco. US Route 281 is being hijacked by the representatives over on Loop 1604, despite 281 being the most congested road in Bexar County.

Do the math

TxDOT’s financing plan shows at least 6.8 miles of non-toll improvements can be done on Loop 1604 for $21 million/mile, while improvements for just the first 3 miles on US Route 281 would cost $37 million/mile. With both the tolled and non-toll improvements added together, it would cost a staggering $73 million/mile to improve 281. Anyone else see the fraud taking place?

There’s another $82 million in Texas Mobility Funds (TMF) already allocated to US Route 281, but TxDOT has tried to tie access to these funds to a local ‘leveraging’ requirement, which up until now was tolling. Now that the county is bringing a local match to the table, those TMF funds can be combined with the $100 million in ATD funds to fix the entire 7.8 miles stretch on 281 from Loop 1604 to the county line without tolls. But TxDOT told the MPO this week that TxDOT is using 281’s ATD money to satisfy its self-imposed leveraging requirement on 1604 in yet another attempt to hijack the money on 281 and force tolls.

Leveraging & TxDOT blackmail

There’s still money on the table at TxDOT. There’s another $400 million of the $2 billion that has yet to be allocated. If the MPO is looking for more money to get what we need done, look no further. TxDOT requiring local units of government to come up with local tax money to build STATE highways is an unfunded mandate and really an awful lot like extortion.

It’s like going to your bank’s ATM to make a withdrawal and the bank requiring you to hand them more money (extorting money) before you can withdraw money from your own account! Why should the city or county come up with another $20 million when they’ve already brought $130 million to the table ($100 million in ATD and $30 million for the northern ramps of the 281/1604 interchange from the 2012 city bond)? If they keep giving in to TxDOT, they’ll just keep requiring more. They’re not an honest broker, and they can’t be trusted.

TxDOT’s ruse will backfire on commuters

It’s instructive to remember what happened in DFW when TxDOT promised both a free lane expansion alongside toll lanes on I-35.

TxDOT later yanked the free lanes and gave the toll lanes priority. TxDOT will say and do anything to get the MPO to rubber stamp their toll agenda (including the promise of free lanes), and after they do, the MPO will lose ALL control of when or IF the free lanes ever get built, the toll rates, etc.

Bottom line, under state law, TxDOT cannot force the MPO to include tolls on these two sections they directed TxDOT to do without tolls. The MPO must approve tolling or neither TxDOT nor ARMA can touch these roadways with tolls. The buck stops with the MPO and the public will hold them accountable for how they vote. We will not accept this notion that “I had to vote for the tolls in order to get the free lanes.” No, they don’t HAVE to. The MPO has equal power with TxDOT, but TxDOT doesn’t have to face the voters.

The only thing we can count on is what the MPO puts into its plans, and they need to make sure it doesn’t include tolling or you can be CERTAIN the non-toll will NEVER happen.

There are 37,000 commuters affected at Potranco, but there are a stunning 86,000+ commuters a day (some figures show as high as 92,000) affected in the 281 corridor. The commuters along 281 deserve to have the entire 7.8 mile corridor fixed with the identified funds in this financing plan. The ARMA’s cost estimates are completely overblown, and if Loop 1604 can be done for $21 million/mile, so can US Route 281.

New hybrid plan jeopardizes environmental clearance

The proposed non-toll expansion with overpasses in both corridors solves the congestion problem. Adding both toll and non-toll lanes is not only overkill, it’s outrageously expensive and totally unnecessary. This mix of tolls alongside non-toll lanes is a NEW alternative/option that has NOT been studied in either the 281 or 1604 environmental studies. According to federal law, to add this new option would require the studies to start the alternatives analysis over again, causing another 3-4 year delay.

Fifty cents a mile in tolls

The RMA’s published range of toll start rates is 17 cents – 50 cents a mile (which will go up from there in perpetuity). Fifty cents a mile in tolls is like adding $13 to every gallon of gas you buy. Commuters in these gridlocked corridors won’t be able to forget this decision by the MPO, since this punitive taxation will be forked over on a daily basis until they die. They won’t accept excuses like ‘TxDOT made me do it.’ They know better.

It’s the duty of our elected officials to hold unelected government agencies like TxDOT and ARMA accountable to the taxpayers (federal, state, and local elected officials all have a role to play in this). TxDOT and ARMA flout the law and just keep changing the rules in the middle of the game in order to continue to push their toll agenda. The MPO is an equal player, and both federal and state law are on their side.

All 7.8 miles of US Route 281 in Bexar County can be completed without any tolling, using the existing funds TxDOT has already presented in its financing plan. On the west segment of Loop 1604 under discussion, whether 7 miles or 10 miles, it, too, should appear in the MPO plan as non-toll without any toll lanes alongside it. Let’s get these corridors fixed without tolls as our elected officials have voted to do. Caving to TxDOT and ARMA now will meet with stiff political consequences – in perpetuity – for those who failed to enforce the MPO’s own resolution.

Author’s Note: US Route 281 extends 1,872 miles just short of the Mexican border at Brownsville, Texas north to Dunseith, North Dakota at the Canadian border.

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.