Rejecting social engineering by not wanting tolls slapped on existing freeways, a double tax, San Antonio taxpayers have ardently opposed this new, punitive tax on driving.
By Terri Hall l August 14, 2012
Photo: Ryan Lloyd/TPR
There’s a big fight going on between Bexar County, the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (RMA), and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) for control of the pot of the gold at the end of the toll rainbow in San Antonio, which involves the sales tax for roads and could involve even property taxes to prop-up the loser toll projects. It also involves social engineering by trying to tax people out of their cars and into mass transit.
Bexar County Commissioners recently voted to keep the RMA – a fancy way of saying toll authority without using that pesky tax term ‘toll’ – on life support for another year. Less than two months ago, Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff made the move to have the county take over operations of the RMA.
The idea was to consolidate it with the county public works department that serves a similar function and save the taxpayers the $1.2 million a year in overblown salaries for the ten RMA employees. Running into legal snags, the county is now backing off until the Texas legislature meets next year, when the county will seek a change in law to allow it to assume control of the RMA. It’s an example of ready, fire, aim.
In total, the RMA has blown through more than $40 million in tax money with little to show for it since it held its first board meeting in 2004. They made operational improvements to the stop lights on US Highway 281 dubbed a ‘superstreet’ (with a similar superstreet project going on for a section of Loop 1604 West), and are in the middle of completing the southern ramps of the 281/1604 interchange. All the projects are non-toll and should have been done by TxDOT, to which the taxpayers already pay taxes to build and maintain state highways.
The grassroots want the county to dissolve the RMA altogether and have TxDOT continue to build and maintain state highways as FREEways, not tollways. But the county doesn’t want to lose local control over toll projects by giving all the control back to TxDOT, whose mission has been to toll all new capacity to Texas highways since it passed a Minute Order to that effect in December 2003. Not wanting tolls slapped on existing freeways, a double tax, taxpayers in San Antonio have ardently opposed this new, punitive tax on driving. There are 57 segments of toll projects planned for Bexar County. Paying the new tax will be unavoidable. The RMA’s projected toll rates range anywhere from 17 cents a mile up to 50 cents a mile. OUCH!
Who gets the gold?
The downside to having the county takeover the RMA is that the county has virtually an unlimited tax base that it can tap to subsidize these ill-conceived toll projects that are not toll viable to begin with. If the RMA defaults on the bonds, they have no other revenue source to keep the road afloat, so it has to be more cautious about the financial forecasts or seek massive amounts of public subsidies from already strapped federal and state highway programs. A county, however, can raise property tax and a host of other taxes to bail out failing toll roads. The toll viability studies show none of the county’s toll projects are toll viable without massive public subsidies.
So, in essence, the fight isn’t over the waste of taxpayer money on RMA salaries as much as it’s a fight over the pot of gold at the end of the toll rainbow. Elected officials see dollar signs and a slush fund they can pilfer to get all their pet projects built, like veteran Texas politician County Judge Nelson W. Wolff’s downtown streetcar transit project. Despite all the rhetoric to convince voters that politicians are turning to tolls as a last resort due to a lack of funds, non-toll funds continue to roll in like the $2 billion surplus TxDOT recently found under the couch cushions.
So fixing our already-paid-for freeways and keeping them free from tolls is possible, regardless of the politician’s spin seeking to persuade the public otherwise. In fact, tax money will be building all of or significant portions of the toll lanes on both US Highway 281 & Loop 1604 West, so it’s yet another form of double taxation. No one should be charged a toll to use a lane that’s already paid for. Politicians simply don’t care when they’re spending taxpayer money, and they’re all too happy to hold our freeways hostage until taxpayers capitulate.
Now you see it, now you don’t
The original reason given for the push for tolling was a lack of funding, since the gas tax – the only true user fee — hadn’t been raised in 20 years. But that didn’t fly on US Highway 281 where the expansion was already funded with gas taxes (which TxDOT made disappear in 2008 when the taxpayers kept insisting it fix 281 with existing money and do it without tolls). The plan was always about raiding the 281 toll revenue to pay for toll lanes on 1604.
But in recent weeks, the excuses have now shifted again. In June, the county voted to allocate $100 million in Advanced Transportation District (ATD) sales tax revenues to fix US Highway 281. Coupled with the state Texas Mobility Funds (TMF) already assigned to the project, that’s enough to expand all 7.8 miles of 281 without tolls.
However, that’s not what the Bexar County Commissioners or the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) plan to do. Their plan only addresses three miles on US Highway 281. To help eat up the money so they can still push tolls on 281, Kevin Wolff, the eldest son of County Commission Judge Nelson Wolff, allowed TxDOT and the MPO to take $20 million in non-toll funds from 281 and use it to extend the 1604 project further. So ten miles are being fixed without tolls on 1604 West, despite 281 being the most congested road in Bexar County.
But the manipulation didn’t stop there. After promising to get US Highway 281 and Loop 1604 West fixed without tolls in a resolution he authored that passed the MPO on March 26, Kevin Wolff then did a bait and switch less than three months later on June 25, and changed the plan without public posting and without any prior public discussion by the MPO board to now include two HOV-toll lanes on 281 and to make them dedicated bus lanes.
In yet another way to blow through the non-toll funds, the new plan also uses some of the $58 million in remaining TMF funds to build a direct connect ramp to a bus park and ride station along 281. The plan will actually slap tolls on two existing lanes of US Highway 281 and this reconfiguration will be done with tax money, so no one should have to pay a toll to access those lanes. It also puts who controls the operation of the toll road, and hence who collects the tolls, in the hands of the transit board that’s extra motivated to punish people out of their cars and make the toll rates even higher.
This portion of Kevin Wolff’s precinct in Stone Oak is a car-dominated area that’s not clamoring for bus lanes, but only to have its freeway fixed without tolls. TxDOT San Antonio District Engineer Mario Medina revealed the true intent of the plan, “we need to keep the buses on schedule and the toll helps that so that cars don’t use that lane and jam it up.” Guess the highway department doesn’t care whether the 86,000 cars a day on US Highway 281 stay on schedule, only buses.
Let the social engineering begin.
Judge Nelson Wolff, author of Transforming San Antonio (2008), stated publicly at Commissioners Court earlier this year that “if someone chooses to not carpool, chooses to ride by themselves, chooses to waste their gas, choose to do all those things, then damn it, they probably ought to pay… if they can’t get on a bus or can’t carpool, well then, don’t get in the toll lane.” Mind you, Judge Wolff has never been seen taking a bus into the county courthouse every day.
So, the Wolff father-son tag-team has combined to implement a government social engineering program to alter people’s behavior by taxing people out of their cars and into mass transit. It’s anti-car – part of the left’s nationwide war on cars – and it will fail as it has in every other city where it’s been forced on the public by the elite leadership. There’s a reason government can’t get people out of their cars – no other mode of transportation can match the convenience of a personal automobile. The average commute now takes half the time of taking mass transit. According to government data, Los Angeles, Washington, Baltimore, and San Francisco all show a continued decline in ridership on mass transit – all at the taxpayers expense.
The RMA’s own study shows the number one reason for a trip along 281 isn’t a daily commute, but getting groceries. How many moms can practically haul their groceries on the bus and walk several blocks to get them home from the bus stop, especially in the 100+ degree summers of San Antonio?
Bottom line, Bexar County has a social agenda – an anti-car, anti-taxpayer agenda that’s just another form of socialism — or BIG GOVERNMENT taking from one and giving to another. No wonder why this has never come before the voters. No one in their right mind would vote for such an attack on our personal freedom to travel. Americans want freedom and liberty not TYRANNY and Texans are no different.
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