Agenda 21 hits San Antonio: The War on Cars continues with US 281 toll plan

These initiatives are already being implemented through the UN’s ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability in more than 600 cities nationwide, including San Antonio, and 178 countries worldwide.

By Terri Hall | July 1, 2013


Antonio, Texas, is no exception. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (RMA) are proposing to convert existing freeway lanes on Highway 281 into Transit-High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes in what can only be seen as Agenda 21-style government social engineering to tax people out of their cars and into mass transit or a carpool. Buses ride free and autos that qualify as government-certified carpools ride free, while single occupancy vehicles can only access the lane if they pay a toll.

Among other United Nations’ Agenda 21-ICLEI environmental policies that promote so-called ‘sustainability’ are the ‘complete streets’ and ‘walkable communities’ initiatives that encourage walking, bicycling and public transit usage over that of gas powered autos. Car lanes are eliminated in place of walkways, bike lanes and transit lanes, which increases congestion. Agenda 21 initiatives attempt to reduce the human carbon footprint by restricting mobility – how we live, travel, work and play. These initiatives are already being implemented through ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability in more than 600 cities nationwide, including San Antonio, and 178 countries worldwide.

Thousands of concerned citizens have rejected any tolls on Hwy 281 for nearly a decade, and want the complete non-toll expressway option to advance to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for final approval in 2014.

Toll tyranny: $7/day to get to work

Most San Antonians have no idea that the tolls could be as high as 50 cents a mile. The published toll rate range is 17 cents a mile up to 50 cents a mile. The RMA, or toll authority, has stated on the record since 2009 that it plans to charge tolls in perpetuity. So tolls in the corridor will be a permanent new tax on driving without a public vote. In fact, recent changes in Texas legislation remove any triggers for a public vote creating taxation without representation. Such punitive taxation, especially on freeways already paid for with gas tax money, threatens our freedom to travel and gives government the foot-in-the-door to manipulate our daily commute to get travelers to pay them a premium.

Cash users charged more

Since the tolling will be all electronic, drivers have to have a government-issued TollTag and pay to keep an account open in order to get the lowest toll rate. Those who get billed by mail will pay 33-50% higher toll rates. There is no way to bill out-of-state or international drivers, so San Antonio taxpayers will foot the bill for these visitors to get a free ride. With San Antonio boasting thousands of visitors every year, this cost could be enormous.

Social engineering add-ons won’t solve congestion

Many unnecessary elements are driving up the project cost of converting existing freeway lanes on highway 281 into HOT lanes, making it appear out of reach with traditional funding. First, there are 9 overpasses planned in just 7.3 miles. That’s overkill and could actually make the corridor less safe – like a roller coaster in order to go up and over that many intersections with so many overpasses so close together. Each one costs about $10 million, so eliminating some of the overpasses would shave cost and help make a non-toll option more affordable.

Second, a direct connect ramp for a Via Transit Park-N-Ride facility is planned at Stone Oak Parkway for an express bus to take residents downtown without any justification or actual data to show how many residents would utilize such an express bus on a daily basis or why taxpayers should foot the bill for a special ramp for it (estimated at $58 million). Third, the project includes bike and pedestrian pathways throughout the entire corridor adding unnecessary cost. Bikes and pedestrians can safely travel along the planned frontage roads. Fourth, the project also includes ‘context sensitive solutions’ like artistic elements, accent lighting, rain gardens, etc. All of these extra costs need to be eliminated.

In order to get a free ride as an HOV user, you have to be a ‘registered’ carpool vehicle with an active TollTag account (which costs you money to keep open). It usually requires at least 3 not 2 people to be in your car. So just hopping into the HOV/toll lane to take a relative to the airport or to go to lunch with colleagues won’t count as a qualified HOV ‘free ride.’ Moms in minivans shuttling kids to soccer practice also won’t qualify either unless you register in advance and meet the qualifications as a ‘registered, declared’ carpool vehicle with the government.

In the current 90 degree-plus heat in San Antonio, it’s certainly not practical to think drivers will leave their cars behind to hop on a bike exposed to the elements in order to get to work on a daily basis. It’s also impractical to expect moms getting groceries for a family to be able to carry all her groceries by hand and load them onto a bus and then walk them home in the elements (to say nothing of how she’d juggle hanging onto to her kids/strollers in the process).

Contracts to guarantee congestion on free routes

Toll contracts also limit expansion of free routes, since they contain non-compete clauses that penalize or prohibit the expansion of free routes surrounding the tollway to guarantee congestion on free roads and force more Texans to pay tolls.

Since people try to avoid paying tolls, they find alternate routes to bypass the toll lanes. Studies show tolls divert traffic onto surrounding neighborhood streets and increase accidents and congestion on local streets.

A history of the diversion of funds

While TxDOT claims no final decision on tolls has been made yet, tolls are currently the ‘preferred’ alternative of local officials and bureaucrats. Documents show TxDOT and the RMA have been meeting to discuss entrances and exits from the tolled managed lanes already – before the public hearing and comment period and before federal law permits such a decision.

The claim that there’s no money to fix it without tolls doesn’t hold water when you examine the cost to add four new lanes to Loop 1604. In addition to the vast differences in cost per mile between the two projects, another bone of contention has been the fact that TxDOT already had the money to add new lanes and overpasses to Hwy 281, as was promised in public hearings in 2001. MPO documents show the money was there from 2003 – 2008 before it got heisted and used somewhere else to force Hwy 281 drivers to have to pay tolls to get their road fixed. By 2006, there was $100 million in gas tax revenues allocated to the corridor.

So not only did the $100 million in gas tax revenues get diverted, last year the MPO diverted another $50 million from Hwy 281 to pay for an overpass on 1604 and the northern ramps of the 281/1604 interchange. So officials keep diverting the money to fix this freeway in order to force Hwy 281 users to pay tolls. The toll road isn’t about a lack of funds, but rather a vehicle to raid residents’ wallets and impose a big government Agenda 21 approach by misusing funding.

Emergency services impeded

Toll lanes impede emergency services from reaching victims, crashes, and hospitals. The HOT lanes (or ‘managed lanes) in the center of the non-toll freeway lanes inhibit the ability of EMS and police to reach victims and quickly usher them to hospitals when they have to cross two lanes of congested freeway traffic and try to access the limited-access center HOT lanes. Such an arrangement puts lives at risk, when every second counts. So these attempts at social engineering also throw public safety under the bus.

Unless the public voices their concern on the record and points out the flaws inherent in the toll and managed lane plans for highway 281, drivers will have their freedom to travel impeded and be stuck with higher travel costs that punish drivers, impose tolls in perpetuity on a permanently congested, less safe travel corridor. TURF has additional information available, including videos and schematics about the highway 281 project.

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.