Not toll viable: San Antonio tea party senator betrays grassroots

Citizens have no legal recourse to stop the vehicle registration fee money from being used to build toll roads since the law Senator Donna Campbell crafted has no prohibition on the money being used to fund toll projects. There’s also no way to stop it at the ballot box since there is no requirement that it come before the voters.

By Terri Hall | November 25, 2013

Texas State Senator Donna Campbell

The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (RMA), armed with a new vehicle registration fee hike, announced plans to add ‘managed’ toll lanes to every major freeway on the north side of San Antonio – Interstate 10, US 281, and Loop 1604. In total, the projects’ price tag comes to $1 billion.

Because of changes to the Bexar County vehicle registration fee hike legislation made in the Texas Senate by Senator Donna Campbell, this money goes directly to the RMA (the toll authority), which will now use it to build toll lanes, not free lanes, on these roadways. This coupled with the plans to add elevated toll lanes on Interstate 35 and the entire north side of San Antonio is facing taxation without representation. The county would use half of the new fee hike’s debt capacity to enter into $75 million in bond debt for the toll deal.

The I-35 toll project is slated to be a public-private partnership (P3) according to MPO documents. Privatization can mean toll rates of 75-80 cents a mile and all sorts of profit guarantees and public subsidies. Both public and privately-run toll projects involve non-compete agreements that penalize the expansion of free roads surrounding the toll lanes.

Notably, a section of Loop 1604 (from Potranco to Hwy 90 in addition to the non-toll section underway from Bandera Rd. to Potranco) would be expanded without tolls. Democrat Rep. Jose Menendez has made certain his constituents won’t be tolled, but Republicans Wolff and Campbell, representatives for the US 281 corridor and the bulk of Loop 1604 (and in Campbell’s case, I-35), are at the table with toll-tax proposals rather than a complete non-toll freeway as Menendez achieved.

Campbell ran as a tea party candidate on an anti-toll platform and voted pro-toll four out of five times during her first session in the Texas legislature. Campbell is up for re-election in 2014 and has drawn two primary opponents. The Bexar County vehicle registration fee hike bill Campbell changed in the Senate Transportation Committee was the only local option fee hike that did not require a public vote. Another bill authored by Campbell, SB 1029, removed the public’s ability to vote on toll projects.

The fee hike legislation also had no restriction prohibiting this tax money from being used to fund toll projects, which was the caveat the local tea party insisted on if they agreed to any tax/fee hikes. Heartland Institute fellow and former Director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Jeff Judson, who sits on the board of the San Antonio Tea Party, brokered the deal with Campbell’s help, putting him in hot water with the grassroots.

The RMA was on the ropes with no funding and about to shut down. Then once the county took over the bankrupt toll authority, it had unlimited access to money to pay for its operating expenses courtesy of the county taxpayers. However, it didn’t have the money to fund its toll projects. So, financially speaking, it was still on the ropes as far as projects. Not a single Bexar County toll project is toll viable (meaning can’t pay for itself with the toll revenues). But thanks to this vehicle registration fee hike, the RMA will now have access to public funds to subsidize its loser toll projects forever – using taxpayer money to bailout toll projects that aren’t financially feasible. The scheme is a clear example of double taxation – building the road with tax money and then charging taxpayers again (a toll) to drive on it.

Off-loading state roads to local government

The specific RMA proposal to toll the north side is a back room deal that County Judge Nelson Wolff and his son, County Commissioner Kevin Wolff, are negotiating outside the public purview in exchange for local government taking 129 miles of these roads off of the state highway system and putting sole responsibility for the maintenance and expansion of these roads onto local taxpayers for the foreseeable future.

The Turn Back Program was hastily announced by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) this summer after legislation passed during a special session requiring the agency to come up with at least $100 million in savings from its operating budget. Met with immediate blowback by local governments and the legislators, including the author of the bill, the savings were meant to come from the Department’s own operating budget gaining savings within the management of the Department, not from its core mission of building and maintaining state highways. It quickly became a voluntary program.

So, the Wolffs are voluntarily subjecting San Antonians to this tax heist without representation, without public hearings, or any say by taxpayers. State law allows government entities to keep the toll in place in perpetuity. So the tolls will never come off these freeways, and taxpayers will have no control over how high the toll rates go.

The published toll rate range for the RMA is 17 cents a mile up to 50 cents a mile and it’ll only go up from there. Citizens have no legal recourse to stop the vehicle registration fee money from being used to build toll roads since the law Campbell crafted has no prohibition on the money being used to fund toll projects. There’s also no way to stop it at the ballot box since there is no requirement that it come before the voters. So the only avenue left for concerned citizens is the political arena: the county commissioners court, city council, and MPO.

The specific projects include:

  • U.S. 281 from Marshall Road to the Bexar County/Comal County line ($230 million for four new toll managed lanes, two in each direction);
  • IH-10 from La Cantera Boulevard to Ralph Fair Road ($70 million for two new managed toll lanes, one in each direction);
  • Loop 1604 from Bandera Road to Redland Road ($540 million for four new managed toll lanes, two in each direction);
  • Loop 1604 from Potranco Road to Highway 90 ($100 million for non-tolled overpasses which results in a four-lane non-tolled expressway to match the rest of Loop 1604).

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.