Wednesday, September 14, 2005

 

Tolling Authority Failed to Do the RIGHT Thing

Below you'll see my comments to the RMA today. We had several other eloquent speakers who stated the facts and gave it their all to appeal to what's good, and true, and right in these appointees. However, once again, the people called to serve the public interest failed to step-up and do the right thing. The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (ARMA), with the willing acquiescence of the Governor, Legislature, and most of local government as well, made it clear they will NOT stand in the way of TxDOT converting an existing highway into a tollway.

In fact, their General Counsel, David Cassidy, actually interpreted the statute HB 2702 as saying as long as the improvements have as many non-toll lanes as exist today, it's not considered a conversion. His emphasis was number of lanes not the nature or function of those lanes. In other words, never mind that the non-toll lane will now be a frontage road instead of a highway, TxDOT can tear up an existing highway, lay new asphault down, slap a toll on a paid for "free"way, and get away with it. If they can do it on US 281, they can do it on ANY existing highway. Just like Governor-appointed Chair of the Transportation Commission, Ric Williamson, said in October of 2004, "In your lifetime, most EXISTING roads will have tolls."

TxDOT's own study conducted by UT Austin states that an overwhelming consensus of Texans, over 70%, are against the tolling of existing roads (even higher in San Antonio), and a majority don't like them in general either.

Yet TxDOT marches on with impunity! The MPO could have reigned them in, the RMA could have reigned them in, the Bexar County Commissioners, the City Council, the Legislature, and yes, the Governor can reign them in....but onward they march. The reason? As stated below, the reason is courageous leaders are hard to find. We have a few, and Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson is one of them. Be sure to call (210) 335-2614 or write him an email tadkisson@bexar.org to thank him for his continuing efforts to defend the people from a corporate oligarchy! We need to be just as good at thanking and supporting the good guys as we are at admonsishing the bad guys!

Also, the Alamo RMA is desperate for more permanent funding. You'll be glad to know that they're asking for $1 million to "review" the private bids for the next year. Though the Board is volunteer, their consultants and analysts will get paid a hefty sum of taxpayer money from the Toll Equity Fund to "review" and give their opinions on the details of the contract the public will pay for but not be allowed to see! Then, they slipped in a little noticed statement that they NEED a public information person. Note below that an advertising and marketing firm was in attendance. Expect them to spend some of that $1 million on waging a public information campaign to combat our media efforts. Talk this up on talk radio, folks....the war is about to begin!

Bob Thompson, Commissioner Lyle Larson's appointee, actually had the audacity to try to defend the RMA by saying they had considered every other alternative plan and financing. Hah! What about TxDOT's own already funded plan for the critical stretch of US 281 that's less invasive, cheaper, and more efficient? Contact Commissioner Larson lylelarson@bexar.org if you take issue with Mr. Thompson's assessment.

In case you're wondering what I wondered, the contract to build 281 has already been let and awarded to Cintra-Zachry, but is under a traditional contract in TxDOT's control for now in order to slap tolls on there without delay. BUT TxDOT plans to hand over that cash cow stretch of 281 to Cintra-Zachry once the final "procurement process" is completed (in other words, once the terms of the final private bid "CDA" contract is signed, it'll privatize our public roadways handing control over to a private company for up to 50 years).

Here's some of the names of special interests who attended the RMA meeting today:
Estrada Hinojosa (Financial services)
Parsons Brinkerhoff (Engineering firm)
RJ Rivera Associates (Engineering & Transportation Consulting firm)
Taylor West (Advertising Firm)
Citigroup (Financial services)
HNTB (Engineering firm)
AG Edwards (Lisa Vanderbeek)

TOLL PARTY RMA MEETING STATEMENT

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for allowing me to speak before you today.

Mr. Chairman, and Members of the Board, I am here representing the Texas Toll Party and the grassroots citizens opposed to this toll plan.

At the last meeting, Mr. Diaz promised he would not approve a contract converting an existing highway into a tollway. I believe other Board members chimed in to agree. Well, here we are, at a crossroads for this Board, for Bexar County, and even our country. The Bexar County Commissioners have not once but twice resolved that NO EXISTING roads be tolled. Clearly, there is a legal question here that must be resolved.

Your legal counsel and whoever represents the Transportation Commission will try to argue the semantics and state their plans for 281 and Loop 1604 do not violate the law. But the people you represent know TxDOT is taking the existing 4-6 lanes of "free"way that exists today and are converting it to a tollway on US 281. On Loop 1604, they're taking existing right of way purchased with our hard earned tax dollars and are converting it into toll lanes. No matter how the pavement is re-arranged, the PEOPLE know this violates the law.

We label roads by their function for a reason. Frontage road is not equivalent to a highway. TxDOT will say that when they're done bulldozing a perfectly good highway that the non-toll frontage lanes are equivalent to what we drive on today citing average speed in rush hour. But what we have today is unacceptable congestion caused by traffic lights in the middle of a highway. Our solution is overpasses at the lights (TxDOT knows it because their own already funded plan will solve it). Their new solution is to make that congestion permanent by changing what we drive on today to frontage roads with permanent traffic lights and reduced speed limits. Frontage roads serve a different function than highways. I can and do drive 60 MPH between those traffic signals on US 281 today. If you allow TxDOT to toll existing roads based on average speeds during rush hour, then almost every freeway in the country would qualify. Today, we have 4-6 lanes of non-toll FREEWAY main lanes, when they're done, we'll have NOT ONE non-toll main lane as we have today!

Can you seriously sit there and expect the PEOPLE to allow you to trample on the rule of law? Frankly, the PEOPLE have grown tired of the bending and twisting of the plain meaning of words to manipulate the law for self-interest, or in this case, corporate interest. We've seen it all before with the likes of Enron and WorldCom, and even in the White House, "like it all depends on what the definition of is, is."

Those who stand against the public interest, who threaten to permanently open the floodgate to threaten our freedom of mobility, our way of life in Texas and around this country, must be stopped, and this momentous decision lies at your feet. The tolling of existing, paid for, freeways has NEVER, I repeat, NEVER been done in the history of our country. The voters by LAW are supposed to have a vote on this enormous decision to turn our highways from an efficient means of travel everyone can drive on into tollways only the few can afford and that largely sit idle outside of rush hour. TxDOT's own study conducted by UT Austin states that there is OVERWHELMING consensus, over 70% of the people, against tolling existing roads. So why are they marching ahead with impunity? Because courageous civic leaders willing to stand up to outside interests are hard to come by, leaving the voters no choice but to take their plight into court to settle what is a clear violation of the law and a usurpation of the public interest. The people have spoken, and TxDOT is fully aware of the opposition to this, but they continue to trample our rights and sell us out by handing over our public highways to the lowest bidder.

Why add new capacity we can't all use? Studies show highways with tolls only create permanent, unbearable congestion on surrounding lanes and surface streets. This doesn't bring us congestion relief, which is the purpose of adding new capacity. Can THE VOTERS levy a tax on TxDOT for a congestion index since they're so bent on charging us a toll to drive on freeways we've already paid for?

TxDOT's own original plan was funded through March of 2005 and this solution can be implemented in less time, using less money, with less construction time, and less development over the aquifer. Federal court precedent through NEPA, requires that you and TxDOT consider EVERY alternative. But clearly this alternative option is not being considered. It's toll it or do nothing by TxDOT's own admission. This is unacceptable and unlawful and the taxpayers WILL NOT allow this flagrant disregard of the law nor this malfeasance to stand.

Clearly there are multiple problems with converting US 281 into a tollway. It violates the conversion statute, fails to consider and implement a funded, viable, less invasive, more cost effective and efficient alternative plan, smacks of fiscal irresponsibility, double taxes the public for roadways already paid for, poses environmental and health risks, lacks efficiency (which is the goal of highway travel), is based on implausible assumptions, and its overall economic damage to the region has not been properly studied, accepted, or justified to the public or Bexar and Comal Counties whose property values and tax revenues stand to be adversely affected by a toll corridor.

You have fought for and rightly earned VETO power over these projects. Taxpayers have plenty of objections to this toll plan. You recall all too clearly what it feels like to have no say and no voice in a process that's been corrupted by outside interests instead of following the rule of law and serving the public interest. You cannot let this stand. The voters have risen and we're asking you to help us take back what is ours. This is about doing what's right or doing what's wrong. May we appeal to you, today, to do what is right by the people?

We're asking you to call for an independent review of this toll plan and not to approve this contract until one is completed and these questions are settled in a way the taxpayers trust is objective and sound.

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