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SA leaders announce $825 million ‘Mobility Plan’ -- more like congestion plan

Bexar County Judge Nelon Wolff supports tolls across north side faces an anti-toll opponent in his re-election bid.
Bexar County Judge Nelon Wolff supports tolls across north side faces an anti-toll opponent in his re-election bid.
Terri Hall

Today, Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ted Houghton announced an $825 million ‘5-year Mobility Plan’ for San Antonio’s congested north side freeways that includes toll lanes on US 281 and Interstate 10 and free expansion on Loop 1604 West (for now). Houghton was joined by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Mayor Julian Castro, and officials from Via Metropolitan Transit and the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (RMA) who stood united in their plans to add toll lanes to much of the north side -- even converting two-four existing free main lanes on US 281 into a toll lanes. This comes on the heels of public meetings to add toll lanes to Interstate 35.

Anti-toll County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson who is challenging Wolff for county judge was also in attendance. Local press asked if the county judge race will be a referendum on toll roads and it should be. Out of the three major contenders running, only Adkisson is anti-toll. So the tax averse north side of Bexar County needs to take note if they don’t want to pay 17 cents up to 50 cents a mile to have mobility. For roughly a 10-mile commute, that amounts to $20-$50 a week or $1,000 - $2,600 a year in new taxes just to get to work.

Congestion tolling
The news isn’t really news in that these roadways have been slated for tolls for nearly a decade. But what is new is the advancement of the plans using more local tax money and congestion pricing. You read that right. San Antonio politicians have formally given their blessing to this massive toll tax increase, and they plan to use the new $10 vehicle registration fee hike and a portion of the local sales tax (called the ATD tax) to do it. So the plan is double, even triple, taxation. If a highway is built with tax revenue, it should be a freeway not a tollway.

First utilized in Europe, congestion pricing is where the toll varies based on the time of day and how many people use the toll lanes. The price goes up in peak hours and lower in off-peak hours, but it can also go up in real time during the morning and evening commute if the government deems too many cars are in the toll lanes and the traffic slows below an artificially set threshold - usually 50 MPH. It's not meant to solve congestion, but manipulate it for profit.

So it’s the ultimate government control over your freedom to travel by essentially ‘managing’ traffic and speeds through punitive taxation, hence the term ‘managed lanes.’ This runaway tax scheme was implemented in December in the DFW area on Interstate 635 toll lanes, which are controlled and operated by Spain-based Cintra.

Interstate 10 will have two new toll lanes added from Loop 1604 to Ralph Fair Road, and when a real interchange with direct connect ramps finally gets built at Loop 1604, it’ll be tolled, too under this scheme. Loop 1604 will eventually have added toll lanes around the entire loop in Bexar County. Texas State Rep. Jose Menendez (D- San Antonio) insisted Loop 1604 West be completed as a controlled access freeway with four non-toll lanes before toll lanes are added. By contrast, State Senator Donna Campbell, Rep. Lyle Larson, and Com. Kevin Wolff who represent the 281 corridor, are allowing two existing FREEway lanes on US 281 to be converted into toll-HOV transit lanes (from Loop 1604 to Marshall Rd.) and all existing freeway lanes north of Marshall Rd. into toll lanes.

Congestion plan?
On US 281, the four remaining non-toll lanes will end at Marshall Rd. creating a massive bottleneck as freeway traffic escaping the toll lanes will be forced onto frontage roads, which will undoubtedly clog the non-toll freeway lanes for miles. The ‘Mobility Plan’ is more like a congestion plan. The SH 130 tollway (to bypass I-35 traffic between San Antonio and Austin) is so underutilized and below traffic projections that it’s expected to default by June of this year. Texans can’t afford these toll taxes, so the plan to toll San Antonio to death is likely to fail and result in congested free lanes for our lifetimes.

Most toll financing agreements today require non-compete agreements that penalize or prohibit the expansion of free routes surrounding the toll lanes. Private toll bond investors know most of the these deals are financially risky, and they use non-competes as a way to guarantee they won’t lose money on the deal by, in essence, guaranteeing congestion on the free lanes.

Castro actually equated the addition of toll lanes across the north side as a “breakthrough boost” that will “significantly enhance the quality of life in San Antonio.”

Former City Councilman and Toll authority Chairman John Clamp thanked local leaders for the having the “political fortitude” to make tolling San Antonio happen. They know toll roads are politically unpopular in San Antonio.

Locals still have final say
Houghton emphasized that local leaders wanted this ‘Mobility Plan’ and that if it doesn’t get approved at the local Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) that the plan ‘doesn’t happen.’ So take note, San Antonians, your local city council members and county commissioners who comprise and/or influence the MPO can stop this new tax from being implemented -- so can a new county judge. Since these politicians won’t allow a public vote on toll roads, despite Campbell running as anti-toll then voting for toll roads 4 out of 5 times in the Texas legislature and Castro promising he wouldn’t support toll roads without a public vote, it’s up to residents to make toll roads a referendum in their politicians’ next election.