Bruce Davidson, author of the column below, heads the Editorial Board at the Express-News. He, and the paper (as evidenced by their coverage since they laid off the excellent, unbiased, and very fair transportation reporter Pat Driscoll), are sold out on tolls. This is one of many editorials that read like an RMA press release. Whatever RMA Chair Bill Thornton speaketh, Davidson prints as Gospel.
Whenever we’ve attempted to go to the Editorial Board to dialogue about the toll issue, they flatly ignore us and our concerns (as well as elected officials, attorneys, certified planners, and other experts who have joined us) and print a negative editorial in response to our “visit.” After all, the paper has the establishment to please, never mind the Express-News is bleeding readers. Why? Because of columns, editorials, and stories like this one. Or perhaps it’s because the RMA has paid the Express-News nearly $25,000 in government advertising.
I find the first line of this column inexplicable. How can we NOT blame the tolling authority, which is precisely what the RMA is, for tolling our existing freeways? Though there’s plenty of blame to go around, including the people Davidson cites, our state lawmakers led by Rick Perry (we would add there are culprits who have approved and voted for this at EVERY level of government, local, state, and federal), it defies logic NOT to address the RMA’s culpability in the toll road fight.
The RMA is a Board of UN-elected bureaucrats appointed by YOUR county commissioners, who have given them the authority to levy taxes (toll taxes) without answering directly to the taxpayers (which is taxation without representation). Their only source of revenue is tolling (and a heap of loans from the city and county and grants from TxDOT to keep them afloat until they tap the vein of your wallet with their first toll road). RMAs were created in state law for the sole purpose of tolling and off-loading the State’s job to build STATE highways to local government and its taxpayers.
This notion that the RMA “doesn’t care where the money comes from, they just want to fix the road” is a farce. They’re a tolling authority! They exist to toll roads! Most importantly, the needed fix to 281 was already paid for with gas taxes until TxDOT made the money disappear sometime in mid-2008. So the toll agenda for 281 has NOTHING to do with lack of funds. They had the funds…it’s about tapping a new revenue stream and levying a discriminatory, targeted tax on 281 users in order to fund 1604 (which they don’t have the money for). The fact 281 already had the funding is one the RMA and the Express-News like to ignore so they can push toll roads, making them appear the ONLY option.
Then, the stimulus money the RMA is using to build HALF of a non-toll interchange (for the price of a WHOLE interchange) is a one time deal. We’ve long objected to the RMA even doing a non-toll project, especially with the pricetag they can’t justify ($143 million for just the four southern ramps of the interchange when the RMA’s published price to build the northern ramps in 2018 dollars is $59 million. If they can build half of the interchange for $59 million, they can surely build the whole thing NOW for $120 million! For comparison, the 410/281 interchange just built cost $155 million). What on earth are we paying our highway department to do if we now have these high paid bureaucrats at the RMA sitting around duplicating TxDOT’s role and charging us $20 million in “management fees” to oversee the interchange project that TxDOT should be doing (without the added cost)? The RMA is a second-tier bureaucracy and a taxpayer rip-off from start to finish.
Here are just two timelines (here and here) to give you a flavor of how corrupt and untrustworthy this RMA is. Then here’s a few other zingers. The RMA operates in secrecy and has refused to hand over the financial guts to its potential toll agreements BEFORE the contract gets signed (when the public can actually DO something to stop provisions that are not in the public interest). It hides behind a state law that allows these agencies to keep toll viability studies, the market valuation, and other key financial details SECRET from the public AND even YOUR elected officials. In fact, prior to a crucial vote on financing the 281 and 1604 toll projects at the MPO December 7, 2007, the RMA did not give MPO Board members this information prior to their vote, causing them to vote BLIND.
During the last legislative session, the RMA spent $32,000 of YOUR money to hire a lobbyist to lobby state lawmakers for toll roads and more taxing authority to levy ANY kind of tax to raid your pocketbook. The RMA also recently came out in favor of thwarting legal challenges to its unwanted toll projects by lobbying to force binding arbitration. Then, the RMA Board just voted to do all of its business BEHIND CLOSED DOORS, out of the public eye, unless they have an “actionable item” to vote on. Plus, the RMA has 8 employees whose total salaries with benefits equal more than $1 million dollars annually. All but two employees make six figures, which is totally out of balance with the median household income in San Antonio, which is $36,000/yr.
As long as the 281 & 1604 projects are marked “toll” in the MPO’s plans, the RMA has control of the project and a vested interest in ensuring it remains tolled even when new sources of revenue become available. The RMA is conducting its own environmental studies on both the 281 and 1604 toll projects (the fox guarding the hen house), yet to read the Express-News editorial (see below), you’d think the RMA was a paragon of diplomacy, reaching out to its “enemies.” Diplomacy? Pleez…their consultants told the community advisory groups that the RMA didn’t have to listen to our feedback nor the public feedback at the hearings either. The RMA is using these “community groups” as window dressing, nothing more. After repeated attempts to sit down with the RMA and work out many issues regarding these projects, they’ve REFUSED to work with ANYONE who gets in the way of their toll agenda. The RMA opposed the citizens’ call for a temporary superstreet fix on 281, too, until they figured out that doing the project could boost their PR with fed-up residents and give them something to do until their first toll project brings home the bacon.
RMA Chair Bill Thornton promised on WOAI radio January 14, 2009 that they’d fix 281 non-toll if they got a new source of funds. When stimulus funds became available, the RMA STILL submitted the project as a toll project (they planned to build it with stimulus money and still charge users a toll to drive on it, a DOUBLE TAX), which is proof-positive that even when they get a new pot of money to do something non-toll, the RMA still pushes its toll agenda…regardless of the opposition to it.
Also, the FHWA also informed MPO Chairman Commissioner Tommy Adkisson that as long as a project is marked toll in the MPO plans, it will be done as a toll project. With 800 people packing an auditorium in October 2009 to tell the MPO they don’t want toll roads (and only 100 got to testify with all but 7 against), and with MPO Board members & the RMA assuring the public that both toll and non-toll options are on the table for 281 and 1604, how can they have an ounce of credibility when both are marked toll projects in the MPO’s TIP and when the tolling authority (RMA) is conducting the “study” of the options? How can the MPO have any credibility that non-toll options are even being studied when its attempt to find a contractor to do an independent study of non-toll options (apart from the RMA) yielded ZERO takers?
Toll roads NOT inevitable
Then, Davidson would have us accept his premise that toll roads are inevitable because lawmakers in Austin refuse to raise your taxes. First of all, tolls are taxes and they have yet to hesitate to charge commuters the MOST EXPENSIVE tax to fund roads. Second, where is Davidson’s call to end the diversions to the gas tax we ALREADY PAY? Why would any thinking person ask government to raise taxes when they’re misappropriating the taxes we already send them? Third, why isn’t Davidson insisting San Antonio get back the money we already send to Austin and Washington that we’re shorted before he advocates for higher taxes (tolls)? Lastly, ending the vehicle sales tax diversion (that’s being dumped into general revenue instead of going to roads) would nearly triple our region’s road money WITHOUT RAISING TAXES! But Davidson doesn’t think that way. He’s an extension of the government bureaucrats at the RMA.
Goes to show, one must do his/her due diligence before believing what you read in the Express-News.
Austin’s aversion to tax hikes makes toll roads inevitable
By Bruce Davidson – Express-News
Don’t blame the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority when U.S. 281 from north of Loop 1604 becomes a toll road.
RMA officials are in the midst of the lengthy Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process. They are studying three possible approaches to dealing with the nightmarish traffic on U.S. 281.
One scenario involves overpasses at the key intersections and non-continuous frontage, as RMA spokesman Leroy Alloway described it. Another would have expressway lanes and continuous frontage road from Loop 1604 to the Bexar County line. And a third option would have elevated U.S. 281 lanes, leaving most of the existing structure in place.
RMA Chairman Bill Thornton emphasizes that while the project is listed as a toll road in Metropolitan Planning Organization plan, that status is a placeholder.
Read the rest of the story here.
Agua should drop legal threat
Express-News Editorial Board
Web Posted: 05/11/2010
The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority is engaging in some highway diplomacy. Rather than allowing plans for road construction in the U.S. 281-Loop 1604 corridor to get bogged down in challenges, the RMA is bringing potential adversaries to the table and making them part of the development process.
The RMA has created community advisory committees for both of the two major highway projects it is managing — a 7.9-mile segment of U.S. 281 north of Loop 1604 to the county line and a 37-mile stretch of Loop 1604 from Interstate 35 North to Highway 90 West.
Among the stakeholders on these committees are representatives of homeowners associations, school districts and the business and development community.
The RMA has also included groups with which it has traditionally had an adversarial relationship: the Alamo Sierra Club, Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas, Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, San Antonio Toll Party and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom.
This diplomatic approach is a wise one. A good faith effort by members of the advisory groups can streamline the process for road construction and avoid lawsuits and political challenges that are both costly and time consuming.
Read the rest of the story here.