Terri vs Bruce

Bruce Davidson, one of members of the Express-News’ editorial board, wrote a spot-on editorial in yesterday’s paper about how the root cause of toll roads is the Legislature’s and Governor’s resistance to increasing the gas tax.  His editorial essentially says not to blame the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (ARMA) because they’re just playing the hand they’ve been dealt and that, in reality, they are working to find funding for 281 and other projects “wherever they can get it.”

Of course, the response out of southern Comal County was nearly instantaneous.  Terri Hall wrote a verbose response on her blog lambasting Davidson and the E-N, essentially calling them shills for ARMA.  While she spends less than a sentence acknowledging Bruce’s main point about the Legislature, she spends probably 95% of the 1,516 words in her article assailing Bruce, the E-N, and ARMA.  As usual, there was much hyperbole and many inaccuracies in her comments (I’ll get to those in a minute), but the main thing that struck me was that she spent just about the entire piece focusing on Bruce’s defense of ARMA instead of balancing her tirade with a healthy amount of support for his focal point about the gas tax, a point which she actually agrees with (as do I for that matter.)  A more evenhanded response would have demonstrated that she’s not just trying to be antagonistic, an impression she has left on many folks.

It’s always fun to pick-apart Terri’s diatribes, so let’s take a look at some of her more “interesting” remarks:

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.”

Maybe that’s because they see through the malarkey you wanted them to believe.

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.

That advertising is required as part of the federal laws regarding public involvement in the planning process, so they would have to spend that with the E-N regardless of whether or not the E-N supported their position.

It is interesting that she asserts that people who don’t like these types of articles would stop reading the paper.  There’s a word for that: close-minded.

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!

And yet they’re building the 281/1604 interchange toll-free.

Most importantly, the needed fix to 281 was already paid for with gas taxes until TxDOT made the money disappear sometime in mid-2008. … 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).

Ugh, how many times do we have to go through this?  Yes, funding was promised to the 281 project in the MPO TIP ca. 2000, but when the Transportation Commission (at the behest of the Governor) edicted that all new expressway projects be considered for tolling, the 281 project was required to become a toll project.  Consequently, the funding that was budgeted for it was re-allocated to other toll-free projects.  The money didn’t just “disappear”– it was spent on other roads that we all drive on.

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.

As I explained in great detail in a previous post, her logic on this allegation is severely flawed.  You can read my previous post for the details, but the upshot is that much more than “half” an interchange is being built: about 75% of the ultimate bridgework for the full interchange would be built in this initial project, along with the bulk of the final ancillary infrastructure (e.g. drainage and such).  This project also includes lots of improvements to the 281 and 1604 approaches.  You can’t compare the 410/281 interchange for a number of reasons, including the fact that a good portion of the prep work for it was built in separate, preceding projects.

(The RMA) 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.

By her own admission, they’re not doing anything illegal.  If she doesn’t like that, she needs to lobby to get the law changed.  She may not like what they’re doing, but they are allowed to do it.  As they say, hate the game, not the player.

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.

Not true.  The 281/1604 interchange was listed in the MPO’s plans as a toll project before the stimulus funds became available.

The RMA is conducting its own environmental studies on both the 281 and 1604 toll projects (the fox guarding the hen house)…

She forgot to mention that they’re doing this at the direction of (and with the oversight of) the Federal Highway Administration.

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.

Again, the interchange project is the proof that that’s not true.  And in the case of 281 itself, it’s all moot because no project could/can be built on 281 until the environmental study is done.  Since projects had to be “shovel-ready” to get stimulus funds, 281 was not eligible for those funds!

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.

Once again, the interchange project invalidates this claim.

Goes to show, one must do his/her due diligence before believing what you read in the Express-News.

This is even more true when reading Terri Hall’s blog.

That said, she did have some valid points, mainly these:

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!

And this one in particular about my fellow OnTheMoveBlog contributor:

…since they laid off the excellent, unbiased, and very fair transportation reporter Pat Driscoll


A good summary of my position (and Bruce’s) is this comment I posted on Terri’s blog (which had not yet been approved as of the writing of this blog):

Our state lawmakers are entirely to blame. There would be no ARMA nor need for them if the Legislature had just done their jobs. ARMA and toll roads are just a *symptom* of the root problem, and ARMA (and TxDOT for that matter) just play the hand they are dealt by the Leg and Governor.


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