25 Oct 2009, 6:01pm
Toll roads:
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Are we on the Daily Show yet?

Tommy Adkisson

Tommy Adkisson

After years of activists challenging engineers about the scope and cost of adding lanes and overpasses to U.S. 281, the public last month got one of its few chances to hear those arguments hashed out in the open.

But mostly what we got was a Jon Stewart-like moment.

The punch line came¬†as¬†Metropolitan Planning Organization board members began pressuring Chairman Tommy Adkisson, who’s leading the charge to pull tolls from several¬†highway projects (item 9c), to explain¬†details¬†about his¬†proposed non-toll versions.

“Are these not TxDOT numbers?‚ÄĚ he answered, according to a San Antonio Express-News report.¬†

As toll critic Terri Hall, who likely led Adkisson to the hot seat he’s in, nodded yes from the audience,¬†MPO board member and TxDOT engineer¬†Clay Smith said:

‚ÄúNo, no they’re not.‚ÄĚ

Well, yes, yes they are. Well … sort of.

Hall pulled the numbers from¬†the Texas Department of Transportation’s 2001 plan to reconstruct¬†U.S. 281 north of Loop 1604 into a freeway.¬†She bumped up the¬†figures using a state¬†highway inflation index and guestimated in a couple of more overpasses.

She says eight miles of freeway could be had for $200 million instead of eight miles of tollway for $475 million.

No, not really, TxDOT has long and patiently maintained.

The old 2001 estimates were just for construction costs. They did not include funds for studies, engineering and land purchases. So in that sense,¬†Smith was right,¬†Hall’s straight-line concoction doesn’t reflect¬†what TxDOT has been saying.

At the time, Smith¬†probably had no idea how¬†Hall’s forecast had been pieced together. Adkisson¬†apparently didn’t either.

That’s not all

Hall also¬†suspects¬†TxDOT¬†added more lanes to the U.S. 281 plan ‚ÄĒ and¬†thus ballooned costs even more ‚ÄĒ¬†to¬†conform to¬†new state laws on building toll lanes in rights of way of non-toll roads. Her lawyers say they tried but failed to get blueprints for the¬†freeway as part of a lawsuit last year, so they could compare the two versions.

That’s odd.¬†Seems¬†like such sharing would be a simple way to help clear¬†the air.

Meanwhile, an MPO advisory committee did recently compare the freeway and tollway plans, and looked at financial and regulatory issues as well (see answers).

The committee said:

The toll project includes operational improvements including acceleration/deceleration lanes, turnarounds, etc. that were not in the 2001 US 281 schematic.

Translation: The toll-road footprint is not significantly wider than the freeway plan.

Adding operational improvements are not the same as additional through express or frontage road lanes. A fellow OnTheMoveBlog.com blogger, Brian, has more here.

The conclusion

Some closure to this saga is staged to start at 6 p.m. at the Alzafar Shrine Auditorium, 901 N Loop 1604 W., when the MPO is expected to vote on booting tolls.

Can we expect to reach a greater understanding? I mean, after the thumping and posturing? For that, I refer you to¬†Brian’s¬†astute observations.

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