TXDOT Head: ‘Tolls are Freedom’

I would argue that TxDOT is not a transportation agency, we’re an economic development agency and economic development is really a message of freedom. 

By Terri Hall l September 25, 2012

Cintra markets its SH 130 toll road in San Antonio
Texas Department of Transportation Executive Director Phil Wilson/ Photo by Terri Hall

If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought George Orwell’s novel 1984 had been set in present-day Texas because Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Executive Director Phil Wilson recently told hundreds of transportation industry enthusiasts during his keynote address at the San Antonio Mobility Coalition (SAMCo) luncheon that tolls equal freedom.

“Tolls are tools that the legislature, elected by the people, voted on…which the MPO, comprised of elected officials, made the decision to go spend…so there’s a local voice in the process that’s not TxDOT driven,” Wilson argued.

But those with boots on the ground in San Antonio know better. What TxDOT calls ‘local partners’ and a cooperative effort is anything but. It’s a master at manipulating local elected officials by starving them of funding until they capitulate to tolls. Tolls that feed an unaccountable, unelected bureaucracy that’s become a taxing entity unto itself, and that now sees itself as an economic development agency.

Mission Breach

“I would argue that TxDOT is not a transportation agency, we’re an economic development agency. If you want freedom of commerce…if you want to move yourself to travel across this state, you have to have mobility, you have to have certainty. Economic development is really a message of freedom,” Wilson concluded.

In order to make such a leap, that somehow charging the traveling public a toll tax for mobility is freedom, the premise of each argument must be true, which it is not.

First, is it the proper role of government to engage in economic development or is that the role of the private sector? The answer: it is NOT the government’s job to merge with the private sector or to try to manipulate free market economics or engage in economic development. Especially in today’s big government climate, what’s needed now more than ever is for government to get out of the private sector’s way and let it flourish unencumbered by overregulation, taxation, mandates, and takings.

Second, turning travel into a public utility where you pay a premium for usage controlled by the government which creates scarcity, monopolies, and engages in price fixing and non-competition clauses, is NOT freedom. Tolls inhibit the freedom of travel for all but the elites – the very people in power making these decisions to toll who think they know what’s best for us and seem to suffer from an acute case of a Marie Antoinette-style ‘let them eat cake’ mentality.

Third, TxDOT set off a firestorm provoking property rights advocates across the state when it released aRequest for Information (RFI) last spring seeking private companies to develop a gas station, restaurant, even hotels inside segment 3 of its SH 130 tollway. It clearly signaled this leap into economic development by the agency since it’s now getting into the commercial land development business and not only competing with the private sector and landowners who wish to develop their property alongside the tollway, it also took more land than it needed for the public road in order to lease it out to a private developer (other than the original landowner) for private gain. It’s eminent domain for private gain, which Texans and freedom-loving Americans abhor.

For TxDOT to position itself as an economic development agency rather than a transportation agency (without legislative approval) gives it carte blanche to proceed with “economic development” takings even more aggressively than it is now doing through its eminent domain condemnation proceedings for roads under the guise of ‘economic development.’ We shouldn’t forget for a moment the wrong-headed 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London, where economic development takings of private property from A and given to another private party B notoriously became part of “public use” takings; at least until Kelo can be overturned.

‘Partner’ or peon?

“So what we’re able to do as an agency is to partner with the MPO, the commissioners, the county judge, the city council, the mayors, the RMA to expedite projects that under the current funding scenario would take us 20-25 years to complete,” Wilson claimed.

However, on both US Highway 281 N and the west side of Loop 1604, there is currently $360 million identified in non-toll funds to expand and fix 13 miles of roadway. That’s not 20-25 years from now, that’s today. Yet TxDOT still forced the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) to choke down adding toll lanes on those same 13 miles of roadway in order to tap the vein of an unaccountable revenue stream and gouge citizens further for the crime of getting to work.

At a June 2012 MPO meeting, this video captures the outright bullying by TxDOT to manipulate their local ‘partner’ into adopting tolls, too, even though there’s money to fix the problem without the need for tolling. TxDOT flat out refused to provide the board with an all non-toll plan, versus TxDOT’s hybrid plan that mandated toll and non-toll lanes. It was their way or no highway. Compare Wilson’s rhetoric versus reality, and the contrast is simply stunning.

So tolls aren’t needed to ‘expedite’ these projects at all, yet TxDOT is still using its hammer to accomplish a new funding stream without taxpayer CONSENT, hiding behind a cloak it claims is ‘cooperation.’ Local buy-in is all an illusion. This is literally highway robbery!

TxDOT toll policies couldn’t be more anti-freedom. In fact, a CATO scholar recently backed off his prior push for tolling saying tolls inhibit the freedom to travel. Though TxDOT is undergoing what’s been dubbed a ‘modernization’ effort in response to harsh public and legislative criticism, the agency is headed in completely the wrong direction.

TxDOT’s role and mission as an agency has strayed far off course from the basics of building and maintaining highways to thinking of itself as an economic development entity. That’s the private sector’s job. Free enterprise can’t be ‘free’ when government gets in the business of picking the winners and losers – like who gets a road and who doesn’t, who gets to travel unencumbered and affordably, or who gets granted mobility and freedom to travel based on ability to pay the equivalent of adding $15 to every gallon of gas you buy (like 75 cents per mile in tolls on the LBJ in DFW).

In order to right this ship, TxDOT must stop imposing tolls on existing rights of way, which is a double tax, stop building roads with debt, pull the plug on so-called ‘innovative financing’ methods like public-private partnerships that sell our public roads to private corporations and include non-competes that restrict expansion of free roads, and get back to PAY AS YOU GO funding and its core mission of building and maintaining freely accessible public highways.

Terri Hall is the founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), which defends against eminent domain abuse and promotes non-toll transportation solutions. She’s a home school mother of eight turned citizen activist. Ms. Hall is also a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.