Texas leads the nation in road debt as Perry solicits ideas for tax relief: Groups say nix toll taxes

TxDOT is having to open fully-paid-for-roads (State Highway 45 SE) as toll roads to try and cover the debt on failing toll roads.

By Terri Hall | February 4, 2013

Texas Leads Nation in Road Debt

In his State of the State speech, Texas Governor Rick Perry asked Texans how they’d like to see tax relief implemented in the new 83rd biennial legislative session (January 8 – May 27/140 days). Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) along with taxpayer groups called for eliminating toll taxes and using our existing road taxes, currently being diverted to other non-transportation purposes, to expand our freeways without tolls. The Governor’s web site, has no option for toll tax relief.

Perry, however, did announce his support for ending gas tax diversions for non-road purposes. Ending diversions is part of the Governor’s truth in taxation plank in his Budget Compact, which means taxes collected for a certain purpose should go only to that purpose. Perry’s leadership to end gas tax diversions, estimated to be $1.3 billion per biennium, is much needed and very helpful. But that alone isn’t sufficient to properly fund our state highways without higher taxes – tolls.

Tolls are taxes

By starving road funds, it’s forced a reliance on toll roads, particularly controversial privatized toll roads, and debt. Tolls are a tax when all Texas taxpayers are subsidizing them, and it’s the most expensive way to fund roads. So claims by state leaders that they’re not raising taxes and being fiscally responsible isn’t being honest with taxpayers.

It isn’t truth in taxation to use our tax money to build the toll road and then charge us again to drive on it – that’s DOUBLE taxation. Nor is it truth in taxation when un-elected toll agencies plan to keep the tolls in place in perpetuity (HB 1112/SB 19 from the 2011 82nd legislature). So tolls have become a new tax on driving.

When taking a gas tax funded road is 1-2 cents a mile versus a toll road that costs 15 cents up to 80 cents per mile, paying tolls is like adding $10-$15 to every gallon of gas you buy. With gas still above $3/gallon, now more than ever politicians need to prioritize spending and properly fund the basics like roads. Texans just can’t afford this punitive taxation any longer.

Texas’ own fiscal cliff

Perhaps most disturbing is the Legislature’s trend in relying on borrowing and debt to fund roads, rather than dedicate existing road tax revenues to highways. With the State now $31 BILLION in debt for roads, we’re on an unsustainable trajectory that’s more aptly called a debt bomb.

“Texas leads the nation in road debt. We’re creating our own fiscal cliff for our kids and grandkids, so adding more debt is not the way to get us off the cliff,” JoAnn Fleming, Executive Director of Grassroots America and also Chairwoman of the Texas Legislature’s Tea Party Caucus Advisory Committee.

The 2010 Grant Thornton Audit also called the borrowing ‘unsustainable’ and laid the blame on the Texas Legislature for increasing TxDOT’s baseline budget with debt that’s now eating up more and more of our money for ‘free’ roads with debt service. In fact, the highway department is having to open fully-paid-for-roads (State Highway 45 SE) as toll roads to try and cover the debt on failing toll roads.

Necessitates more private toll roads

The last budget included $1 million/yr in taxpayer money to review private toll contracts called public-private partnerships, or CDAs in Texas. It also shows 15,000 hours of legal time to review these contracts. TURF asks how is this a fiscally conservative use of taxpayer money?

When the Texas Constitution prohibits such uses of the gas tax, we applaud the Governor for his leadership on this issue and finally putting an end to these abuses. However, the state needs to address the long-term funding shortfall, and another short-term band aid, which will lead to more leveraged debt, is NOT the answer.

“First of all, ending diversions and putting $1.7 billion in the infrastructure bank isn’t near enough to solve our long-term structural shortfalls in road funding. The highway department really needs $4 billion in order to get away from the reliance on toll roads and debt to build needed capacity,” contends Jeff Judson with the San Antonio Tea Party.

Vehicle sales taxes should go to roads

TURF and pro-taxpayer groups support Senator Robert Nichols’ and Representative Linda Harper-Brown’s bill to dedicate the vehicles sales tax revenues to roads. This gives our state a reliable, long-term source of funds to build and maintain our roads.

This is in keeping with the Governor’s truth in taxation mandate. Taxes collected on vehicles should be going to fund roads, not dumped into general revenue. Vehicle sales taxes represent $3 billion/year in road funds that aren’t getting to roads. This coupled with ending gas tax diversions will get TxDOT the $4 billion it says it needs to properly build and maintain our state highway system – which can be done with existing taxes.

Reverse the spending spree

State spending as a percentage of population has nearly tripled in the last 20 years and doubled under Perry. It’s time to fund the basics first, not tap the Rainy Day Fund to pay for essentials.

So TURF and pro-taxpayer groups want not only an end to using road taxes (both gas tax and vehicle sales tax) for non-road purposes, but also an end to the borrow and spend debt spiral.

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.