Grassroots Texans Lead Toll Road Rebellion

Anti-toll advocates seem to have the momentum as both Governor Greg Abbott and the Lt. Governor Dan Patrick campaigned on many of these reforms. But taking nothing for granted, the ‘Toll-free Texas’ grassroots coalition sacrificed their time and dime to come to the Capitol anyway, realizing toll entities, local governments, and transportation boards want the status quo and will lobby hard to water-down and defeat needed reforms. 

By Terri Hall l March 31, 2015

Toll Free Texas Day brings out grassroots leaders and legislators like Sen. Don Huffines on the steps of the state capitol in Austin

Over one-hundred Texans fed-up with toll roads popping-up everywhere converged on the Texas state capitol Monday to unveil a package of toll road reforms, like taking the toll off the road when it’s paid for and preventing gas taxes from being used to build or bailout toll roads – a double tax. Rep. Scott Sanford (R – Collin) initiated the citizens lobby day sponsored by Texans for Toll-free Highways, Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), Texas Eagle Forum, Grassroots America, Lt. Governor’s Grassroots Advisory Committee Subcommittee on Transportation, and Texas Patriots, PAC. The groups advocated fiscal responsibility first when it comes to transportation.

With the infusion of over $1 billion a year in new cash from the state’s Rainy Day Fund with passage of Proposition One last November, citizens want to see toll roads restrained as the legislature contemplates sending more money to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

Working toward a ‘Toll-free Texas’

Sanford made national news with the help of his colleagues Rep. Matt Shaheen and Rep. Jeff Leach when they filed nine bills they dubbed ‘Toll-free Texas’ that address the highway funding shortfall, as well as reduce, and eventually eliminate, toll roads. The bills also aim to put elected officials in the driver’s seat on toll decisions (HB 1183/HB 1834 – Sanford, Shaheen), and prevent unaccountable taxation. All told, there are 78 pieces of legislation that address restraining toll roads (and the toll bureaucracies) or finding ways to properly fund the highway department to end the reliance on tolling.

Some reform bills seek to make toll authorities and toll road financing more transparent and accountable, like requiring transportation-related entities to be comprised of elected officials (HB 2601/SB 748 – Larson, Campbell) and require them to broadcast their meetings (SB 1152/HB 3593 – Hall, Burkett). Shaheen wants to prohibit transportation lobbying by toll/transportation boards (HB 1257 – Shaheen), and Sen. Bob Hall and Sen. Lois Kolkhorst want to make traffic and revenue studies that forecast toll revenues public (SB 939/SB 1046/HB 2620 – Kolkhorst, Hall, Burkett). Currently, state statute allows this vital information to be kept secret from the public.

Sanford also introduced legislation to require voter approval of all toll projects (HB 3725). Regional Mobility Authorities are particularly unpopular. Rep. Lyle Larson wants to subject them to sunset review (HB 528). Sen. Don Huffines filed a bill to audit Regional Mobility Authorities (SB 1184/HB 3114 – Huffines, Dale), while Hall goes a step further and seeks to abolish them altogether (SB 1150). The grassroots welcome and applaud the tidal wave of proposed transportation and toll road reforms introduced this session.

Over the last 14 years, lawmakers gave these agencies new tools and a blank check with no real oversight. With tolls everywhere and the cost of driving escalating beyond Texans’ ability to pay, this undue tax burden has reached the breaking point, and taxpayers are demanding transportation decision-making be more transparent and accountable to taxpayers. Their top priority is ensuring not one more penny of tax money gets dumped into loser toll projects that can’t pay for themselves.

Cathie Adams, President of Texas Eagle Forum, also emphasized the need to restrict the use of road tax revenues to non-toll highways, “Texans want to make sure that their tax dollars are spent on building and maintaining their roads. We are weary of those who’d rather turn transportation funds into money making schemes for foreign investors.”

JoAnn Fleming, Founder of Grassroots America, drills down into the cost to taxpayers,  “Grassroots America strongly supports a toll-free Texas. It’s time to end the corporate welfare schemes that put taxpayers on the hook for toll road losses, while the private investors are guaranteed profits. Using massive amounts of tax dollars and debt to prop up toll projects that can never pay for themselves is unethical and dishonest, but multi-leveraged tolling is not the only taxpayer abuse that must end this session.

“The Transportation Commission and the Texas Department of Transportation must be reformed. Simply shoveling more money into a broken, untrustworthy system will never fix it. Texans deserve the highest quality highways constructed at the very best price. Anything less is a failure.”

Chair of the Transportation Subcommittee to the Lt. Governor’s Grassroots Advisory Committee, Michael Openshaw, put it this way, “Debacles like SH 130 in Austin and the shortfalls at the North Texas Tollway Authority demonstrate the fiscal catastrophes of trying to get ‘innovative’ in tollway financing. Add to that the absolutely ludicrous new trend of turning the failed attempt at social engineering represented by HOV lanes (which changed no one’s behavior) now being converted to a variable toll lane for profit, fosters financial elitism and turns already paid-for lanes into money makers.”

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick adds, “As I’ve said many times in the past, we’ve relied too heavily on debt and tolls. It’s time we give transportation funding the priority it deserves and dedicate $5 billion in transportation revenue to fund transportation spending. Dedicating this revenue available through Senate Bill 5 will allow us to return to a pay-as-you-go system for our roadways and steer us away from past practices.”

“Texans have stood up against toll roads time and time again, and I’m proud to be a longtime friend to TURF and like-minded groups. Property rights and fiscal transparency should always take priority when we plan our roads in Texas,” Kolkhorst affirmed.

Reflecting the sea change against tolling, Senator Hall stated, “Under the old pay-as-you-go concepts, toll lanes were once a viable option for funding road construction. However, with the introduction of private equity funding and exotic funding schemes, they have become a double tax on the public and a tool for governments to control population behavior.”

“Texas has been a beacon of job creation and innovation, which has led to rapid population growth in our state. But this growth has strained our transportation infrastructure. We must provide proper funding of our roads for Texas families and businesses without burdening them with higher taxes. Toll roads are not the answer. The government shouldn’t charge Texans twice to drive on their roads. Texans made their voices clear with the passing of Proposition 1, and we need to step up and fund our roads without increased taxes, tolls, and fees. We need the best roads in America. We have neglected road funding for 30 years. It is past time that the Texas Legislature made it a priority to fund our roads,” advocates Huffines.

“Our Texas drivers and taxpayers demand a toll-free future. It is wrong to continue to subject them to the ‘double tax’ of transportation taxes and tolls. It should be our commitment to deliver toll-free highways for our constituents,” argues Shaheen.

“Texas Taxpayers expect and deserve a more honest and open government that properly addresses transportation infrastructure – one of the core functions of government – without raising taxes, increasing fees or adding onerous tolls. As Legislators, we have an obligation to invest in our state’s ongoing transportation needs in a responsible and transparent manner in order to sustain our state’s continued economic success and quality of life, and I laud Representative Sanford for his leadership and vision in advancing ‘Toll Free Texas’ for all hardworking Texans,” urges Leach.

Anti-toll advocates seem to have the momentum as both Governor Greg Abbott and the Lt. Governor campaigned on many of these reforms. But taking nothing for granted, the ‘Toll-free Texas’ grassroots coalition sacrificed their time and dime to come to the Capitol anyway, realizing toll entities, local governments, and transportation boards want the status quo and will lobby hard to water-down and defeat needed reforms. But given the support of the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Transportation Committee members, the winds of change are blowing in favor of Texas taxpayers.

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 nine turned citizen activist. Ms. Hall is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.