The Texas economy, called the ‘Texas miracle’ by politicians’ PR machine, cannot continue when many commuters are now facing $200-$400 monthly toll bills. The cost is so punitive, most Texans are being priced off the toll roads, which means they’re stuck in gridlock with longer and longer commutes, diminishing quality of life, and inhibiting the freedom of travel and the efficient movement of people and goods.
By Terri Hall l July 6, 2015
Texas, under former Governor Rick Perry, is the state that gave America the Trans-Texas Corridor, a vital link for the NAFTA Superhighway Trade Corridor and Toll Road System, providing globalization’s open borders and access to cheap labor.
The 84th session of the biennial Texas legislature recently concluded, but the fallout will be felt by taxpayers for decades to come. Over 75 bills were filed to replace or curtail tolling or to make it more transparent and accountable. When factoring in property rights and efforts to restrict eminent domain abuse, the total came to 96. So a pipeline full of bills should have sent a strong message to leadership that the taxpayers sent elected officials to Austin to significantly curb if not stop the spread of toll roads. But the momentum quickly came to a halt when only a handful of anti-toll bills got a hearing, and very few key bills passed. Of those that did, most were watered down.
Transportation and toll road concerns have been front and center for many years as a toll road onslaught has taken hold across the state, but Texans overwhelmingly elected a new governor, Greg Abbott, last year who campaigned against toll roads. He emphasized in the debates, “My plan does not involve any toll roads, period. I’m not interested in adding toll roads in my plan.”
So the expectation of voters is that Abbott is going to stop the march of toll roads. But Abbott’s sole focus during the session was getting additional funds to the highway department and restricting those funds to non-toll projects. Meanwhile, 100% of the state highway fund (comprised of gasoline taxes and registration fees), can and is being used to subsidize loser toll projects. In fact, over $6 billion has already been diverted to toll projects, which is a Texas-sized double tax.
The Texas GOP platform and grassroots advocacy groups want the flow of public money subsidizing toll roads to stop as well as to remove the toll once the road is paid for (ie – once the debt is retired). But neither the House nor Senate moved those bills. Only three of the grassroots’ top seven priorities made it through.
Abbott campaigned on dedicating a portion of the vehicle sales tax to highways and made it an emergency item in his State of the State address. The purpose is to get a long-term, reliable revenue source for highways since, by law, TxDOT has to show how it will fund projects 25 years into the future and it cannot put a project into the long-range plan until it shows how it will it be funded.
Gasoline taxes alone have not been adequate to fund new capacity for quite some time, but fearing the wrath of voters if they raised the gas tax, the legislature at the cheerful insistence of former Governor Rick Perry, turned to toll roads as their get out of jail free card. However, paying tolls is ghastly more expensive (15 – 80 cents a mile compared to 1-2 cents a mile for a gas tax funded road) than any gas tax increase, so the punitive, escalating toll taxes have caused a backlash. The Texas Transportation Institute found in a survey last fall that of 15 possible transportation solutions, Texans ranked toll roads dead last.
Those pesky gas tax diversions
Another reason for the funding shortfall, which is a particularly sore spot with taxpayers, has been the legislature’s persistent raid of gas taxes for non-road purposes. So this session, the legislature did put an end to most diversions, funding the Department of Public Safety (DPS) through another source. Ending the DPS diversion does add an additional $675 million to the highway fund annually. However, twenty-five percent of the gas tax is still diverted to public education. To end it would require a change to the Texas Constitution, which the legislature is already doing with SJR 5, and they could have included an end (or even a phase out) of the school diversion on the ballot.
Instead of truth in taxation, the legislature chose to use some general sales tax to plug the road funding hole in SJR 5, when they could have used that same sales tax (which already funds schools) to replace the lost school funding in order to send 100% of the gas tax to the highway fund as taxpayers expect. This is a much simpler and more transparent approach, but that was rejected in favor of a complicated new formula the average citizen cannot possibly trace to the original tax.
Success can be measured as much by what didn’t pass as what did pass.
While anti-toll advocates may not be wholly pleased with their lack of progress in getting their bills through the 84th session of the Texas legislature, they were successful in stopping many other bills that would have sailed through in prior sessions under former Governor Rick Perry’s pro-toll leadership. Incoming Governor Greg Abbott’s campaign promise to fix Texas roads without raising taxes, fees, or tolls immediately changed the atmosphere at the Capitol.
However, despite Abbott’s pledge and focus on ethics and diminishing lobbying by former legislators, the influence of high-powered lobbyists, many hired by local governments and big business interests seeking special favors, continues to compromise pro-taxpayer and property rights bills despite changes at the top.
Property rights a mixed bag
Eminent domain and roads go hand in hand, and eminent domain in the hands of private companies is one of the worst infringements on private property rights imaginable. HB 565 authored by Rep. Cindy Burkett (Senator Bob Hall filed a similar bill in the Senate – SB 444) to strip a grandfathered private toll corporation of its eminent domain authority would have effectively stopped the controversial Blacklands toll road east of Dallas. But this bill was watered down to allow the company, Texas Turnpike Corporation (TTC), to still enter into a hybrid deal like a publicprivate partnership. Toll rates on P3s are in excess of 80 cents per mile, and use public money to subsidize the potential losses of the private toll operator. TTC hired the lobby firm headed by the former Transportation Commission Chairwoman under Perry, Deirdre Delisi, whose mother is also a former legislator.
Another threat to rural Texas is the plan by Japanese private developer, Texas Central Railway, to build a high speed rail line between Dallas and Houston. Senate rider #48 was added to the budget by Charles Schwertner to block any state funds from going to subsidize the controversial rail line. However, it failed to stay in the final bill after some of the most powerful lobbyists in the state fought it. This despite the claim by the company in Senate Transportation Committee testimony that it would not seek any state funds for its private project.
Accountability, reform, and transparency a mixed bag
For taxpayers, how toll roads are done are just as important as making progress in stopping them. In the 84th legislative session of the Texas Legislature that came to a close yesterday, concerned citizens are left stunned by the lack of action in holding toll entities accountable, despite a laundry list of scandal, waste, and abuse. The North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) is currently under investigation by the FBI for concerns about undisclosed conflicts of interest with some board members. A class action lawsuit was filed against the NTTA for excessive fines and fees, and the unpopularity of toll roads is reflected in the unpopularity of the unelected toll agencies that implement them. Yet, no action was taken to subject these agencies to sunset review, or even a forensic state audit.
Rep. Cindy Burkett picked up where former legislators like former Rep. Ken Paxton now Attorney General left off in carrying the bill to subject the scandal-ridden NTTA to sunset review, HB 572. It never got out of committee, so she attempted to tack it onto another sunset bill, but it, too, failed.
Another bill filed by Burkett, HB 2620, would have made traffic and revenue studies or toll viability studies subject to open records laws and available to the public. Currently, such vital financial information is kept secret from the public and even elected officials. The NTTA testified against the bill and toll agencies vehemently fought the disclosure. It eventually passed the House Transportation Committee right before the deadline, but ran out of time to pass the full House. The senate version filed by Kolkhorst and Hall never got a hearing.
HB 13 by House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Joe Pickett was initially designed to be the enabling legislation to his own version of the big road funding bill SJR 5 (HJR 13), but when the Senate added Hall’s bill to curb red light cameras and another amendment by Sen. Van Taylor to prevent the last remaining freeway in Collin County, US-75, from having its HOV lanes converted into toll lanes, Pickett called a point of order and killed his own bill.
Several bills were filed to prevent the conversion of freeway lanes into toll lanes (another form of double taxation) and were a top priority for taxpayer groups, but none of them made it out of the House Committee, and they never even got a hearing in the Senate.
So there were many missed opportunities to restrain toll roads and protect taxpayers from this unaccountable new tax on driving. While the primary blame lies with the leadership, there were several floor votes by the members that could have enacted needed reforms to toll road abuses.
The Texas economy, called the ‘Texas miracle’ by politicians’ PR machine, cannot continue when many commuters are now facing $200-$400 monthly toll bills. The cost is so punitive, most Texans are being priced off the toll roads, which means they’re stuck in gridlock with longer and longer commutes, diminishing quality of life, and inhibiting the freedom of travel and the efficient movement of people and goods. Now it’s time for taxpayers to hold the leadership and the legislature accountable for their actions – both good and bad.
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.