Governor Abbott can change the tide very quickly with his new chairman and commissioner at the Texas Transportation Commission. Frankly, short of the RTC firing Morris, DFW residents have few options to stop his march to impose the largest managed toll lane network in the country. State lawmakers continue to be ignored by Morris. In fact, he works against elected officials’ efforts to represent their constituents’ opposition to new toll taxes. Residents do not get to choose who represents them on the RTC, and the board is so big, 44 members, it’s hard for residents in one corridor to sway the votes of the other 43 members to stop tolls.
By Terri Hall | September 29, 2015
Community Impact Newspaper/Photo by Renee Hansen
Many Texans struggle to get around without having to pay tolls and now they’re asking, just who’s responsible for this punitive new tax? The answer is Michael Morris. Morris is the Executive Director of the Regional Transportation Council (RTC) and its parent bureaucracy, the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG).
Back in 2005, when former Governor Rick Perry had already begun his steady march to impose tolls in earnest across Texas, Morris was on board even before Perry took office. In a Texas Transportation Commission meeting that December, Morris gave a lengthy diatribe to the commission in support of the possibility of presiding over the largest toll managed lane network in America.
There is no question that Morris is the man behind the curtain. He’s an unelected federal employee who’s become an institutionalized bureaucrat that outlasts elected officials — local, state and federal — and many DFW residents. He even admitted to being an emissary of the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) toll agenda when he stated, “I’m often in front of you promoting some of the statewide initiatives you have me working on.”
Morris was an early supporter of Perry’s controversial Trans-Texas Corridor, too: “…you know our region has come before you that says that we think the best way to develop the Trans-Texas Corridor near Dallas-Fort Worth is to integrate it into the regional transportation system.”
“We have gotten the message, we have the tools. Dallas-Fort Worth region has been working on toll roads since 1993,” bragged Morris.
Indeed, he mentioned 20 toll projects were in the works and referred to toll roads as an ‘institutional mechanism,’ even calling the full implementation of his toll managed lane dream a ‘luxury.’
“We are at the luxury now to be at the last step which is the institutional mechanism.”
Morris also admitted to the fact most of the 20 toll projects already had environmental clearance as freeways, but several had to be re-evaluated (at great cost to the taxpayers) once the projects were turned into toll roads. Plus, he readily acknowledged the DFW region was using gas taxes to build them – clearly double taxation.
In Morris’ statement, he explained both Highway 121 in Denton County and Highway 161 in Dallas County had been funded by TxDOT with gas taxes. Then Morris lowered the boom that TxDOT’s minute order “gave us permission as a staff, through your districts, to knock on their (Denton and Dallas county officials) door and try to convince those two communities a toll road would be a better option.”
You read that right. Morris actually lobbied to take two freeway projects and turn them into double tax toll roads on the taxpayers’ dime.
Multi-leveraging tolls with tax dollars
One of the aspects of implementing the tolling as a perpetual institutional mechanism was the use of multiple sources of public money to subsidize toll projects that can’t pay for themselves — institutionalized by Morris personally.
“What you’ve got to make sure you do in this business is don’t cherry pick the best toll road projects and have them as stand-alone toll projects and then you don’t have enough revenue to be able to systematize the toll revenue to build all the transportation projects in the whole corridor,” Morris opined.
Indeed, ‘system financing,’ meaning the use of toll revenues from one corridor to pay for another, was already at the disposal of the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA), and thanks to Morris, became the standard for tolling around the state. So the toll user is no longer paying for the road they’re driving on. That revenue is used for myriad other toll and non-toll projects elsewhere.
Managed lanes California-ize Texas
The new thinking is guided by the assumption you can’t possibly build enough lanes to relieve the congestion, so now the only option is to ‘manage’ it by manipulating people through pricing.
Tolls as a traffic management tool is California-izing Texas. California bought into the same philosophy, only sooner. They added HOV lanes and then stopped expanding highways.
As a result, California has some of the most congested highways in the world. They’re now ‘selling’ the excess capacity in their failed HOV lane system to single occupancy vehicles (SOV) if drivers pay a toll for the privilege of using lanes their gas taxes already paid for.
If ever you could manipulate someone out of their car and into a bus or carpool it would be in gridlocked California, but it didn’t work. With tolls adding to the tax burden and stagnant wages, people are now fleeing California.
Texas elected officials have been enticing California residents to come to the cradle of liberty – Texas. Why? Only to face the exact same social engineering tactics that will price them off their public freeways? Like California, they’re not going to get Texans out of their cars, no matter how much pain they try to inflict.
The individual auto is the very symbol of freedom. Just watch a car commercial. When you follow the history of highways, car ownership created the middle class in America. No longer were people trapped in cities. They were now mobile and could see the country and gain freedom – both economic freedom and freedom of movement. It marked the rise of the suburbs, too. Americans could now drive into the cities for work, but enjoy home ownership in the suburbs (versus high density housing in cities). Now Texas is buying into the Smart Growth policies of the past and again trying to herd everyone into high density housing in the inner core and make them dependent on mass transit to gain mobility.
The interstate highway system, America’s freeways paid for by gas tax revenues, generated the greatest economic expansion in American history. Now that’s under threat with tolls and managed lanes, creating road scarcity, which will contract economic expansion.
Governor Greg Abbott has made policy speeches that indicate his disdain for big government local policies that try to control people’s behavior, whether texting bans or grocery bag bans. How much more will congestion tolling destroy the very fabric of travel freedom? The original excuse to toll all these freeways was that it was the only way to get them funded. Now the real reason is starting to surface. It’s been about big government social engineering all along.
Another way Morris and other bureaucrats controlling local transportation boards impose their will is by diverting hundreds of millions in road taxes to transit projects few commuters ever use, creating more road scarcity by drying up road funds. Morris’ long-range plan submitted to TxDOT and the feds shows the goal is to induce auto users to switch to transit.
Transit options not seen as viable
In the DFW area, its light rail system operated by the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), has expanded the system 100%, and yet ridership only went up 50%. Officials have only expanded the system and still, ridership has seen no appreciable increase. DART oversees the largest light rail system in North America at one of the highest costs per rider/taxpayer.
Why would any commuter in their right mind use rail to get to the airport when a trip by car takes 15 minutes and by rail it takes 58 minutes?
Who’s really in charge?
The billion dollar question remains: who’s really deciding that Texas is not going to expand anymore highways once toll managed lanes are added to every freeway? Certainly not Texas voters and taxpayers. This decision is coming down from unelected bureaucrats and forcibly being imposed upon Texans without their consent, and largely without their knowledge.
Abbott can change the tide very quickly with his new chairman and commissioner at the Texas Transportation Commission. Frankly, short of the RTC firing Morris, DFW residents have few options to stop his march to impose the largest managed toll lane network in the country. State lawmakers continue to be ignored by Morris. In fact, he works against elected officials’ efforts to represent their constituents’ opposition to new toll taxes. Residents do not get to choose who represents them on the RTC, and the board is so big, 44 members, it’s hard for residents in one corridor to sway the votes of the other 43 members to stop tolls.
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.