TXDOT Yanks Free Lanes from I-35 Toll Project

By Terri Hall l November 28, 2011

Once again lawmakers can’t trust the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). Needed expansion of Interstate 35 in Denton County got thrown into the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) sunset bill, SB 1420, as a public private partnership (P3) toll project, with the understanding that free ‘general purpose’ lanes would also be part of the deal. Now TxDOT has reneged.

Privatizing public roadways, the lifeline of daily living, has riddled our state with controversy since it first came on the scene with the Trans-Texas Corridor. Ceding our bought-and-paid-for public infrastructure over to private, most often foreign, corporations is NOT popular with most Texans and I suspect with most Americans; but it’s happening all across the country. Both political parties have a plank against it in their platforms. That’s just window dressing and doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to ripping off the taxpayers.

The legislature put the brakes on such deals in 2007, only to bring them back again (on a limited basis) this year. Texans haven’t changed their minds, but what did change was the economy and the composition of the Texas Legislature. Lawmakers walked into the session with a daunting budget shortfall and a healthy aversion to tax increases, especially given the sour economy. Then, Republicans gained a ‘supermajority’ in the Texas House locking down total control of the legislature by a single party under the leadership of Governor Rick Perry — one of the biggest road privatization advocates in the nation.

Though both political parties vote with the special interests and road lobby, Republicans have willingly cow-towed to Perry’s agenda of selling off everything that’s not nailed down, starting with Texas roadways. Under the misguided premise that privatizing government functions is always more efficient and saves money, Perry and many libertarian (Reason Foundation & Cato Institute) and some ‘conservative’ think tanks (Texas Public Policy Foundation and Heritage Foundation) sell road privatization as the ‘free market’ solution to road funding shortfalls, where the private sector brings the up-front money to the table for which they get the right to make a return on their investment through tolls, usually negotiated using long-term P3 contracts for 50, 75 or even 99 years at a time. They claim tolls are a ‘user fee’ rather than a tax and that private entities can do the job better than government.

Neither is true when it comes to roads. P3s represent public money for private profits. In every case in Texas, the taxpayers shelled out significant revenue to build the toll project. In one deal, three-quarters of the cost was borne by the taxpayer and only one-quarter brought to the table by the private entity. When public money is used to build the project, yet motorists must pay a toll to use the lane, the toll is no longer a ‘user fee’ but rather a tax, actually a DOUBLE tax.

Also, P3s contain non-compete clauses in their agreements that prohibit or penalize the expansion of free roads surrounding the privatized toll road granting the private corporations a MONOPOLY over our public infrastructure, which is anything BUT ‘free market.’ Politicians nationwide, including Austin and Washington, are also accustomed to Robin Hood-type redistribution of revenues, stealing toll revenue from one corridor to pay for another (or borrowing against the tolls from one corridor to build part of another and so on), which also makes the toll a tax, not a ‘user fee.’ At the end of the day, it’s an old fashioned shell game.

So back to I-35 in Denton, when will lawmakers learn they can’t trust TxDOT, nor take it at its word? They’re all snake oil salesmen and will do a bait and switch EVERY time. They’ll tell lawmakers one thing to get the project written into the bill, as a P3, just to win enough votes for passage; and then when legislators have gone home, they’ll renege as they’ve done here. The Texas Legislature had the chance to gut and reform TxDOT for two sessions, but they blew it and caved to Rick Perry’s cronyism. Lawmakers, many of them bought-off by the road lobby themselves, left Perry’s pet agency alone despite mounds of scathing reports and audits revealing how dysfunctional it is.

Now local officials are in a panic over how to get the project built and include free lanes, not just toll lanes — privatized toll lanes at that! So to take the words from a popular Christmas carol, though it’s been said many times, many ways…there is nothing ‘merry’ about toll roads and dealing with TxDOT.

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.