Victory! Tolls come off several Texas highways

Tolls come down: Precedent set as toll comes off two Texas highways

The bureaucrats couldn’t fight the momentum. Texans have been calling for tolls to come off roads once they’re paid for and thanks to passage of Senate Bill 312, the Texas Transportation Commission voted to do just that on Camino Colombia SH 255 in Laredo and on Cesar Chavez Border Highway in El Paso. To add icing on the cake, the Dallas City Council also voted to deep six the controversial Trinity Toll Road after a 20 year battle, and the Commission is also mulling changing plans on US 183 North in Austin to expand it as non-toll instead of tolled. All that in a matter of weeks.

The last time tolls were removed from a road in Texas was in 1977 — forty years ago. But it’s not without some wailing and gnashing of teeth by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Commission that governs it.

TxDOT never thinks it has enough money, despite Texans voting to swell its coffers by nearly $5 billion more a year by passing Proposition 1 (in 2014) and Proposition 7 (in 2015). So the department cannot stand the idea of losing its own personal revenue stream that’s not accountable to taxpayers, and it fought tooth and nail to prevent it. But thanks to quick work by State Representatives Joe Pickett (D – El Paso) and Richard Raymond (D – Laredo), they attached their amendments to take the tolls off highways in their districts to must-pass sunset legislation, and both amendments managed to survive a pro-toll conference committee.

Commissioner Jeff Austin said he hates to see the revenue removed from Camino Colombia though he also stated he was in support of taking the toll off as an isolated incident. Austin tried to limit support for removing tolls strictly to roads that would never need to be expanded. So all these toll ‘managed lanes’ (that are not financially viable projects to begin with) that are plunked down the middle of existing highways in urban areas are roads that will need future expansion. So it’s safe to conclude Austin is arguing for tolls to remain in perpetuity as long as they can find another use for your money (ie – extending the toll road at some future time).

Make no mistake. TxDOT does not want tolls to stop because it sets a precedent and expectation that tolls should come off roads once the debt is retired. The only reason these tolls are coming down is because lawmakers had to force it through legislation. TxDOT argues no road is ever paid for because of maintenance. But Pickett, former House Transportation Committee Chair for many years, rejects that argument saying that the department could absorb the cost of maintaining the small network of toll roads currently open to traffic once the debt for those highways is paid off.

It’s like a drop in the bucket according to Pickett. “I’d like to think a state that maintains 80,000 miles could absorb 400-500 miles of lanes if it took the tolls off certain projects,” Pickett argued at an interim committee hearing last year.

Pickett said that only 6 percent of the traffic on the Border Highway uses the toll lanes and they’re only used roughly two to three hours a day. He argues the toll ‘managed lanes’ cause more traffic than they alleviate.

“We have a road that goes unused 21 hours a day, seven days a week,” Pickett said. “That’s ridiculous.” He later told the Commission that “not all toll projects are bad, just most of them.”

Pickett told the Washington Post that ‘tolls are designed to be in perpetuity now,” allowing unelected bureaucrats to grow their toll systems into ‘bureaucratic behemoths.’

Raymond echoed Pickett’s sentiment during a House Transportation Committee hearing on his stand alone bill in April, “You don’t want a toll on this road. It’s paid for. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Most Texans wholeheartedly agree with his assessment. No one should be charged a toll to use a road that’s paid for, otherwise it’s double taxation. The move to remove tolls once a road’s debt is retired is one of several recommendations that came out of the interim legislative study by the House Transportation Committee when it was led by Pickett in 2016. It’s also in keeping with the 2016 Texas GOP platform that calls for the same.

History of double taxation
In 2000, Camino Colombia started as Texas’ first privately built and operated tollway, hoping to capture border traffic and attract trucks from nearby congested Interstate-35. But just like SH 130, Texas’ first public-private partnership (P3) that opened twelve years later in 2012, it went bankrupt shortly thereafter. TxDOT bought the $85 million Camino Colombia tollway for $20 million from an insurance company that snatched it up at a fire sale price on the courthouse steps for $12 million. No debt was owed on SH 255 from that point on, yet TxDOT continued to charge tolls and traffic remains anemic. Local officials are hopeful now that tolls are coming down that trucks will finally move off I-35 in Laredo and take SH 255, which was designed as a bypass to avoid downtown congestion in the first place.

The Border Highway toll managed lane project was also paid for with state funds, yet Texans have to pay a toll to use it. Even more egregious is the Loop 375 Border West Expressway, also in El Paso, that’s not even open yet.

First, the entire project is paid for state funds. Not one penny of debt is owed, yet drivers will be be charged tolls to use it (it’s currently under construction). The project is jointly owned by the state and the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority (or RMA), even though the RMA put no funds into the project. The state gave them $500 million in Texas Mobility Funds, granting the RMA ownership in proportion to that dollar amount, and the state paid the $130 million balance of the $630 million project with gasoline taxes.

So the state gave away more than eighty percent ownership to an unelected toll authority who will gain over eighty percent of the toll revenues in perpetuity for a highway that’s already paid for by taxpayers. Pickett warned the Commission this project would likely spark another fight to remove the toll designation when it comes online.

More Texas highways share the same genesis as Camino Colombia and Cesar Chavez — projects that are 100% paid for with gas taxes and other public funds (like the Katy managed toll lanes in Houston and MoPac, SH 71, SH 45 SW, and SH 45 SE in Austin), yet tolls are being charged simply as a new tax for bureaucrats to spend (and raise in perpetuity) without accountability.

End run around toll removal
The drumbeat to remove tolls once a road is paid for has prompted toll bureaucracies and TxDOT to refinance their toll systems in order to co-mingle the projects financially into a single system so that they can claim nothing is paid off for at least a generation. But such moves by unelected boards triggers greater anti-toll fervor, and the call to remove tolls only gets louder as other parts of the state ask why they are being charged tolls when others get the benefit of having tolls removed. It’s going to get harder and harder for elected officials to answer those questions and survive politically.

While President Donald Trump seems bent on pushing tolls and more P3s at the federal level, Texas continues to experience toll fatigue and gets Texas-sized pushback to more tolling, especially in the hands of private companies that get bailed out by taxpayers.

SH 130’s recent bankruptcy sent a grassroots coalition over the edge prompting them to fire off a letter to Attorney General Ken Paxton asking where was the state in representing the public interest in bankruptcy court when it wiped out nearly all of the $1.4 billion of the private entity’s debt (it now owes a mere $250 million), giving the highway that’s virtually paid for to the previous bond holders to continue to soak Texas taxpayers with tolls for the next 45 years? The new owner-operators stand to make millions, if not billions, in profit for the next two generations thanks to the generosity of the courts.

Expect the demand for tolls to come down to get fierce by the time the legislature comes back into session in 2019. Senator Lois Kolkhorst and State Rep. Matt Shaheen have consistently authored the bill to do just that. Neither bill got a hearing in the last two sessions, but Shaheen offered it as an amendment to SB 312 and it failed 74-53. Those numbers will likely reverse by 2019. Anti-toll advocates are working furiously to ensure that’s the case.

BAIT & SWITCH: TxDOT yanks express lane, shrinks existing capacity on US 281 in Alamo city

UPDATE as of July 13, 2017:
TxDOT finally responded to our inquiries about this apparent bait & switch on the lane count on US 281. They produced the same schematic presented to the public and clarified the new lanes in the southern section are technically auxiliary lanes and transition lanes from the interchange, so they don’t technically count those in the lane number, however, there will be FOUR main lanes each direction up to Stone Oak Parkway.

Double crossed: Express lane taken away, turned into HOV-bus lane after new lane promised to public
Congestion weary commuters thought they’d finally get a break. Expansion of US 281 in San Antonio is set to go to construction on Sunday, July 17, but it’s not what the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) presented to the public. Today, US 281 has three general purpose lanes each direction (from Loop 1604 to Evans Rd.). The plan  was to add an additional HOV-bus lane, overpasses (so cars can bypass those wretched stop lights impeding traffic flow), and to build frontage roads to the outside of the existing highway.However, the plan now shows only two express lanes each direction and one HOV/bus lane. So they’re taking away an existing express lane and shrinking the expressway from three down to two. The unelected bureaucrats at TxDOT and the local transportation boards point you to the new frontage roads as the new capacity.281 schematic from July 2017TxDOT’s explanation as of July 10, 2017: The $192 million project to expand US 281 to a six-lane expressway with frontage roads between LP 1604 and Stone Oak Parkway will begin on July 17. The finished product will have three express lanes in each direction, one of those lanes being reserved for transit and carpool vehicles. Frontage roads will match the existing road today with two or three lanes each way.

I went to Jacobs Engineering to review the plans a year ago to ensure there would be four main lanes each way — three general purpose lanes and one HOV-bus lane each direction (because this has been a bone of contention for over a decade). Now, that’s not what they’re going to build according to a new schematic being promoted by TxDOT. Too bad so sad for John Q taxpayer, though. They pulled a fast one and they’re going to construction this weekend.

April 30, 2016 Official Jacobs schematic for 281 & EncinoRio - click to view detail

Bait & Switch: This is what was presented in the final public Open House for the US 281 project in May 2016. We obtained this directly from the consultant doing the schematics, Jacobs Engineering. Compare this to the schematic above and you’ll see they’re shrinking exisiting highway capacity and converting an existing general purpose lane into a restricted HOV-bus lane, which violates both current law and a law that takes effect on September 1 — a law we worked to get in place for precisely this reason — to prevent TxDOT from intentionally causing congestion on our public highways by converting existing lanes into toll lanes or other restricted lanes and crediting frontage roads as the new ‘highway’ capacity.

To add insult to injury, Webber got the contract. Webber Construction passes itself off as an American company, but it’s a subsidiary of Ferrovial, the parent company of Spain-based Cintra who tried to privatize and toll US 281 back in 2005. It’s also the company that went bankrupt on the first Texas public-private toll project, SH 130. Of course, nothing is coincidence when you’re dealing with a crony system deliberately set-up to abuse taxpayers by allowing unelected bureaucrats to direct contracts to well-connected companies. Cintra’s lobbyists have been alive and well at TxDOT and in the state capitol since toll roads became Rick Perry’s legacy 15 years ago.

The timing is suspect, too. Anti-toll groups just passed a new state law that protects taxpayers against the conversion of an existing general purpose lane into an HOV or toll lane (or from having a general purpose lane downgraded to a frontage road). However, it doesn’t take effect until September 1.

Many consider Texas the cradle of liberty and a bastion of limited government conservatism. But who let’s a state agency abuse taxpayers and deliberately thumb their noses at a state law they know is coming online that was passed by wide margins by the people’s duly elected officials? Who sits idly by and allows bureaucrats to overrule their elected representatives and sneak in a change that shrinks highway capacity and will do irreparable harm to a major U.S. highway for a generation? Apparently Alamo city state and local elected officials will unless the people speak up.

Texans angered over SH 130 bankruptcy deal that wipes out money owed to taxpayers

Zero: Money owed taxpayers for SH 130 toll road erased by bankruptcy court

The defunct SH 130 tollway just emerged from bankruptcy court and the news isn’t good for taxpayers. In 2007, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) entered into a Comprehensive Development Agreement, or public private partnership, with SH 130 Concession Company, a subsidiary of Spain-based Cintra and Zachry Toll Road 56, which had ownership dispersed among Australian and many other foreign entities. The 41-mile southern stretch of SH 130 opened in November 2012, designed to be a bypass around congested downtown Austin. But the traffic never materialized and the private concession company sought bankruptcy protection in March 2016. According to the terms that emerged from bankruptcy court, all of the private entity’s $1.4 billion debt was wiped away, leaving federal taxpayers left holding the bag for the $430 million federally-backed Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan given to the private entities.

Texas taxpayers feel betrayed. Former Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson swore under oath before the Senate Transportation Committee on March 1, 2007, that if the private entities went bankrupt, the Texas taxpayers would get the road back free and clear of any debt. Free and clear means no debt obligations, and therefore no need to continue to charge tolls for usage. However, that didn’t happen. Instead, new owners were brought in, Strategic Value Partners, $260 million in new debt was issued, and the new private company will continue to charge tolls until the contract is up in 2062 — for a road that now owes virtually no debt compared to its original $1.4 billion.

The Build America Bureau, an arm of the federal government, is also a 34 percent owner in the new deal, as a move to placate the expected taxpayer backlash for having the taxpayers’ original federal loan wiped out by the court. Specializing in distressed assets, Strategic Value Partners is yet another global company with offices in Connecticut, England, Germany and Japan.

Some are asking why the state of Texas didn’t step in and insist the public interest was protected and defended in bankruptcy court. Taxpayers have a right to know why they didn’t get the road back, why their $430 million federal TIFIA loan was wiped out, and why they have to continue paying tolls for another 45 years to use a road that’s lost $1.2 billion of its $1.4 billion original value. The state also had a revenue sharing agreement with the previous owners, Cintra-Zachry. Will the state ever see any of that promised toll revenue?

Track record of failure
This isn’t the first time the taxpayers ended up on the losing end of such a public-private toll road deal. The South Bay Expressway in San Diego went bankrupt in less than three years of operation, and federal taxpayers were forced to write down nearly $80 million on that federal TIFIA loan in 2011 — a loss of 42 percent. There’s a growing list of toll road failures, yet these private equity firms know how to make money even when they go bankrupt through tax benefits and by how they set-up their complicated corporate structures.  They funnel everything through their own subsidiaries. The deals are set-up so that one arm pays the other a host of fees (management fees, transaction fees, etc.) and oftentimes even pays the company’s own construction firm to build the project, among other gimmicks.

Short-seller investor and president of Kynikos Associates, Jim Chanos, recently felt the need to remind Americans that the techniques used by Australian company, Macquarie Group, under public private partnerships are politically unpopular, and rather than drain the swamp, put Wall Street over Main Street.

”In my own view, these public-private projects are not what core supporters thought they were getting with Trump. It’s going to be great for Wall Street investment banks, but I’m skeptical that a lot of people are going to be able to get excited about the economic growth coming from them,” Chanos said in a June interview with Institute for New Economic Thinking.

The critic credited with being the first to spot Enron’s financial fraud compares Macquarie’s financial antics to a Ponzi scheme. With President Donald Trump signaling he wants to push public private partnerships and toll roads as a major part of his $1 trillion infrastructure plan, it’s necessary to sound the alarm bells anew.

Gotcha provisions that come back to haunt taxpayers
These corporations have an army of lawyers to ensure their investors get a return on their investment, so aside from the public subsidies, they find creative ways to further socialize every potential loss through ‘compensation events,’ ‘non-compete clauses’ (that prohibit or penalize the expansion of free routes), ‘adverse event’ triggers, and even manipulation of speed limits on free routes.

Texas taxpayers are also paying to subsidize truck toll rates to get truckers to take SH 130 ($18.7 million/yr). While the subsidies only technically apply to TxDOT’s section of SH 130, it still provides indirect relief to the private section of SH 130 by increasing the number of truck toll payers. Private equity firms also force taxpayers to pay for other losses like uncollectible tolls, and they use the state as their toll collector – giving them access to the power to block vehicle registration for failure to pay a toll.

Anti-toll advocates say giving that kind of power to private corporations that the people cannot hold accountable gives up the state’s sovereignty over public infrastructure and critical corridors that are the very lifeblood of the Texas economy. They say no elected official should cede control of public roads, and therefore hand the keys of the Texas economy, over to private corporations in such sweetheart deals.

Revolving door
Deirdre Delisi, former Chair of Texas Transportation Commission, is now a new board member for Strategic Value Partners. Strategic Value Partners could be cashing in on her inside connections to TxDOT since this road has major structural and pavement issues yet to be resolved with TxDOT. According to a San Antonio Express-News investigative report, “The end of the road,” by Katherine Bluntpublished in September 2016, an independent contractor, HDR engineering, found 160 pavement defects in its 2014 inspection. In a letter to the company in 2015, the state notes, “TxDOT remains concerned with the short-term and long-term deficiencies related to the pavement conditions.”

In addition to the pavement deficiencies, TxDOT also found Cintra-Zachry to be in ‘persistent developer default’ (defined as 52 or more breaches in a one-year period), which encompasses not only the pavement deficiencies, but also other areas of its contract, constituting a breach of contract. The concession company had amassed 122 in just 2015 alone. Plus, there has been a significant increase in flooding events since the road was built, leaving homeowners in the area with 30 inches of water in their homes at times.

TxDOT said this, too, was a breach of contract, and demanded the company construct detention ponds at a cost of $1.4 million. Texas taxpayers and homeowners have a right to know if these pavement defects, flooding problems, and persistent developer defaults will be remediated by the new owners per the original contract or whether this, too, will be wiped away by the bankruptcy court or by undue influence exerted by Delisi, as a board member of the new company with close ties inside TxDOT.

A coalition of anti-toll and conservative grassroots groups are asking Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to insist the new owners comply with the original contract by making needed repairs at no extra cost to Texas taxpayers and determine why Texans did not get the highway back, allowing it to become toll-free. In the meantime, Texans will continue to pay tolls to a group of foreign investors for a generation.

TxDOT bill hijacked by toll lobby, loopholes diminish anti-toll progress

Hastily approved TxDOT sunset bill offers some toll relief, but riddled with new loopholes

As the Texas legislature comes to a close tomorrow, the antics of some lawmakers warrants scrutiny when it comes to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) sunset bill, SB 312, that passed yesterday evening. The House passed a strong anti-toll bill May 17, adding several good anti-toll measures pushed by grassroots pro-taxpayer groups for over a decade. SB 312 must pass or the highway department goes away. Rather than concur with the House version, the Senate chose to reject the House version (which signaled trouble ahead), forcing both the House and Senate to appoint a conference committee to work out the differences in the bill.

This is where the chicanery usually happens, and it did.

The Texas Legislature web site did not have SB 312’s conference committee report available to be viewed by the public until after 2 PM Saturday. It was not eligible to be voted on until 2:10 PM Sunday, yet the House suspended the rules and rushed a vote to concur with the conference committee’s changes at 6:30 PM. The Senate did the same before it adjourned Saturday evening as well — pushing passage of a 100-page bill before anyone could read what was in it.

The rules governing conference committees are very limited. Conferees cannot add anything into a bill that isn’t already in either version the House or Senate passed. They essentially decide what amendments stay in or get removed. On rare occasions, they could go to their colleagues and ask them to vote to go ‘outside the bounds’ of what a conference committee can do in order to add in new language under strict limits if lawmakers agree. However, loopholes and exceptions were added to SB 312, and the House and Senate authors did not fully notice their colleagues of the loopholes and completely new language they added.

For example, at the very end of this lengthy bill in Section 78 pertaining to the prohibition on an HOV lane being converted into a toll lane, it grants a new exception for all projects that are contained in the state’s air quality implementation plan prior to September 1, 2017. This means virtually every managed toll lane project in Houston and Dallas-Ft. Worth, the Texas cities that are in non-attainment for federal air quality standards, can still convert an existing HOV lane into a toll lane, despite both chambers voting to prohibit it.

This exception was not deemed a significant problem in committee nor did it prevent passage by the full Senate when Sen. Bob Hall’s SB 1143 (which is the same language of the amendment tacked onto SB 312 in the House) passed, 29-2. Yet new language was suddenly required at the eleventh hour and was added into the bill without adequately notifying lawmakers of the change that impacts several projects, including one important to Hall’s constituents, where an HOV lane on I-635 East is slated to be converted to a toll lane.

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst and Rep. Joe Pickett’s amendment, which was a bill that had already passed the Senate, SB 812, also had completely new language inserted. Their amendment requires toll project entities to repay any funds they receive from the state. The public resents having their ‘free’ road funds going into toll roads then having to pay again to use them. The state currently grants most toll entities road taxes to the tune of $10 billion and has rarely required any of those funds to be repaid to the state. In fact, the local toll agencies get to keep most, if not all, of the toll revenues locally.

Both the House and Senate voted to stop this unrestricted gravy train and require funds to be repaid, yet a handful of conferees overruled them to allow toll projects as far back as January 1, 2014, to move forward without requiring repayment of those funds if the environmental review on those projects had commenced by that date. The whole purpose of this legislation is to require funds to be repaid on any project that isn’t already operating as a toll road. Lawmakers should, at a minimum, demand TxDOT produce a list of just how many toll projects this exception allows to move forward without repaying the taxpayers.

For whom the bill tolls
An amendment by Rep. Ina Minjarez sought to remove criminal penalties for toll violations and drastically reduce the administrative fees and fines that could be levied against motorists. It passed by an overwhelming majority in the House by a vote of 136-3. Yet, this same handful of conferees put criminal penalties back into the bill. The House debated the criminal penalties and overwhelmingly decided to remove them. They felt strongly that no Texan should be made a criminal or have their ability to drive taken away for failure to pay a fine/fee. It’s a throw back to debtors prisons.

The new language actually captures more people as ‘violators’ by making them a criminal if they simply haven’t paid a single toll after supposedly receiving two bills. The toll could be for one trip for $.20 or $2.00 and they’ll now be punished under what used to be a habitual toll violator with 100 or more unpaid toll transactions.

Many Texans complain they never receive the first bill from the toll entity and then later get a late payment notice after being put into collections, erroneously, and after penalties are already imposed. This happened to Rep. Tom Oliverson who described his outrage at the experience during the House debate on SB 312 leading up to the overwhelming adoption of the Minjarez amendment to de-criminalize. The House never even made a whimper, nor did it express any outrage at the conferees trampling on the intent of their amendment and hence thousands of Texans who fall victim to this toll violation nightmare when they voted to adopt SB 312’s conference committee report in haste last night.

With the public trust in government at an all time low, the Texas legislature delivered more fodder to get voters angry. The flagrant violation of the legislature’s own rules and lack of transparency alone, much less the content of what was passed, provides enough angst to warrant accountability for those who perpetrated it. The way conference committees roll in Texas is taxpayers take a back seat to government lobbyists who undo the intent of what they see as hostile legislation to their existence and add or remove language, at will, outside the public purview. Conferees are not supposed to rewrite legislation on the fly behind closed doors and fail to fully inform or get permission from their colleagues.

The ten conferees — Senators Robert Nichols, Kirk Watson, Chuy Hinojosa, Kelly Hancock, and Van Taylor, and Representatives Larry Gonzales, Geanie Morrison, Richard Raymond, Cindy Burkett, and Senfronia Thompson — hijacked the House amendments in order to allow toll entities to continue as usual under the status quo when both the Senate and House decidedly voted to restrain tolling and bring greater protection to the driving public from runaway toll taxation, fines, and fees that are financially straining many Texans.

There are some shiny spots in this otherwise gloomy picture, however. Perhaps the biggest victory of all was killing the bill to re-authorize public private partnership toll roads, HB 2861. Nineteen Texas highways would have been handed over in government-sanctioned monopolies giving private, foreign corporations the exclusive right to extract the highest possible toll in 50-year sweetheart deals. That era is now over. There is still plenty to celebrate in SB 312 as well.

Anti-toll reforms in SB 312:
1) Texans will now be protected from having their free lanes converted to toll lanes or having their free lanes downgraded to frontage roads.
2) Despite the exceptions added, HOV lanes cannot be converted into toll lanes.
3) Toll administrative fees will be capped at $48/year, and any criminal fines are capped at $250/year (versus the current system where thousands can be tacked on).
4) Tolls will be removed from Camino Columbia toll road in Laredo and the Cesar Chavez toll project in El Paso (after a vote by local El Paso officials who have indicated they support removing the tolls). This sets an important precedent to get tolls removed from other projects.
5) Any state funds for toll projects that had environmental review commence by January 1, 2014, must be repaid. The grant/subsidy, double tax gravy train is now over.

Taxpayers pushed for over a decade to get these reforms in place and finally got them in SB 312. However, the temptation to do a victory lap is tainted by the conference committee’s actions that left the bill riddled with exceptions and loopholes that must be addressed in a future session. Now it’s time to hold key players accountable for what they did.

Coalition Opposed to CDAs, P3s & More Toll Roads

April 17, 2017

The Hon. Governor Greg Abbott
The Hon. Lt. Governor Dan Patrick
The Hon. Speaker Joe Straus
The Hon. Members of the Texas State Legislature

Thank you for serving the great State of Texas! We understand that you have an enormous job as you work to address significant challenges and numerous issues critical to our state.

Please be advised that a broad coalition of leaders of grassroots groups across Texas and citizens stand with us in strong opposition to HB 2861 and all related bills that approve any type of Comprehensive Development Agreements (CDAs) or public private partnership toll projects. A signed statement detailing this significant block of opposition is attached; however, we, and the signers of this letter, do not stand alone in our opposition to CDAs and P3s.

The opposition is actually bi-partisan and spelled out in both the state Democratic and Republican Party Platforms. 2016 Texas Democratic Party Platform, page 13: “We oppose foreign-owned U.S. toll roads that require Americans to contribute to the balance-of-trade deficit when they travel on local roads.” On page 21 of the 2016 Texas GOP Platform, you will find:

Toll Roads — We believe that tolls should come off the road when the debt is retired, and if debt is ever restructured or refinanced, the pay-off date needs to remain the same or receive voter approval in order to extend the toll tax longer. Maintenance should then revert to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). We oppose public-private partnerships, specifically regarding toll projects. We oppose conversion of existing roads or lanes to toll roads.

Toll Road Funding — We oppose the use of taxpayer money to subsidize, guarantee, prop-up, or bail out any toll projects, whether public or private, and we call upon both state and federal lawmakers to adequately fund our highways without hidden taxes, tolls, or raiding emergency funds.

Additionally, in campaign ads and again when addressing the September 23, 2015, Transportation & Infrastructure Summit, Governor Greg Abbott said his plan for transportation, which calls for ending diversions, “adds billions for new road construction without raising taxes, fees or tolls. We pay for it by ensuring that money dedicated to roads will be spent only on roads.”

Ladies and gentlemen of the legislature, while we may not agree on everything, authorizing CDAs should be one thing every legislator abhors. A plank opposing such toll projects appears in BOTH the GOP and Democratic platforms for good reason – CDAs are the most expensive, oppressive, and anti-liberty type of toll project. Evidently, our Governor is not fond of this funding scheme either.

Please don’t hesitate to contact us with questions, concerns, or suggestions.

Sincerely,

Terri Hall – Founder/Director
Texans Uniting for Reform & Freedom (TURF)
Texans for Toll-free Highways
(210) 275-0640

 

JoAnn Fleming – Executive Director
Grassroots America – We the People PAC
(903) 360-2858

 


Coalition of Texas Grassroots Leadership & Citizens
Opposed to CDAs, P3s & More Toll Roads

April 17, 2017

The Hon. Governor Greg Abbott
The Hon. Lt. Governor Dan Patrick
The Hon. Speaker Joe Straus
The Hon. Members of the Texas State Legislature

A strong coalition of grassroots leaders and their members from across Texas urge you to oppose HB 2861 and any legislation that contains a Comprehensive Development Agreement or public private partnership toll project. Frankly, we were shocked – based on the public’s hostility toward toll roads and the Governor’s well-documented opposition to more toll roads, that HB 2861 would get a hearing before a SINGLE toll road reform bill! We respectfully lay out the following reasons we strongly oppose continuation of these schemes:

Issue #1: Eminent domain for private gain.

> Texans are vehemently opposed to eminent domain for private gain. While these private toll corporations do not have the direct power to condemn land, they gain access to the governmental power of eminent domain for their private, for-profit toll projects. Public-private partnerships blur the line between public use and private use and give cover for what amounts to private, for-profit ventures under the guise of a public use — a road. This erodes and threatens the property rights of every Texan and cannot be tolerated in a free society.

Issue #2: Require massive public subsidies that amount to corporate welfare.

> Every Texas CDA has required public money. Examples: SH 130 – $430 million federal TIFIA loan. I-635 – $490 million in state gasoline taxes, plus $1.4 billion in federally backed TIFIA and PABs. North Tarrant Express/I-820/SH 121 & 183 – $590 million in state gasoline taxes, plus $1 billion in federally backed TIFIA and PABs. SH 288 – $17 million in state funds, plus $657 million in federally backed TIFIA and PABs. (SOURCE: Federal Highway Administration, Office of Innovative Finance Support, Project Profiles)

When the taxpayer is footing the majority of the bill and then is asked to repay their own money back with interest, plus profit for a private toll company, it’s offensive, enormously expensive, and Texans have said ‘No!’ from the beginning. This is corporate welfare on a massive scale with the private equity firms putting in a tiny fraction of their own money and the majority of funding still coming from taxpayers.

Issue #3: Punitively high toll rates.

> There is no cap on how high toll rates can go in a CDA arrangement. No elected official approves the toll rates — they’ve outsourced that job to unelected bureaucrats at TxDOT. The state simply gives a green light to a toll rate ‘methodology’ that imposes dynamic pricing, which allows tolls to rise and fall based on the level of congestion on the roadway. This gives private companies free-rein permission to charge whatever they want in order to maintain the arbitrarily chosen speed and performance requirements (usually 50 MPH). If that means the toll is $1 a mile in peak hours, then that’s what they’ll charge! Once that contract is signed, no elected official can step-in to give taxpayers relief from such punitively high toll rates. This kind of legislature-endorsed highway robbery hurts families and small businesses!

Commuters in the Metroplex already report having to pay $30-$40/day to take the North Tarrant Express and LBJ toll lanes to get to work in peak hours. This is an unacceptable level of taxation, and it’s the fastest ticket to destroying the Texas economic miracle. CDAs allow elected officials to outsource the business of tax hikes to a private company that the public cannot hold accountable. It’s the biggest taxation without representation scheme to hit public infrastructure since the railroad robber barons!

Issue #4: Gotcha provisions that come back to haunt commuters. These corporations have an army of lawyers to ensure their investors get a return on their investment, so aside from the public subsidies, they find creative ways to further socialize every potential loss through compensation events, non-compete clauses, manipulation of speed limits on free routes, and adverse event triggers.

Texas taxpayers are also paying to subsidize truck toll rates to get truckers to take these toll roads ($18.7 million/yr, per TxDOT Minute Order #114528, March 2016). While the subsidies only technically apply to TxDOT’s section of SH 130, it still provides indirect relief to the private section of SH 130 by increasing the number of truck toll payers. Private equity firms also force taxpayers to pay for other losses like uncollectible tolls, and they use the state as their toll collector – giving them access to the power to block vehicle registration for failure to pay a toll.

Giving that kind of power to private corporations that the people cannot hold accountable gives up the state’s sovereignty over our public infrastructure and critical corridors that are the very lifeblood of the Texas economy — like Interstate-35 that has segments that run through Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio in HB 2861. No elected official should ever vote to cede control of our public infrastructure and hand the keys of the Texas economy over to private corporations simply because they want to get a project built.

Prioritize the new Prop 1/Prop 7 funding that the voters overwhelmingly approved, and get these major bottlenecks fixed without harming commuters and WITHOUT RAISING TAXES through tolls, as Governor Greg Abbott promised in his Texas Clear Lanes Initiative (Press Release, September 2015).

(SOURCE: SH 130 segments 5 & 6, I-635, and North Tarrant Express CDA contracts.)

Issue #5: Excuses, excuses, excuses — ‘CDAs are the only way to fund the big projects’

Through Prop 1 and Prop 7 and ending non-education diversions, TxDOT now has approximately $5 billion more in funding per year. The people were promised if they voted for Prop 7 in 2015, there would be plenty of funding for transportation. No more toll roads and no more debt is what we were promised. To refresh your memory about the promises, we encourage you to review the Texas Infrastructure Now Investing in Our Future website at https://www.infrastructuretexas.org/prop-7/

Yet, the very next legislative session after the passage of Prop 7, we’re still being told none of the major projects can be fixed without more debt and tolls, particularly CDAs. This is in direct contradiction to what the Governor (and other officials) promised and what the voters voted for when they approved Prop 1 & Prop 7. One of our strongest and most well known grassroots leaders has even gotten a call from a member of the Transportation Commission asking her if she could support either raising the gas tax or more low interest debt!

At the local level, we hear even more excuses. For instance, Garland elected officials testified before the House Transportation Committee April 12, stating there was ‘no way’ to get LBJ E done without a CDA. Yet, Senator Bob Hall’s bill, SB 84, would utilize the state’s portion of the sales tax adjacent to the highway to pay for the road improvements on LBJ E. But rather than support his Expiring Revenue Enhancement (ERE) bill and coming to Austin to advance this solution that doesn’t raise taxes, local officials came to Austin to advocate for increasing taxes and putting the power to impose toll taxes in the hands of a private company the taxpayers cannot hold accountable. This is outrageous!

We respectfully remind you that in October 2014, the Texas Legislative Council documented that the cost to build Texas roads actually DOUBLED from 2003 (pre-toll road era) to 2013, while the national highway cost increase over the same period was just 12%. This demonstrates just one more reason special interests continue to push tolls despite public opposition. Tolls drive up the cost to build, necessarily putting more money into the pockets of road builders at great expense to Texas taxpayers. By continuing on this path, the price tags on these big projects are made to look so out of reach that it causes legislators to cave to tolls because they perceive it’s the only way to get a project done. By rejecting this toll-debt-increased cost spiral, you can help put the cost of road building back in line with the national average and force project costs to return to more reasonable levels!

We, the undersigned, understand the tricks and the excuses, and many of us have read the Sunset Advisory Commission’s most recent report on the Texas Department of Transportation. From any reasonable person’s analysis, the report is damning in its acknowledgement of what we already know: — TxDOT has a reputation for “persistent over-time and over-budget highway projects.” The Report flatly states, “As currently structured, TxDOT’s project development process is not meeting expectations and is not prepared to effectively handle the influx of new transportation funding projected to double over the next decade.

Knowing this, it is utterly amazing that TxDOT has been allowed to consume all of the Prop 1/Prop 7 funds on low priority projects and thus put lawmakers in a box to push CDAs and force them to cast a bad vote to raise taxes in order to get Texas’ most congested roads fixed.

Not using Prop 1/Prop 7 as the Governor promised and as the voters intended is a violation of the public trust. We ask you to decisively act to protect taxpayers from further betrayal and misuse of billions in new road funds by first rejecting HB 2861.

We thank you for your service to the great state of Texas. In order to keep Texas an economically sound and an attractive place to live, work, and raise a family, the legislature must protect Texans from this oppressive level of taxation, restrictions on freedom to travel, and loss of sovereignty over public infrastructure that occur with CDAs. Feel free to contact us with any questions or concerns.

 

Sincerely,

Terri Hall – Director, Texas TURF & Texans for Toll-free Highways

JoAnn Fleming – Executive Director, Grassroots America – We the People PAC

Trayce Bradford – President, Texas Eagle Forum

Julie McCarty – President, Northeast Tarrant Tea Party

Melissa Cubria – Executive Director, Cubria Consulting & former Director of TexPIRG – Austin, Texas

Thomas Korkmas – President, TFIRE

Peter Batura – Vice President, TFIRE

Rebecca Forest – President, Women on the Wall

Alice Linahan – Vice President, Women on the Wall

Ann Lieber – Founder, Collin County Citizens Against Tolling, GOP Precinct Chair 214, Prosper, Texas

Suezette Griffin – President, Clear Lake Tea Party

Dean Wright – Director, New Revolution Now & The Austin Tea Party

Pat Tibbs – Montgomery County Tea Party PAC

Tom Fabry – President, Frisco Tea Party

Barbara Harless – North Texas Citizens Lobby

Russell Ramsland – Founder, Park Cities/Preston Hollow Leadership Forum, Dallas, Texas

George Pangborn – President, Highland Lakes Tea Party, Burnet, Texas

Dottie Barnes – Founder, Conservative Society of Navarro County

Carol Doucet – Founder, Conservative Society of Navarro County

Jackie King – Founder, Conservative Society of Navarro County, Corsicana, Texas

Dennis & Barbara McKee – Kaufman County TEA Party

Dwayne Collins – Edom Tea Party

Chuck Zollars – Abilene Tea Party

Barb Stauffer – Garland Tea Party, Garland, Texas

Judy Kent – President, Republican Women of Northeast Texas — Camp, Franklin, Morris & Titus counties

Ray Myers – Chair, Kaufman County Tea Party

Stacy McMahan – Executive Director/President of East Texans for Liberty

Suzanne Guggenheim – Programs & Events Chair, Corpus Christi Tea Party

Laura Pressley, Ph.D. – Texas Election Integrity, Austin, Texas

Gary Gentz – Henderson County Tea Party

Michael Chambers – American Freedom Defenders, Houston, Texas

JP Fowler – Hunt County Tea Party

Maggie Wright – Founding member/past president/present board member of Texas

Pam Farris – San Antonio Tea Party, San Antonio, Texas

Gary Brewer – San Antonio Tea Party, San Antonio, Texas

Nicole Williams – Williamson County Republican Precinct Chair #162, Texans for Accountable Government Steering Committee Member

Vince May – Libertarian Party of Texas, Transportation Committee Member

Bill Eastland – Tarrant County Precinct Chair, Former SREC, SD9

Eugene Ralph – Vice President, Game Chaingers, Dallas, Texas

Jeremiah Hunter – Chairman, We-the-People Longview Tea Party

Bob Brewer – Homeland Owners Association, Tyler, Texas

Sarah Stevick – Former City Council Member and Mayor of Bulverde, Texas

Ginger Russell – Director, Texans for Homeschool Freedom

Sue Evenwell – SREC SD1, Mt. Pleasant, Texas

Donald Rutledge – Allen, Texas

Paul Van Zandt – Arlington, Texas

Linda Patterson – Austin, Texas

Michael Kleinman – Austin, Texas

Thomas Price – Austin, Texas

Jill Moody – Bandera, Texas

Michael & Yvonne Tait – Boerne, Texas

Barry A. Schlech, Ph.D. – Conservative Activist, Burleson, Texas

Leland Stewart – Converse, Texas

Martha Estes – Hempstead, Texas

David & Janice Carter – Galveston, Texas

Judy Brady – Salado, Texas

David & Tracy Spear – Red Oak, Texas

Susan Peabody – Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, Grapevine, Texas

Dave & Jill Robbins – Waco, Texas

Kerry Wooster – Brazoria, Texas

Mary Dockery – Bulverde, Texas

Brian Vilders – Cibolo, Texas

Don Dixon – San Antonio, Texas

Mellany Lamb – Flower Mound, Texas

Mary Vance – Kyle, Texas

Joline Tate – Garland Tea Party

 

Michael Olcott – Co-founder, Parker County Conservatives

Joseph Salema – Little Elm, Texas

Greg Billingsly – Southlake, Texas

Barbara Croft – Dayton, Texas

Fred Marvin – Dallas, Texas

Kim Rimmer – Cedar Hill, Texas

Brian Phillips – Garland, Texas

Greg Milner – La Porte, Texas

Bill Bala – Lindale, Texas

Wes Brumit – Longview, Texas

Timothy Davis – New Braunfels, Texas

Annette Bennett – Fredericksburg, Texas

Joseph & Carmelita Schultz – Round Rock, Texas

Kelly Gramza – Rowlett, Texas

Harvey Hild – Seguin, Texas

Stephen Van Gaasbeck – Attorney at Law, Helotes, Texas

Michael Leah – Helotes, Texas

Lynn Laurence – President, Jack Laurence Corporation, San Antonio, Texas

Marti Amos – San Antonio, Texas

Mitch Huff – San Antonio, Texas

Steve Arellano – San Antonio, Texas

Lupe Gonzales – San Antonio, Texas

Richard Keoughan – San Antonio, Texas

Ellen Koontz Moore – San Antonio, Texas

Mel & Linda Borel – San Antonio, Texas

Terry Ullman – San Antonio, Texas

John Eakin – Helotes, Texas

Steve Dana – San Antonio, Texas

Rick Doucette – San Antonio, Texas

Col. Bob & Karen Throckmorton – San Antonio, Texas

David Astwood – San Antonio, Texas

Kevin Honeyager – San Antonio, Texas

Benedict LaRosa – San Antonio, Texas

Warren Wagner – San Antonio, Texas

Milton Turner – San Antonio, Texas

Susan Moore – San Antonio, Texas

Michael Murphy – San Antonio, Texas

Debra Eaton – San Antonio, Texas

George Booth – San Antonio, Texas

Marie Hughes – San Antonio, Texas

Robert Lopez – San Antonio, Texas

George Pavlik – San Antonio, Texas

Dave Ramos – San Antonio, Texas

Kris Biedenharn-Ressel – San Antonio, Texas

Bob Haag – San Antonio, Texas

Brad Holt – Bulverde, Texas

Nancy Demel – Spring Branch, Texas

Monroe & Pauline Frerich – Spring Branch, Texas

Michael Holt – Spring Branch, Texas

Bret Jamison – Spring Branch, Texas

Roger Hall – Spring Branch, Texas

Kay Dunn – Waxahachie, Texas

Rede Beitman – Wylie, Texas

Jody Quimby – Texas

Susan Lucas – Texas

Mary Smith – Arlington, Texas

Kim Ingram – Ft. Worth, Texas

Thomas Marburger – San Antonio, Texas

Jim Sipiora – Arlington, Texas

Susan Z. Marburger – San Antonio, Texas

Richard Davey – Honey Grove, Texas

Pat Tibbs – President, Montgomery County Tea Party, Magnolia, Texas

Kathryn Monette – Southeast Texas Tea Party, Grand Prairie, Texas

Cathie Adams – Editor of Eagle Forum Report, former Chairman of RPT, former TEF President

Craig Cosgray – President, Marengo Films, Spicewood, Texas

Annette Bennett – Fredericksburg, Texas

Sam Anderson – Flower Mound, Texas

Liz Theiss – Stop the Magnet, Houston, Texas

Bill Bingham – Bryan/College Station Tea Party, Bryan/College Station, Texas

Mike Dail – Chairman of Board – American Stewards of Liberty, Mason, Texas

Josie D Schoolcraft – President, Cherokee County Texas Republican Club, Jacksonville, Texas

Sarah Lipsett – San Angelo TEA Party

Karen Albright – Freestone County TEA Party, Fairfield, Texas

Jan Shedd – Kaufman County Tea Party, Kaufman, Texas

Carroll Maxwell – President, Collin County Conservative Republicans, McKinney, Texas

Matt Long – President Fredericksburg Tea Party

Michael Najvar – Conservative Activist, Gonzales, Texas

Susan Najvar – Conservative Activist, Gonzales, Texas

Marty Rhymes – White Oak, Texas

Julie Turner – Texas Patriots PAC, The Woodlands, Texas

LaDaune Ashley – Liverpool, Texas

Ruth York – Tea Party Patriots of Eastland County, Cisco, Texas

Lyleann McClellan Thee – President, San Angelo TEA Party, San Angelo, Texas

 

Secret agreement handed private toll firm control of public roads

How sad that this happened just days before we celebrate Texas Indepenence Day, March 2.

City hands control over public roads to private firm
By Terri Hall
March 1, 2017

In a stunning betrayal of open government, the Cibolo City Council voted 6-0 to approve a 50 year development agreement with Texas Turnpike Corporation (TTC) granting it the exclusive right to build, operate and maintain what’s been dubbed the Cibolo Parkway — a tollway linking I-35 to I-10 through mostly rural farmland northeast of San Antonio. The agreement was negotiated behind closed doors and was kept secret from the public until it was approved last night.

Even worse, the city council gave TTC the rights to develop a project the taxpayers have already paid for, the expansion of FM 1103, the city’s primary connection to I-35. By doing so, they’ve granted a private corporation a virtual monopoly over the existing non-toll competitor to its private toll road. TTC can intentionally slow down the free option to force more cars onto its for-profit toll road by manipulating speed limits, access points, and stop lights. It’s a developer’s dream and a commuter’s worst nightmare.

The city tried to reassure residents there is no non-compete clause, prohibiting or penalizing the city from building any competing free roads. The agreement may still bind the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the county from expanding free roads. But who knows since no member of the public could see it before the council voted on it? So while the city touts it’s protected taxpayers from a non-compete provision, it handed TTC control of the adjacent competing free lanes of FM 1103, achieving a form of a non-compete out the gate.

The agreement offers no way out for the city, except an eventual buy out opportunity after the road gets built. But those buy out agreements are just as thorny as these complex development contracts. Most private toll road developers require the public entity to pay them for any future loss in toll revenue, often making it more expensive to buy them out than the original cost to build it.

One has to wonder how any elected official could green light approval of a project before a toll feasibility study has been performed, the environmental review complete, or final route selected. It’s worse than putting the cart before the horse, it’s putting special interests above the public interest. The company insisted on having an irrevocable agreement in place with the city before it invested $10-$12 million for the feasibility study. Nice work if you can get it, but what about the taxpayer?

No formal public hearings were hosted by TxDOT to notify residents of the proposed project, so unless you happen to look at the city council agenda every two weeks, a resident had no way of knowing what just happened, much less have the ability to stop it since the majority of it was done behind closed doors with a private entity.

Throwing landowners under the bus
Cibolo has become a bedroom community of San Antonio, but before homes stacked the landscape, Cibolo’s roots were decidedly agricultural with farming and ranching dating back to Texas’ days as a republic. The mayor and council weren’t afraid to show their intentions when public discussion about this possible private toll road began to surface last year. Their primary interest is in economic development, which is code for flipping farmland into a commercial tax base. The city acted so desperate for new economic development, it signaled to TTC that it would sell out its current residents for the promise of a higher tax base from its new ones.

The southern boundary of the city that was most recently annexed occurred over the objection of many landowners. Now their worst fears have been realized as a private developer who cozied up to the mayor and council got himself an iron clad contract to mow them over and change their way of life. Roads are disruptive to the native landscape and often split farms in half. Many will not be able to continue farming or even have the ability to access the other side of their property without an overpass (built at the developer’s expense, which isn’t going to happen in most cases). That’s the city’s intent – to drive out the farmers and welcome in big box stores generating lots of sales tax for it to spend. New residents, more traffic, and, they hope, more riders for the toll road.

Eminent domain for private gain
The city has agreed to use eminent domain to take land from its residents and confer it to a private entity for private gain, not for a legitimate public use. While the road is open to the public (so is a mall or restaurant) if they pay a toll, this arrangement is for a private toll road whose corporation will use the city’s police force to become its private toll collector and speed enforcer.

John Crew Public WerksWhile the politicians argued eminent domain would only be used as a last resort, that’s the club TTC’s CEO John Crew needs to get landowners to sign over their land in negotiated settlements. We’ve seen it used prolifically — sign on the dotted line for the amount we’re offering or we’ll take it with eminent domain and pay you even less.

Numbers don’t add up
In town of just 25,000 residents, it’s hard to conceive of how any toll road could be profitable. The city must be banking on literally hundreds of thousands of new residents to make the numbers work. Cities with populations over a million and lots of urban congestion have toll roads that can’t pay for themselves. It just doesn’t add up that this little city will provide enough users to pay back $125 million plus interest, plus profit over 50 years. No elected official has any control over the eventual toll rates that will be charged. So there is no cap or limit. While the consultants tried to say the free market would keep rates in check, roads by their very nature are a monopoly. Just ask the residents in Ft. Worth and Dallas who are paying a private Spanish firm in excess of $20/day in tolls to get to work if they think that’s market rate or reasonable.

But numbers and data don’t matter. The city council seems to think they’re getting something for nothing — even if the toll road goes bankrupt, they get it back at a fire sale price. But the private company knows how to make money even when a toll road goes bankrupt. They put in very little of their own money and borrow the rest. The developer makes their money on the front end so that when it goes south, it’s the bond holders who are at risk, not the developer. If the road goes into bankruptcy, the road will remain operational, but control then gets handed to the bond investors in bankruptcy court where a bunch of the debt gets written down and off the books and the investors hire another operator, starting the process all over again. Control does not revert back to the public or the city. Only if the city exercises its buy out option would the residents get it back under public control.

Taxpayer money in play
The city manager and its lawyers bragged the city had no financial risk in the deal, yet, ironically, the city had to hire extra legal and engineering consultants to review the agreement, which is, of course, at taxpayer expense. There’s more to come since next up is negotiating the formal operating agreement. Policing of this private toll road will also be done by city police. While the developer is supposedly responsible for paying to hire the extra personnel, who is responsible for those public employees’ pensions, benefits, etc.? I’d bet money it’s the taxpayers. Who will collect the tolls and what enforcement does the private company have access to? If it’s anything like the SH 130 tollway, TxDOT does the toll collection and state law allows a user’s vehicle registration to be blocked for failure to play tolls, even when it’s for a private toll road.

The city, like TxDOT, loves to claim the road and right of way is still technically owned by the city and hence the public, but that’s only so the private toll company can use the public’s policing and enforcement powers for its for-profit toll enterprises. For tax purposes, these corporations show ownership and depreciate it like an asset.

Then there’s the tax money it would take to buy out the private developer at some point in the future. No matter how you slice it, Cibolo residents just got sold out by their elected officials. They’ve lost control of FM 1103, the ability to determine the toll rates, the route, the exits, the overpasses, the toll collection procedures, and a whole bunch more. Taxpayers will be paying for extra consultants and legal haggling for the foreseeable future. Accountability at the ballot box will now be your only recourse. Sadly, there are no remaining pain-free options.

Tolls aren’t necessary, do what the public voted for

Link to Op/Ed here.

Use Prop 1, Prop 7 funds to fix Loop 1604 without tolls
By Terri Hall
Founder, Texans for Toll-free Highways
February 28, 2017
San Antonio Express-News

Much in the same way taxpayers got the message about tolls being inevitable on US 281 and I-10, the Express-News editorial told our community, ‘Tolls are necessary, deal with it.’ Taxpayers don’t appreciate being told what to do, especially when it comes to the long arm of government reaching into our wallets. Contrary to the narrative, tolls are no longer a ‘user fee’ where only those who use the toll lanes pay for them. When $326 million in our gas taxes will be used to subsidize the construction of toll lanes inside Loop 1604, everyone will pay for them. But only the select few who can fork over up to $23 a day in tolls will be able to use them.

That’s right. The plan calls for dynamic tolling where the toll rate changes in real time and can reach the maximum during peak hours, which is $.50/mile. So if you need to drive all 23 miles during rush hour, you’re looking at $23/day in new toll taxes to use lanes your gas taxes helped pay to build. That’s double taxation and warrants a taxpayer revolt. Tolls, once imposed, tend to never disappear. If it’s one thing a government bureaucrat won’t give up, it’s an unaccountable revenue stream in the hands of unelected boards. They can always find a use for your money.

Local elected officials are banking on voters having a short memory. They want you to forget about passage of Prop 1 and Prop 7 that together with the end to most gas tax diversions will boost the highway fund nearly $5 billion more per year. A recent report states that an additional $80 billion in new road funds will be available in the next 10 years. Yet the Express-News says there’s still not enough money, and you miserly taxpayers should agree to a gas tax hike, tolls, and anything else they can dream up to steal your money, like the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority’s agenda to secure another hike in your vehicle registration fee. This is AFTER the $10 fee hike Bexar county elected officials got passed in 2013.

Let’s not forget Governor Greg Abbott’s campaign promise to fix our roads without raising taxes, fees, tolls, or debt. He unveiled his Texas Clear Lanes Initiative last year promising Prop 1 and Prop 7 funds would go to the most congested roads across the state. Yet the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) chose to spend our community’s new funds on lower priority projects so that they can profit off of the congestion on the north side and impose tolls. In fact, Loop 1604 on the south and east side of town will get Loop 1604 expanded without tolls, while north side commuters are told ‘tolls are necessary, deal with it.’

Taxpayers should not stand for a targeted, discriminatory toll tax to be imposed on the north side against their will. The AAMPO votes on it March 27. Make your voices heard.

DOUBLE TAX: Alamo board votes to use gas taxes to put tolls on Loop 1604

On January 23, the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) board, comprised of local officials, voted to grant $326 million in YOUR federal gas taxes to plop toll lanes down the middle of Loop 1604. TxDOT can’t toll anything without the MPO’s blessing, which the MPO just granted.

The toll rates are dynamic and change in real time ranging from 18 cents a mile up to 50 cents per mile – you pay the max during peak hours! The toll lanes would stretch 22.8 miles from Bandera Rd. on the west side to I-35 on the east side (see Express-News article on it here). The excuse is there isn’t enough money to fix all our roads without tolls, despite voters giving TxDOT $5 billion more PER YEAR in NEW funds to prevent tolling.

TxDOT made sure they used up all the new funds on low priority projects instead of fixing the most congested corridors FIRST, as Gov. Greg Abbott directed them to do. Governor Abbott also campaigned saying NO MORE TOLLS! The local MPO board doesn’t care about your state government trying to restrain taxes. They want a network of toll lanes on ALL San Antonio freeways (as its managed lane report revealed at this meeting) so buses and REGISTERED carpoolers get a fast ride while making solo drivers PAY MORE to get anywhere.

What does HOV require?

HOV means High Occupancy Vehicle lanes. Yesterday, the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (or ARMA, the unelected toll authority) admitted only carpools pre-approved by their government agency get a free ride in these HOV-transit-toll managed lanes. So only government-approved co-workers going to a specific daily business destination get approval for a free ride, not you and your family hopping in the HOV lanes on the way to soccer practice.

ACTION ITEM

This isn’t going to STOP unless we make it STOP, despite promises from Abbott or any other politician.

Contact your elected officials and tell them STOP using our gas taxes to build toll roads. If a road is expanded with tax money, it should stay a FREEway!

1) Contact San Antonio city councilmembers here.
2) Contact Bexar County Commissioners here.
3) Find out who your U.S. senators, U.S. congressman and state representative and state senator are here.

(NOTE: The federal officials have allowed these local MPOs to spend federal gas taxes on toll roads and use incentives to keep tolls coming, so do your STATE officials. )

WHO ARE THE CULPRITS?

The only two courageous ‘nay’ votes were Selma Councilman Kevin Hadas and New Braunfels Councilman Ron Reaves.

Elected officials who voted to spend your gas taxes on toll roads were (it was a voice vote but here’s the best list we have):

Kevin Wolff, Bexar County Commissioner
Ron Nirenberg, San Antonio City Council
Shirley Gonzales, San Antonio City Council
Roberto Trevino, San Antonio City Council
Kevin Webb, Comal County Commissioner
Kyle Kutscher, Guadalupe County Judge
Don Keil, Seguin Mayor
Chris Riley, Leon Valley Mayor
Ron Cisneros, Boerne City Council

No shows
Tommy Calvert, Bexar County Commissioner
Chico Rodriguez, Bexar County Commissioner
Ray Lopez, San Antonio City Council

The rest of the 23 member board is comprised of unelected bureaucrats who always vote to increase your taxes through tolls.

Boerne Councilman Ron Cisneros (who’s trying to get a promotion and is running for Kendall County Commissioner) actually attacked MPO Board members trying to stick up for the taxpayer and reject double taxation. Kudos to Selma Councilman Kevin Hadas for calling tolls what they are – a new tax that grow government bureaucracy.

Cisneros said he didn’t mind paying tolls. Well, what about everyone else who can’t afford it, or those who don’t want any form of double taxation or who simply don’t want another unaccountable tax or bureaucrats trying to social engineer people out of their cars and onto buses? He represents taxpayers, not himself, on this board.

Note to Trump: Key states tossed pro-toll incumbents

Link to article here.

Trump take heed: Toll roads a factor in Florida, North Carolina, and Texas election
By Terri Hall
November 9, 2016
Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research

With the historic election of Donald Trump to the American Presidency, it signals a total repudiation of the political establishment by the working class. You could call it the election of the American worker. But analysts would be remiss if they failed to overlook how toll roads played a part in several races in key states.

One of the most notable races is for governor in North Carolina — must-win state for Trump that went red. Yet, Republican Governor Pat McCrory is in a nail biter photo finish to retain his seat in a state that went Republican last night. The very real threat by Democrat Roy Cooper who claimed victory Wednesday morning, though most still believe the race too close to call, is in part due to McCrory losing support among his base thanks to his approval of the controversial public private partnership (P3) toll project on Interstate-77 in Charlotte.

Citizens lost their battle in the courts and the legislature to stop the state from handing the public’s vital interstate over to the control of a private, foreign corporation in a 50-year deal.

Then, the focus turned to Governor McCrory to cancel the contract. Cooper, the current Attorney General, said in the Charlotte Business Journal in August that McCrory would have “to admit now that he cut a bad deal for North Carolina. He should stop stalling and cancel this contract that never should have been signed to begin with.” McCrory didn’t budge to his own peril.

In Florida, another must-win state that went red for Trump, former House Transportation Committee Chairman, Congressman John Mica lost his seat to newcomer Stephanie Murphy. While some blame his defeat on redistricting bringing in more minority voters to his suburban district, Mica lost touch with his base due in part to his longstanding support for toll roads, particularly P3s. Mica brought tolls to I-4 using congestion pricing, forcing drivers to pay a premium to drive during peak hours. The hidden tax hurts suburbanites harder than urban dwellers since they experience longer commutes and pay more in tolls. He failed to stop the toll bloodletting when taxpayers revolted. So the untold story in this race is about the rise of the middle class worker struggling to make ends meet amidst stagnant wages, staggering health premiums, and ever growing taxes.

In Texas, a state without which no Republican can win the White House, Dallas State Representative Kenneth Sheets also became tone deaf to his conservative base on toll roads. The Dallas-Ft.Worth metroplex is ground zero for toll managed lane projects and soon will boast the largest managed lane network in the country. Taxpayers are none too happy. Though Sheets didn’t go all-in for tolling, he cozied up to the establishment, played footsy with too many controversial bills, scored poorly on legislative report cards, and lost his base. As a result, Sheets lost his seat to Democrat Victoria Neave, who said tolls are a hidden tax and should not advance without local support.

Now back to Mr. Trump. Days before the election, Trump announced his plan to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure without raising taxes by harnessing the private sector. Voters in these key states know that’s code for P3s and toll roads. They’re not fooled into thinking tolls are not a tax. Their pocketbooks have already been sufficiently raided enough to know the dangers of handing the sovereignty over our public roads to private for-profit companies who are given a blank check to charge punitive tolls during congested periods.

Trump’s anti-free trade message resonated because it hurt the American worker. Tolls likewise, hurt the American working class — and hard. Considering these three must-win states for a Republican president just tossed incumbents over toll projects, voters trust Mr. Trump will read the tea leaves and advance a transportation vision and policy that’s pro-freedom, pro-taxpayer, and pro-worker. Voters need to watch closely who he appoints as Transportation Secretary.

Former governors like Rick Perry made road privatization and tolls the centerpiece of his transportation policy for 14 years, and he’s vying for a position in the new Trump administration. Perry would be a disastrous choice considering Texans just elected a new Governor Greg Abbott who campaigned against toll roads and has made a marked departure from privatization. Americans expect Trump to surround himself with like-minded advisers who will set a course consistent with his campaign message. Millions will be watching and waiting.

BOMBSHELL: Senators find out tolls charged on roads that are paid for

Sparks fly as senators discover numerous toll roads with no debt on them, prompts call to remove tolls
By Terri Hall
September 15, 2016

It’s not often that the very sleepy subject of transportation offers a fiery discussion, but yesterday’s Senate Transportation Committee meeting did not disappoint. In a rare olive branch extended to grassroots anti-toll advocacy groups, Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom and Texans for Toll-free Highways, Chairman Senator Robert Nichols invited them to address the committee about one of its interim studies – a study on the elimination of toll roads.

Just the title evokes strong emotions on both sides of the issue, and those emotions were in plain view Wednesday. Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Executive Director James Bass laid out the numbers of how much it would cost to retire tolls on roads built with state funds. Let me say that again, toll roads that were built with state money. That means gasoline taxes and other state funds were used to build the road, but Texas drivers are being charged again, through tolls, to use it — a double tax scheme.

An early pay-off would cost $24.2 billion, while the existing debt as of January 1, 2016, was $21.6 billion. That’s what building roads with debt begets. It costs far more than paying cash, anywhere from 40% more to 100% more. TxDOT now spends over $1 billion a year in payments to cover its debt. If the toll bonds stay on course to the final pay-off dates, the cost mushrooms to $39.9 billion.

The use of public funds to, in essence, bail out toll projects that cannot pay for themselves with the toll revenues only, was the subject of much consternation by the conservatives on the committee. Senator Lois Kolkhorst has twice authored the bill to make tolls come off the road when the debt is repaid. She was quick to jump in and grill Bass on the Loop 375 Border West Highway toll project in El Paso.

Bass called it a unique financial arrangement, and Kolkhorst, visibly irritated, responded, ’Well, explain that ‘unique’ arrangement.”

First, the entire project is paid for state funds. Not one penny of debt is owed, yet drivers will be be charged tolls to use it (it’s currently under construction). The project is jointly owned by the state and the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority (or RMA), even though the RMA put no funds into the project. In fact, the state gave them $500 million in Texas Mobility Funds which granted the RMA ownership in proportion to that dollar amount, and the state paid the $130 million balance of the $630 million project with gasoline taxes. So the state gave away over 80% ownership to an unelected toll authority who will reap over 80% of the toll revenues for a 100% paid for highway.

It’s no wonder the senators suffered from shock.

“So we paid the RMA for their ownership. That’s a pretty good deal,” Kolkhorst quipped sarcastically.

“Let me get this straight. The state of Texas put money into a project and then gave half of the ownership to an RMA where they will forever in perpetuity get half of the revenue?”

Bass corrected her and said it was actually more than half the ownership and revenue.

“So this is what I don’t understand and this is the problem. The road is paid for. Now we’re going to create a toll road for the people of El Paso, and I’m just going to say this okay, because all of that is tax money, and that’s worse than I’ve ever seen…this is not right,” Kolkhorst expressed with frustration.

“At what point do you say, we shouldn’t toll this because it’s paid for? At what point do we say there’s no debt on this road, it’s paid for, and, by the way, you get to pay for it again, AND to add insult to injury, the people that paid for it never get the money back? Does that make sense to anybody in this room? This is what frustrates lawmakers like me when we try to give TxDOT money… It’s more expensive to build a toll road, so we paid more for it than we would have it had been non-tolled,…so enough!”

Senator Bob Hall echoed her frustration and pursued it further, “There are numerous toll roads that have no debt on them, and they’re still being tolled.”

Camino Columbia in Laredo, Cesar Chavez in El Paso, SH 130 (the state-operated northern 49 miles from Georgetown to Mustang Ridge) and SH 45 in the Austin area, the Katy Freeway managed toll lanes and the entire Metro High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes in Houston, parts of the Grand Parkway around Houston (segments 1-2A), the DFW connector, and the I-30 managed toll lanes (in fact most all of the managed toll lanes) in Dallas all have no debt and should have the tolls come down immediately. Every one of those lanes was built with state and federal funds, no debt is owed, and yet officials charge tolls simply to profit off of congestion and as a means to manipulate people and traffic.

Hall keyed in on Bass’ statement that several of the toll managed lane projects in Dallas-Ft. Worth had no debt and charged tolls to ‘control traffic through pricing.’ That’s a staggering admission for a highway department run by a conservative governor who prides himself on lowering taxes and taking on government overreach.

Hall insisted TxDOT drop such a punitive approach that seeks to control people, punish and discriminate against the poor, and use something that’s cheaper to implement and doesn’t cost the driver anything, like today’s technologically advanced ramp metering.

Senator Don Huffines chimed in with similar sentiments concluding tolls “are segmenting society between those who can afford tolls and those who can’t and it’s bad policy.”

Public testimony brought in the taxpayers’ perspective and gave a glimpse into the rage over tolls being charged on roads that are paid for. The GOP platform has a plank to remove tolls when the debt is repaid as well as a plank opposing the use of any public funds to build, subsidize or otherwise bail out toll projects. The Democratic platform also opposes toll roads. That’s the tip of the iceberg, though. A group of outraged citizens are preparing a class action lawsuit over the abusive toll collection practices that are are imposing fines and fees that financially ruin people and that allows unelected toll authorities to impound vehicles and block vehicle registration.

Many Texans are paying upwards of $300 a month in tolls just to get to work. Since the privatized toll projects opened, one has gone bankrupt, SH 130 (segments 5 & 6), and two in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex use dynamic or ‘congestion pricing’ (where the toll is based on the level of congestion) to soak the traveling public, charging up to $50 a day in tolls.

Perhaps the most surprising concessions of the day came from Nichols’ himself. Known as the most ardent opponent of removing tolls in order to keep paying for road maintenance, Nichols actually advocated removing tolls from the Camino Columbia toll road. Tolls are generating ten times the cost of maintaining it.

Taking tolls off Camino Columbia would “to me, be a no brainer…you could pull the tolls down tomorrow if you wanted to,” suggested Nichols.

Nichols also asked TxDOT to study the effectiveness of HOV lanes. HOV lanes have come under fire as many of them now have a toll element for single occupant vehicles known as High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes, which are highly underutilized and actually make congestion worse on the surrounding general purpose lanes. He suggested the Department look at pre-HOV traffic data and post-HOV traffic data to actually see whether or not HOV lanes have successfully changed behavior and encouraged more carpooling or simply captured those who were already carpooling.

If it hasn’t actually successfully changed behavior, “I have a real problem with it,” expressed Nichols. “Police have more important things to do than count heads in an HOV lane.”

The research is virtually unanimous already. According to Jack Mallinckrodt’s study The Best Evidence of HOV Lane Effectiveness, he determined, “In all the known complete transportation modeling studies that have quantitatively evaluated (overall congestion and/or polluting emissions), optimal performance occurs in the natural, unrestricted Mixed-Flow operational mode. In all these cases, any attempt to preferentially restrict the natural free distribution of traffic, whether by HOV or HOT (High Occupancy Toll) operation, made overall congestion and emissions worse… And the findings are essentially unanimous in saying that under typical conditions, maximum transportation benefit…is afforded by unrestricted, mixed-flow, rather than HOV operation.”

HOV/HOT lanes may very well be on the ropes in Texas. House Transportation Committee Chair Joe Pickett shares Nichols’ distaste for HOV lanes calling them ineffective and a waste of capacity in a growing state. Pickett also argues they make congestion worse, which studies confirm, like the one recently conducted by Inrix that concluded congestion on the general purpose lanes got worse after the HOT lanes opened.

This is good news for congestion weary, toll weary commuters who are tired of being the guinea pigs of urban planners, who delight in imposing road scarcity to manipulate people out of their cars and into a bus or carpool. Conservatives clearly got the message that tolls play into the hands of social engineers who want to control the populace, and that tolls are abusive and double taxing Texans, which threatens the sustainability of the Texas economic miracle.