SHAFTED: Patrick deals blow to toll opponents by removing allies from committee

Patrick gives toll opponents a raw deal with new Senate Transportation Committee

Bob Hall Headshot smLt. Governor Dan Patrick announced committee assignments for the 86th session of the Texas Senate last week, and there’s no way to sugar coat it — toll opponents got shafted. The most notable shake-up on the Senate Transportation Committee is the removal of Vice Chair Senator Bob Hall from the committee. Four years ago, a group of freshmen senators known for being the fabulous eight took the Texas Senate by storm and ushered in a new era of conservatism in the upper chamber. Hall, Don HuffinesLois KolkhorstCharles Perry, and Brandon Creighton were part of that group and their appointment to the Senate Transportation Committee was considered a gift by Patrick to the grassroots for creating a deliberate, conservative voting block on what had been a crony capitalist, pro-toll committee controlled by toll road special interests.

Senator Don Huffines was removed last session at the behest of the pro-toll committee chairman, Senator Robert Nichols, which began to erode the grassroots voting block. Huffines had filed a whopping 11 anti-toll bills his freshman session, so the loss of Huffines was bad enough. He was replaced with Kelly Hancock, whose Warren Buffet bill to get special access to the Texas auto market for special interests while continuing to exclude others, got slapped down by the grassroots quicker than a gnat on your knee. Hancock also made a comment during an interim committee hearing on toll collection reform advocating for a barricade blocking Texas drivers from tollways until they paid their toll bills similar to an airport parking lot that won’t let you out until you pay up. He was tapped to replace Hall as Vice Chair. Creighton was also taken off the committee. While Perry remains on the committee, many view Senator Kolkhorst as the only vocal toll opponent left on the committee.

Who did Patrick replace the anti-toll voting block with? Senator Royce West is back on the committee, which is shocking considering his law firm has profited from public bond sales for Dallas Rapid Transit among other public entities. So Dallas now has someone representing them on the committee who stands to personally gain from bond deals instead of Hall who is a staunch opponent of toll schemes and without potential conflicts of interest. Wouldn’t newly elected Senator Angela Paxton have been a good choice to represent taxpayers in the North Texas area, especially since she hails from the most toll-concentrated county in the state, Collin County?

Newly elected Senator Carol Alvarado was also appointed to the committee, who consistently received an ‘F’ on anti-toll report cardswhen she was a House member. Charles Schwertner is also new to the committee, and he’s earned an ‘A’ average on toll road legislation, however, his influence has been greatly diminished by a sexting scandal, ultimately forcing him to resign from leadership over the Senate Health Committee. Make no bones about it, toll opponents had the rug pulled out from under them.

Hall is a rare lawmaker who digs into the nitty-gritty of an issue, studies the problems, and formulates solutions that are a better deal for taxpayers. Hall has already filed bills to repeal the universally disliked Driver Responsibility Program (that traps the poor in an endless cycle of criminal penalties they cannot possibly pay to get their drivers license back legally), to remove tolls once the debt is paid, to repeal exorbitant toll fines and fees that have been used to bludgeon and abuse Texas drivers into financial ruin and criminal penalties, a bill to help get major transportation projects funded without raising taxes, as well as a bill to make local toll authorities more accountable by broadcasting and archiving their board meetings over the internet. It’s safe to say, Hall has become a transportation expert and takes aim at the bureaucracies wreaking havoc on Texas drivers everywhere. So why would Patrick remove him from the one committee where most of Hall’s focus, energy, and expertise has been directed?

Patrick asked for and received the endorsement from Texans for Toll-free Highways, PAC for his stellar record fighting toll roads since he was first elected Lt. Governor. So the removal of Senator Hall from the Senate Transportation Committee is a major kick in the gut to taxpayers and his own supporters, especially considering the recent retirement of former House Transportation Committee Chair Joe Pickett, a huge advocate for removing tolls from roads that are paid for who had declared war on toll managed lanes that are making congestion worse, not better.

There are few places to turn to find reputable, reliable toll opponents willing to fight for taxpayers and call out toll bureaucrats when they’re trying to pull a fast one (which happens frequently in committee). Removing one of the biggest anti-toll advocates not only from his leadership position as Vice Chair, but from the committee altogether, just doesn’t pass the smell test. Something’s terribly wrong and voters need to be made aware that the fix is in — don’t expect toll road reform. Apparently toll taxes, that now approach the level of a property tax bill for many households topping $300/month per driver in some cases, is not part of broader tax reform being touted by leadership. After making a strong ‘no more tolls’ promise in November 2017, it’s hard to fathom how the composition of the Senate Transportation Committee could be any worse for toll opponents. Voters need to hold Patrick’s feet to the fire and demand toll tax reform along with property tax reform this session. What good does it do to put money in one pocket only to take it out of the other? That doesn’t give Texans net tax relief and silence is approval.

Bidding Pickett farewell, longtime transportation taxpayer ally retires

Farewell: Pickett’s love for transportation and sticking up for taxpayers will be sorely missed
Pickett Joe jpg 800x1000 Move Texas ForwardRetiring Texas State Representative Joseph Pickett (D – HD 79) is one in a million. Truly there is no one in the Texas House who undertook transportation as a matter of personal study with the aim of improving every step of the process for both the government agencies in charge of delivering projects and also for the forgotten taxpayer like Joe Pickett. He announced his retirement right before Christmas citing his battle with cancer and the need to fully recover without the rigors of a legislative session. It’s truly a devastating loss for the people of Texas. Here’s why.

No one knows Texas transportation like Pickett, and there is no one currently in the Texas House who can come close to replacing his depth of knowledge and expertise anytime soon. He’s been in the Texas House since 1995, serving first on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation then on the Transportation Committee itself, eventually chairing the committee for two sessions.

Pickett not only served on his local Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) in El Paso as a councilman, but also during most of his tenure in the Texas House. He also served as Chair of the El Paso MPO for several terms. Local MPOs are where the nitty gritty of transportation projects take place. These boards, comprised of local elected officials and transportation agency officials, decide which local projects get priority over others and where gas tax dollars and transportation funds get allocated. Ever since the Rick Perry ‘toll everything so we can generate new revenue and not call it a tax’ began, the MPOs often decide whether or not a road project is tolled. Those are fighting words for many Texans faced with high monthly toll bills that approach the level of a property tax bill for many families in urban areas. Pickett had the savvy and finesse to challenge TxDOT, toll agencies, and MPOs about various toll project decisions and discern whether or not it was truly warranted or just a potential cash cow for an unaccountable agency.

In recent years, Pickett declared war on toll ‘managed lanes.’ Managed lanes can mean a lot of different things, but they primarily involve a restricted express lane inside the general purpose lanes of an existing freeway where access is given based on paying a toll, being a registered carpool, or using some form of mass transit. The toll rates on these lanes change in real time throughout the day — going up based on the level of congestion on the adjacent free lanes. Toll rates skyrocket past $1.00 a mile during peak hours in many cases, like the managed lanes inside MoPac in Austin or the privatized managed lanes on I-635 in Dallas and I-820 in Ft. Worth. It’s become an unaccountable new tax on driving knocking the majority of Texas drivers out of lanes their tax money paid for (in part or in some cases the lanes are 100% tax-funded). This is why today’s version of tolling is called a double tax — you’re paying a toll to use a lane you’ve already paid for.

Pickett was largely responsible for two of the largest infusions of new highway funding in state history — Proposition 1 in 2014 and Proposition 7 in 2015. He was also an advocate of ending the 25% diversion of state gasoline tax to public education as a matter of principle. He believes it violates truth in taxation and betrays the public trust when politicians collect a tax for one purpose then spend it for another. Pickett was also one of the first legislators to sound the alarm that the state was in over its head with road debt, and he cut off at least one major source of debt, the Texas Mobility Fund, of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) in 2015.

But his legislative accomplishments barely scratch the surface of what his transportation legacy will be. Ultimately, Pickett was best known for drilling down into the numbers, doing his research, understanding every category of funding and every nuance of state transportation and used it to hold TxDOT and the many toll agencies now online (over 13) accountable to lawmakers and the public who funds them. Last session alone, he authored bills later turned into amendments to remove tolls from a highway in El Paso that was already paid for, to ensure gas taxes and other public funds weren’t handed out like candy to toll agencies as subsidies requiring any public money to be repaid to taxpayers, and to prevent the conversion of free lanes into toll lanes.

No House member tried to hold the transportation agencies accountable like Pickett. He used his depth of knowledge and expertise to fight for taxpayers and a more efficient and nimble process rather than give them a free pass or use one’s leadership on the committee to benefit their district or personal agenda as many do.

Pickett leaves behind a legacy unrivaled by anyone in the Texas House, and he will be dearly missed. The people of Texas not only owe him a debt of gratitude, they’ve lost one of their greatest advocates and allies in the Texas legislature. Without his wealth of knowledge to keep the agencies and their narrative to lawmakers in check, special interests and taxpayer-taxpayer-funded lobbyists of the agencies themselves will become the new ‘experts’ for lawmakers, allowing cronyism and self-interest to creep into Texas transportation absent a robust taxpayer watchdog.

Thankfully, Texas has Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) and Texans for Toll-free Highways as volunteer citizen watchdogs on transportation and toll road issues. Their role will be more vital than ever without Pickett in the House, who has been their reliable voice in committee and on the floor of the House during the throes of heated debate defending the truth and ensuring the agency’s talking points don’t cow lawmakers into a corner. Pickett knew when the agencies were bluffing and when they truly needed a new infusion of cash. Without his knack for sniffing out deception, taxpayers will be hard pressed to find a floor debater to defend them. So while we honor his legacy and wish him a fond farewell, we grieve the retirement of one of Texas’ best. He’s left his mark, and we’re forever grateful for his 24 years of service in the Texas House.

Toll Taxes Taking a Toll

Many Texans are faced with paying an extra, burdensome toll tax on driving just to get to work or travel across the Lone Star State. Drivers are shocked to find tolls that exceed $1 per mile during rush hour, costing hundreds of dollars a month and thousands per year in new taxes on driving. Tolls have become like a second property tax bill for many households.

Tolls are financially ruining many Texas families to the point that they either have to move closer to work or move away completely to avoid the extra tax. On top of the tolls themselves, Texas drivers are being hit with huge fines and fees.

A recent report by KXAN showed Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) alone has put over 2 million Texans into collections for past due bills.

TxDOT imposed over $1 billion in toll fines and fees, and they only operate a handful of toll projects, mostly in Austin. Austin, like every urban city in Texas, also has a second unelected toll agency that recently admitted only $15 million of the $100 million it has collected was for actual tolls — the other $85 million amounts to fines and fees. It’s an epidemic.

Toll agencies can block your vehicle registration and even impound your car on the spot if you have unpaid tolls. Since many Texans have a car payment, they could be forced to make payments on a vehicle they can longer drive while at the same time, have no way to get to work to pay the toll bill and fees for impoundment.

The Texas Legislature has made unpaid tolls a criminal offense. This brings us back to a form of debtors’ prison, which is unconstitutional.

Gone are the days when toll roads were occasional and the toll came off the road once the debt was paid. Now unelected boards have been empowered by the legislature to create complicated toll systems that are financially interdependent, making it so no toll project is ever truly paid for, allowing tolls in perpetuity — which violates the Texas Constitution.

This ought to concern every Texan, and our legislators need to hear from us about changing the law to make tolls come off these roads once the initial debt is paid.

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Anti-toll candidates win in midterm election

Anti-toll candidates fare well in midterm election

The midterm election in Texas concluded with new battle lines drawn and the margin between parties closer than ever in what was considered a solidly red state. Anti-toll candidates fared well, winning the majority (18 of 27) of the races endorsed by Texans by Toll-free Highways. Likewise, Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom’s (TURF) Voter Guide, that rates incumbents based on voting records and its survey on toll roads and property rights related questions, saw many of its top rated candidates who had contested races chalk up victories. All the anti-toll candidates at the top of the ballot won, including Ted Cruz, two congressional candidates, Ron Wright and Chip Roy, as well as Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. The state’s two top leaders, Abbott and Patrick, put a line in the sand last November declaring no more tolls moving forward. Voters re-elected both and they’ll hold them to that promise

The biggest defeats came in the Texas House with 9 anti-toll backed candidates losing, and one outcome is still too close to call as it’s undergoing a recount in House District 132 where incumbent Mike Schofield has fallen behind his challenger. While tolls may not have played a huge role in several of those races, the hardest ones to choke down are the losses of two anti-toll champion senators, Konni Burton (R – Colleyville) and Don Huffines (R- Dallas), and House Freedom Caucus anti-toll champion Matt Rinaldi (R – Irving). The other four anti-toll backed senate candidates won their races: Bob HallAngela PaxtonDonna Campbell, and Pat Fallon.

The Democrat bump from the energy brought to the midterms by Beto O’Rourke’s U.S. Senate race made many races close and flipped many Republican held seats to Democrats in urban areas, particularly Dallas County. Only a handful of Democrats engaged the grassroots on the toll issue, and most failed to return candidate surveys or vetting questionnaires, so it’s unclear where they stand on toll road issues.

The two standouts are Democrats Terry Meza (HD 105) and Vicki Goodwin (HD 47). Texans for Toll-free Highways endorsed Goodwin over incumbent Paul Workman, representing west Travis County who consistently earned an ‘F’ on our TURF’s legislative Report Cards, racking up one of the worst voting records on toll road issues in the Texas House. Meza has engaged on the issue and is ready to work with the grassroots to relieve this undue tax burden on working families in Irving and Grand Prairie. Incumbent Rodney Anderson rated fairly well on TURF’s Report Cards, but there’s no question the toll tax burden is a major issue in the district and the Metroplex. Moving forward, Meza is not a net loss for taxpayers in HD 105 on toll roads.

With the Democrat surge over Republicans in urban areas complicating how to interpret this midterm election in general, overall, the anti-toll cause is in good shape heading into the 86th Legislative Session regardless of the overall two-party battle lines. The grassroots will remain laser focused on legislation to remove the toll once the debt is paid off and expanding the toll collection reforms secured last session to all toll agencies. At least 14 taxpayer funded toll agencies will be lobbying hard against taxpayers seeking to cap toll fines and remove tolls on roads that are paid for. With new leadership in the House and strong allies in the senate and governor’s office, voters should expect both to pass in spite of taxpayer funded lobbying by toll bureaucracies.

Anti-toll candidates & Proposition win big in primaries

IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Anti-toll candidates, proposition won in GOP primaries

(Austin, Texas, Wednesday, March 7) It was a good night for anti-toll candidates yesterday as voters headed to the polls for the March 6 primary election. Gov. Greg Abbott led the way winning overwhelmingly with 90% of the vote, United States Senator Ted Cruz right behind him with an impressive 85%, and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, also winning handily with 76%. Though no one expected the primary challengers to pose a real threat to the state’s three top officials, some others down ballot had real threats and they survived — some convincingly.

With Senator Bob Hall being the most high profile target of the pro-toll cabal, he won the primary with 53% of the vote. Anti-toll State Representative Pat Fallon beat pro-toll incumbent Senator Craig Estes in Senate District 30, garnering 62% of the vote. In Senate District 8, anti-toll Angela Paxton won the open seat replacing anti-toll Sen. Van Taylor (who also overwhelmingly won the primary for congress in District 3). In a highly contested race for congress to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith in District 21, two anti-toll candidates head to a run-off. Texans for Toll-free Highways endorsed Chip Roy, who led the crowded field of 18 candidates with 27% of the vote.

Perhaps the biggest upset of the night for the anti-toll cause was in House District 114 where Lisa Luby Ryan ousted the rabidly pro-toll incumbent Jason Villalba, who has persistently pushed tolls on I-635E. Anti-toll Mayes Middleton unseated pro-toll incumbent Wayne Faircloth in House District 23, with opposition from Abbott aiding in putting Middleton over the top. In House District 106, anti-toll Jared Patterson won the open seat vacated by Fallon.

Other notable anti-toll races were in House District 73, where current State Representative Kyle Biedermann had a fierce challenge from pro-toll Dave Campbell, but Biedermann won with 58% of the vote in a race where over 30,000 ballots were cast (which dwarfs most house races). Other challengers to House Freedom Caucus members, Mike Lang, Matt Schaefer, and Valoree Swanson were also defeated. The Freedom Caucus stands strong against toll roads, and they’re credited with helping the grassroots get 6 out of 7 anti-toll reforms into law last year.

Another intense anti-toll race is brewing in House District 13, where the battle for this open seat takes center stage with anti-toll Jill Wolfskill leading as she heads into a run-off with pro-toll former County Judge Ben Leman in a race where tolls on SH 249 have rocked Grimes County with controversy for several years. In House District 8, anti-toll Thomas McNutt made it into a run-off along with Matt Beebe in House District 121 in another fierce battle for the open seat vacated by embattled Speaker Joe Straus.

Anti-toll Stuart Spitzer heads to a run-off in House District 4, along with Brent Lawson in House District 62. In House District 107, anti-toll DeAnna Metzger almost won outright in a three way race (she captured 45% of the vote), but she’s headed for a run-off before facing the ardently pro-toll incumbent Victoria Neave in the general election this fall. Anti-toll Jonathan Boos won in a three-way race for the open seat in House District 113 vacated by current State Rep. Cindy Burkett. Michael Berlanga also won the GOP primary for House District 117. Berlanga faces the tough challenge of unseating pro-toll Philip Cortez in the general election.

Meanwhile, three friendly anti-toll incumbent state representatives, Giovanni Capriglione, Rodney Anderson and Ron Simmons retained their seats. Anti-toll former State Rep. Steve Toth won his primary in the bid to regain his old seat.

Even in some local races, anti-toll challengers fared well. Anti-toll Mark Keough beat the pro-toll incumbent in the Montgomery County Judge race, and anti-toll Gregory Parker managed to get the incumbent in the Montgomery County Commissioner Precinct 2 into a run-off.

Also appearing on the GOP ballot was Proposition 2  a big litmus test for the anti-toll sentiment in the party. It stated: “No governmental entity should ever construct or fund construction of toll roads without voter approval.” It passed with 90% of the primary voters, signaling the GOP base is sick of paying toll taxes, especially without their consent.

All told, anti-toll candidates had a fantastic showing with 18 wins and 7 making it into run-offs, sending a message not only to state leaders but all the way to Washington D.C. where the recently released Trump infrastructure proposal is pushing tolls, particularly those that hand public highways to private toll operators in 50-year sweetheart deals. Texans have said ‘No’ to tolls from the beginning and their voices are only getting louder.

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Trump plan to lift ban on tolling existing interstates draws scorn

Trump plan to lift ban on tolling existing interstates met with stiff oppositionThe lowly taxpayer just can’t seem to cut a break. Weeks after the euphoria of passing the largest tax cut in a generation, President Donald Trump released his infrastructure proposal pushing toll roads and public private partnerships (P3s), which spells disaster for those middle class workers’ pocketbooks. The most contentious proposal being lifting the ban on tolling existing interstates.

Former U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) was instrumental in protecting taxpayers from double taxation by defending the ban on tolling existing interstates during her tenure, even imposing a special provision to protect Texas. Now Trump wants to provide states “flexibility to toll existing interstates.” This means the lanes you drive today toll-free could now have tolls slapped on them simply to generate revenue for big government as a new tax in the hands of unelected toll agencies or to line the pockets of private toll operators — completely out of reach of the voters.

Trump’s base sees the president as a champion of the working man. They elected him to look out for American workers by cracking down on illegal immigration, nixing or renegotiating hostile trade agreements, and putting more money back in their pockets. Now they may be asking, what good does it do to put money back in one pocket through tax cuts only to take it out of the other with confiscatory toll taxes, especially in the hands of private, for-profit, global corporations?

Groups like Alliance for Toll-free Interstates along with many grassroots groups that span the country from tea parties to pro-taxpayer organizations vehemently oppose the toll component of Trump’s plan. P3s are particularly unpopular due to the massive taxpayer subsidies and putting taxpayers on the hook for most of the funding through  federal loans and bonds.

“Tolls are a wildly inefficient tax, sacrificing money that could go toward construction to corporate profits and administrative costs. In addition to the diversion onto secondary roads which causes congestion and public safety issues, tolls will do unimaginable harm to businesses, as shipping and manufacturing prices skyrocket to account for these new costs,” said Stephanie Kane, spokesperson for the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates. “This plan is not innovative or good policy – it is simply a nationwide plan for #TrumpTolls.”

“The Trump Administration’s infrastructure plan is choosing Wall Street over Main Street. Tolls will take money from hardworking Americans and give huge profits to toll road investors – many of which are foreign companies,” Kane said.

It’s not just commuters who worry about this new tax. Industries such as shipping and manufacturing fear the added cost tolls will add to moving goods throughout the country, increasing costs to consumers.

“Everyone understands the inefficiencies of toll collection and that a large portion goes to investors instead of road construction, but what they may not be aware of is the impact on the cost of doing business. Companies that move goods, such as UPS, rely upon the unrestricted flow of goods on interstates to move freight throughout the country. Nationwide tolls will dramatically impact the cost of moving goods, and ultimately consumers will pay a higher price,” said Rich McArdle, President of UPS Freight.

When the interstate highways system was conceived, the president and congress decided to do it with a gas tax based system rather than tolls because there would never be enough money collected in rural parts of the country to pay for their own roads. So the renewed push for tolls is looking an awful lot like a targeted tax on urban commuters — the very working class voters that comprise Trump’s base.

The federal-aid highway system has been primarily funded with a federal gasoline tax, currently at 18.4 cents per gallon which has remained unchanged since 1993. With revenue from gas tax chronically falling short of what congress spends, politicians love turning to tolls as a get-out-of-jail-free card to voting for a tax hike. But most Americans aren’t fooled by the distinction without a difference – a toll is a tax, especially when being imposed on lanes their tax money has already build and paid for.

Tolls have been and will remain wildly unpopular with ordinary citizens. The crony capitalist wing of the Republican party seems to be winning over the president in lieu of his Main Street voter base. The opposition to tolls, especially those imposed on lanes that are already paid for, will only grow stronger and louder as congress weighs the president’s proposal.

Abbott, Patrick: ‘No more tolls’

Abbott, Patrick tame rogue highway department, scrap new toll projects

It’s not very often that the lowly taxpayer gets a win this big, but it finally came. After 12 years of wrangling over toll roads, Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick came to the rescue issuing a final decree ending toll roads in Texas.

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) ignited a taxpayer revolt when it proposed 15 new toll projects as part of the update to its ten year plan — the Unified Transportation Plan (UTP). Not only did TxDOT try to railroad a litany of toll projects, it adopted a plan to use Prop 1 and Prop 7 funds that are constitutionally protected from going to toll projects to finance the US 183 toll project in Austin.

Abbott campaigned on the promise of fixing Texas roads without raising taxes, fees, debt or tolls. He reiterated his position in his first State of the State address in 2015 as well as when he announced his Texas Clear Lanes initiative that was to focus funding on the state’s most congested roads.

The Texas Conservative Grassroots Coalition led by Texans for Toll-free Highways and Grassroots America – We the People fired off a letter to Abbott’s newly named Texas Transportation Chair Bruce Bugg, along with a press release that didn’t mince words, “Read Our Lips: No New Toll Taxes.”

Patrick weighed-in first with a strong public statement, “I oppose adding any additional toll lanes to TxDOT’s UTP. I fought against increasing the state’s reliance on toll roads as a state senator and I have continued that fight as lieutenant governor. The Texas Legislature worked hard to pass Proposition 7 in 2015 to provide billions in funding for transportation infrastructure to help eliminate the state’s need for additional toll roads. Eliminating the need for tolls was one of the primary reasons the Texas Legislature passed Prop 7 and why Texas voters approved it. No new toll roads have been approved by the Senate or the House in the last two sessions and legislators I have spoken with are very unhappy that the Commission seems now to be going in a direction that opposes the will of the legislature and the majority of Texans.”

Patrick also said he sent a letter to Bugg asking him “to develop a plan that contains no additional toll lanes.”

Then Abbott made clear that he expects the same. Spokeswoman Ciara Matthews stated: “The governor and his staff have been in constant communication with members of the Texas Transportation Commission and TxDOT staff to express their desire to not include new toll roads as part of TxDOT’s Unified Transportation Plan.”

Within hours, TxDOT issued its own statement retreating from its position just hours earlier at its Transportation Commission hearing, “Members of the Texas Transportation Commission and TxDOT staff have been in regular contact with the Governor’s office over the past several weeks and we understand the Governor’s expressed desire to not include new toll roads. In response to public comments received, we are developing a plan to scrub the UTP update of any toll roads in the proposed revisions.”

Boom!

So ten days after the grassroots issued its letter in support of Abbott’s no-toll promise and asking for intervention, he and Patrick wasted no time in squelching the rogue agency. Last week, Rep. Joe Pickett requested an attorney general opinion on whether or not TxDOT’s use of Prop 1 and Prop 7 funds on a toll project was even legal, which prompted news reports outing the agency’s deliberate attempt to violate the constitutional protection voters overwhelmingly chose to put in place.

The confluence of events created a perfect storm that led to a public showdown between the taxpayers and a rogue highway department bent on ramming toll roads down voters throats, despite the persistent movement away from toll roads by their elected representatives in recent years.

The unpopularity of toll roads has been reaching a boiling point in Texas. As the house of cards was falling on toll roads, the Texas Tribune ran a story highlighting the reality many commuters now face — pay hundreds of dollars a month in punitive toll taxes to get anywhere, or sit in traffic and watch your quality of life disappear.

One Austin resident literally decided to sell her house and downsize into an apartment to relieve herself of the aggravation of unrelenting traffic in the non-toll lanes or paying ridiculous sums of money in tolls to get to work in a reasonable timeframe.

Her story is echoed by many Texans, especially in the toll saturated Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex where drivers can scarcely go anywhere without facing unbearable gridlock or paying tolls upwards of $10/day.

Sen. Bob Hall issued a scathing statement on TxDOT’s proposed toll plan that equates the typical $10/day toll to a $25 per gallon gasoline tax that, over a lifetime, would mushroom into an eye-popping $135,000 in toll taxes.

“This is an outrageously unacceptable tax burden, and Governor Abbott must step-in to stop it before it’s too late.”

Well, Texas taxpayers can breathe a sigh of relief this Thanksgiving that both Abbott and Patrick did just that and rescued commuters from further oppressive toll taxes on 15 more Texas highways. It’s rare for a promise made to be a promise kept in politics. These two leaders are to be commended for keeping their promises to Texas voters.

Should voters promote pro-toll Burkett to senator?

Burkett wants highest possible toll taxes for constituents

With Cindy Burkett throwing her hat in the ring in an attempt to unseat grassroots conservative stalwart Senator Bob Hall, the voters of Texas Senate District 2 need to know about her record. Burkett was quick to support selling off Interstate 635 E to the highest bidder using a controversial toll contract known in Texas as a comprehensive development agreement (or CDA) that gives control of our public roads to private toll companies.

Interstate 635 toll lanes from I-35E to the Dallas North Tollway are already operated by Spain-based Cintra. Commuters in the Metroplex face paying upwards of $24/day in tolls to this foreign corporation just to get to work, and no elected official has any control over how high those toll rates can go. Burkett wants that tax burden to extend to commuters in her own district from US 75 to I-30.

Such contracts give private corporations the exclusive right to extract the highest possible toll from the traveling public in a 50-year monopoly. The private entity receives millions in gas taxes to subsidize their ‘private’ project along with federal loans and bonds backed by taxpayers. CDAs contain non-compete agreements that penalize taxpayers for the expansion of free routes, manipulate speed limits on free routes, and use the power of the state for toll collection and to block your vehicle registration or impound your car if you don’t pay up.

During the public hearing earlier this year on the bill, HB 2861, that would have handed I-635 E to a private toll operator, House colleague and former Transportation Committee Chair Rep. Joe Pickett insisted toll managed lanes do not solve congestion problems because so few can afford to utilize them. Another colleague, Rep. Ron Simmons, maintained tolls, particularly CDAs, are a targeted tax on certain areas while other Texans get their roads fixed without the additional tax burden of tolls. Simmons even asked how can pushing the most controversial and expensive form of tolling be reconciled with Governor Greg Abbott’s promise to fix our roads without new tolls or debt?

But rather than express similar sentiments or concerns about the oppressive tax burden of $200-$400/month in tolls such a deal would impose on her constituents, Burkett sat silent or left the room altogether. Burkett voted in favor of it in committee and again on the House floor, but the bill was ultimately defeated by a vote of 85-51.

In the prior session, Burkett not only supported HB 3556 — the first attempt to toll I-635 E that also failed to pass — she authored it. Though it started as bill restricting the use of tolls, she changed the language giving the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) a free pass to impose tolls if they determined there wasn’t enough traditional funding to do the project. Burkett knew full well that the excuse for why the project hasn’t commenced is because TxDOT claims there isn’t enough funding unless it’s tolled. Burkett even acknowledged that her constituents have made it clear that they don’t want tolls, but she insisted it remain an option until the state boosted road funding.

Well, Texas voters did just that when they voted to give TxDOT $5 billion more per year in new road funding when they overwhelmingly passed both Prop 1 in 2014 and Prop 7 in 2015. Yet Burkett apparently thinks that’s still not enough and came in the very next session pushing the bill to not only toll but also to privatize I-635 E anyway.

TxDOT has since conducted a toll feasibility study for I-635 E and Burkett now knows that TxDOT’s study shows the project isn’t toll viable. So why would she twice vote to support a CDA bill this year to allow a private toll corporation to slap tolls on it for a half century, especially since public subsidies would be needed to build it, setting up a double tax scenario?

While Burkett has filed bills to increase transparency on toll studies and at the North Texas Tollway Authority, her penchant for tolling I-635 E, selling it off to a private entity in a sweetheart deal backed by taxpayers (clearly the most expensive option), and advocating for the double taxation of her constituents, outweighs that legislation.

This is no time for lukewarm or playing footsie with special interests like Cintra who clearly wants to get its hands on the rest of I-635 E to extend its toll road all the way to I-30. The ever increasing tax burden is choking Texas residents on every front. Between the House’s failure to enact property tax reform and Burkett’s push to privatize and toll a major interstate residents rely on for daily living, the best choice in the race for Senate District 2 is the current Senator Bob Hall.

In contrast to Burkett, Hall has fought new toll taxes on every front. He’s filed and passed bills to prevent both free lanes and HOV lanes from being converted into toll lanes (as is the plan on I-635 E), as well as filing Senate Bill 84 to fight for a way to fund I-635 E without tolls by tapping some of the new sales tax revenue that would emerge from commercial development once the frontage roads are built.

Hall has also filed bills to abolish wasteful toll authorities as well as subject them to sunset review, co-authored the bill to block state funds from subsidizing toll projects (to prevent double taxation), and force disclosure of toll viability studies. He currently serves as the Vice Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and has earned the trust and respect of his colleagues. He’s earned an A+ from anti-toll groups both sessions he’s served as a senator. Together with his pro-taxpayer record on every other issue aside from transportation, Bob Hall is a fierce, faithful taxpayer champion in the Texas Senate and the right choice to serve Senate District 2.

Grassroots to TxDOT: ‘Read our lips – No new toll taxes!’

IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Read our lips: “No new toll taxes!”

Grassroots Coalition of 67 Organizations Call Out
Transportation Agencies for Breaking Governor’s
Promise for No More Toll Roads

(November 8, 2017 — Austin, Texas) Today, a Texas Conservative Grassroots Coalition project led by Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), Texans for Toll-free Highways, and Grassroots America was hand-delivered to Gov. Greg Abbott and his new Transportation Commission Chair, Bruce Bugg. The Coalition letter insists that the Transportation Commission, TxDOT, and all related mobility authorities make good on Governor Abbott’s promise to build needed roads without new toll taxes. The Coalition project was launched in response to last week’s proposal by TxDOT to the Transportation Commission to approve over a dozen new toll projects in the state’s ten-year plan. Fifteen of the 17 projects are toll projects, including I-35 in Austin and San Antonio, I-635E in Dallas, I-45 in Houston, and Loop 1604 on San Antonio.

JoAnn Fleming, Grassroots America’s Executive Director said of the latest proposal for new toll projects, “Apparently, the state and local transportation bureaucracies didn’t get Gov. Abbott’s memo during his first campaign for Governor and haven’t listened ever since. The Governor has repeatedly underscored his vow to get Texas off the toll road and debt scheme. He’s made it clear he wants the state on a pay-as-you-go plan for road construction, and voters have approved the funding.

“So, it’s about time TxDOT, the Transportation Commission, the RMAs and the MPOs all got on the same page with Governor Abbott. We are sick and tired of this nonsense.  There’s always another bureaucratic plot afoot with perpetual whining that they don’t have enough money.  If they spent one-quarter of their time working to eliminate bone-headed, wasteful processes that burn through cash, instead of devising ways to defy the Governor and the state constitution, we’d all be better off.

“This goes back to the Sunset Advisory Board’s Report to the 85th Legislature, which stated, ‘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.  TxDOT has not met key on-time or on-budget measures for several years…’. It’s time for these bureaucracies to stop undermining our Governor and do their jobs. Gov. Abbott needs to put his foot down to stop these rogue actions, which undermine his administration.”

Terri Hall, Founder and Director of TURF and Texans for Toll-free Highways, notes, “Working families across this state have made it abundantly clear that they do not want more toll roads. Taxpayers approved two constitutional measures giving the biggest boost in highway funding to TxDOT in a generation, and they are rewarded with more toll roads? Talk about disrespect! Texans elected this governor on the promise that he was parting ways with the Rick Perry toll road cram down. Gov. Abbott even ran television campaign ads promising to fix our roads without tolls. Now his highway Commission is on the verge of approving 15 more toll projects? It’s decision time, and he’s running for re-election. How this comes down will not go unnoticed by the grassroots.”

Senator Bob Hall, Vice Chair of the state Senate Transportation Committee, strenuously objecting to more toll roads, explained, “Toll taxes create a long-term penalty for the working class. At today’s average cost of $5.00 each direction, it will cost the family of a worker – over the course of their lifetimes – in excess of $135,000 for the ‘privilege’ of using the toll lane! That’s like taking a home or a couple of college educations away from that family, while they face a daily fee that could well be the equivalent of a $25.00 per-gallon gasoline tax. This is an outrageously unacceptable tax burden, and Governor Abbott must step-in to stop it before it’s too late.”

Chairman Bugg’s comments indicate that if local governments lobby the Commission for toll ‘managed’ lanes, that they’ll consider giving toll projects a green light, despite the Governor’s campaign promises, “When a local community comes to this Commission and states that they want to add capacity, and they know the funds are not available, they want to support a managed lanes concept; and when the funds that Governor Abbott and the Texas Legislature worked so hard to provide are not being used, then I think this Commission needs to consider the local community’s support for a managed lane project.”

Coalition partners want Gov. Abbott to challenge local governments on their abusive use of excessive tolling just as he did on an array of anti-liberty, anti-taxpayer local ordinances during the past legislative and special sessions.

Taxpayers also want Governor Abbott to investigate why the public is being told there’s not enough funding for the most congested roads after they only recently voted to approve nearly $5 billion in new annual funding with approval of Prop 1 and Prop 7.  In 2015, the legislature passed House Bill 20, requiring TxDOT to put specific policies in place to ensure the highest priority projects are funded first. Yet, that’s not what has happened. The majority of new funds have been allocated to low priority projects – by design – so that TxDOT could cry poverty and enable local governments to tap a toll revenue stream for the most congested roads, creating unaccountable slush funds outside the reach of taxpayers.

Constitutional crisis?
Texas Conservative Grassroots Coalition leaders say the Transportation Commission is in violation of the law because the Commission is using Prop 1 and Prop 7 funds – money that is constitutionally barred from use on toll projects – to subsidize the US 183 toll project in Austin.

TxDOT’s presentation to the Commission on October 26 clearly shows $120 million in Prop 1 and Prop 7 funds are to be used on the US 183 toll project. In a clever deception, the agency claims it can make the move appear legal by separating the financing of the toll lanes from the non-toll lanes; however it’s all part of the same project! In the same presentation, TxDOT states that it will be doing the US 183 toll project under one contract procurement, not as two separate projects.

TxDOT’s prior policy, as evidenced in a 2014 letter to State Rep. Ron Simmons by then-Deputy Executive Director of TxDOT John Barton, clearly states if any part of a project has a toll element, it would not be eligible for Prop 1 funds. Prop 7 has the same constitutional restriction as Prop 1 and cannot be used on toll projects either.

“Apparently, TxDOT has decided they are not required to follow the Texas Constitution.  
Their brazen actions at the Commission last week are a movement toward lawlessness. If a state agency can simply break up a toll project into two parts in order to subvert the constitutional restrictions voters deliberately put in place on Prop 1 and Prop 7 funds, then it will continue to do so on every toll project. This scheme, if not challenged, will set a dangerous precedent, and we’re not going to stand for it,” concludes Terri Hall.

###

OUTRAGEOUS: MoPac tolls top $8 to use toll lanes in rush hour

Tolls top $8 for commute on newly opened MoPac toll lanes

It didn’t take long for toll rates to exceed affordability. The newly opened toll managed lanes on MoPac (from Lady Bird Lake to Parmer Lane) in Austin topped $8 to go 11 miles, and cost $6.28 to drive the northern 6 miles during the evening commute. That’s just in the first week of operation. If you think that’s insane, that’s because it is. No one should have to pay over $1 a mile to get to or from work in a reasonable time. Texans pay a litany of road taxes, primarily the gasoline tax, to pay for public highways. Twice in as many years, Texas voters gave the largest boost in road funding to the state highway fund — totaling nearly $5 billion more per year. Yet supercharged toll roads continue to come online virtually unabated.

Toll managed lanes like those on MoPac use congestion pricing. The toll you pay no longer relates to the actual cost of building the road you’re driving on. Now tolls vary based on the level of congestion, rising and falling continually throughout peak hours, potentially changing in 5-minute intervals. Toll roads often provide time reliability, but today’s congestion tolling means you don’t have price reliability. A study done in 2016 by the Texas Transportation Institute at A&M, found that congestion tolling both angers and confuses the public. It states one of the biggest challenges is public acceptance.

According to the study, the top three reasons the public dislikes congestion tolling are: opposition to paying more to travel on top of what the public is already paying for roads, the complex requirements for using the lanes that change based on region, time of day, number of people in the car, and price, and the tax burden on lower income drivers without good non-toll options.

To add to the outrage, the MoPac toll project was fully paid for by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) with $200 million in gasoline taxes. No debt was owed to build it. When the public balked at the double tax scheme of making drivers pay a toll to use a road their taxes paid for, officials turned it into a loan to be paid to the local transportation policy board who will use it to build other roads MoPac drivers may never use.

Taxpayers also ended up paying $38 million more for the project than estimated, and it was over two years behind schedule in opening, with the prolonged construction negatively impacting businesses and commuters alike. Because of the legal troubles of dealing with the design-build contractor, CH2M, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) will issue debt to pay-off the contractor to make potential litigation disputing various change orders and additional work go away.

Even with the $38 million in additional costs and the agency having to issue some debt to finish paying the contractor, the $20 million in debt issued is a drop in the bucket and no excuse to charge Austinites tolls in perpetuity to use lanes their taxes already paid for. The debt is due to the project’s gross mismanagement by a rookie agency, the CTRMA, that lacks the accountability and depth of project management experience of TxDOT (that our taxes already pay to operate). So Texans are paying taxes upon taxes to build and maintain public highways thanks to this duplicative, wasteful, mismanaged bureaucracy running the show.

Given that the CTRMA’s Executive Director who oversees a dozen employees makes $366,112 a year compared to the $299,812 salary of TxDOT’s Executive Director, who oversees 11,000 employees, you get a glimpse at the Texas-sized toll bureaucracy problem. State lawmakers have long excused digging into the financial waste and mismanagement at TxDOT because the state lacks the funds and resources to audit an agency that big. How will adding nine more of these mini-TxDOT’s known as Regional Mobility Authorities solve the problem? It exploded the waste ninefold.

Taxpayers will continue to face a logjam of ill-conceived toll projects just like MoPac all over the state despite Governor Greg Abbott’s campaign promise to fix Texas without more taxes, fees, tolls, or debt. Why? As long as local transportation boards known as Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) continue to push for toll slush funds to fund a host of local pet projects, the governor’s highway commission has shown little appetite for bucking them. Voters need to get engaged or risk being priced off their public roadways altogether. If congestion tolls are starting out at over $1/mile in peak hours, imagine what they’ll be next year or in 10 years. There is no legal requirement to remove tolls from these highways, even when there’s no debt owed. Expect Texas commuters to do a full court press to change that when the legislature reconvenes in 2019.