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.

Give Doug Miller the boot!

We endorse Kyle Biedermann for Texas House District 73. Kyle earned an ‘A’ rating from anti-toll watchdog Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom and signed onto the anti-toll pledge and legislative priorities for Texans for Toll-free Highways.

Time to oust pro-toll Doug Miller
Incumbent for Texas House District 73
Average grade on Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) Transportation and Property Rights Legislative Report Card is a ‘D-‘

Miller voted to allow (HB 1112, in 2011) unelected toll bureaucracies to keep tolls on our roads even after they’re paid for (hence perpetual taxation), and to authorize Robin Hood ’system financing’ for toll roads that take toll revenues from one corridor to pay for another so that it’s no longer the user of the road paying for the road, but stealing from Peter to pay Paul, which is socialism for roads. The bill also allows multi-leveraged debt, which is what necessitated the $1 trillion Fannie Mae mortgage bailout. So Miller approved building roads, in essence, with credit cards that’s the equivalent of taking out a second mortgage on our highway system.

Miller voted for, SB 1110 (in 2013), that heists property taxes (through appraisal increases) for transportation projects and expands the use of Transportation Reinvestment Zones (TRZ) from strictly FREEways to toll roads, rail, transit, and dedicated bike lanes. So Miller wants your local property taxes to be used to bail out toll roads that can’t pay for themselves. Don’t count on your property tax bill going down when unelected boards obligate your taxes to bail out loser toll projects for a half century.

The bill also allows unelected toll bureaucracies to grab LOCAL sales tax in the ‘zone’ for STATE highway projects. So TRZs allow state officials to pass its obligation to properly fund and maintain the state highway system onto LOCAL taxpayers while they spend our gasoline taxes on non-road uses. This is also how state and local officials do an end run around voters for bond elections and empower an unelected toll authority to issue bonds that obligate generations of Texans to pay for toll projects and other things they don’t approve of.

Miller also voted for SB 1730 (in 2013) that authorizes nearly two dozen highway projects to be sold-off to private toll operators in sweetheart deals for a half century. These public private partnership contracts erode state sovereignty over public infrastructure, permit eminent domain for private gain, allow private corporations the power to charge punitively high toll taxes without limit to use public roads, contain non-compete clauses that penalize or prohibit expansion of free routes, and dole out taxpayer money to guarantee the private firm’s losses along with other taxpayer guarantees to ensure the private developer never loses money on the deal. Such deals cost DFW commuters up to $24 a day to get to work using a 10-mile private toll lane on I-635. In fact, Miller authored an amendment (amendment #3) to sell-off SH 16 between Fredericksburg and Kerrville to one of these foreign corporations!

Miller chairs the Special Purpose District Committee that authorizes Municipal Utility Districts (MUDs). This is the primary means for private developers to gain access to eminent domain for private gain. MUDs are being used to heist land across the Hill Country, and rather than shield landowners from these abuses, Miller facilitates it. Developers reward Miller by filling his campaign coffers. That’s how he’s fueled his nasty million dollar re-election campaign.

It’s past time for Miller to get the boot!

Vote for Kyle Biedermann on May 24.
Polls are open from 7 AM – 7 PM.

Villalba dogs anti-toll senators over LBJ East

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something else happens that still manages to shock you. Well, this mean-spirirted editorial by State Rep. Jason Villalba and Dallas Councilman Adam McGough takes toll road politics to a whole new level. Read this outrageous hit piece that actually claims the survival of the Dallas area as a ‘world class city’ depends on a toll lane on I-635 East. Our response is below it.

Support our anti-toll Good Guys! Send in a Letter to the Editor in support of Sen. Bob Hall and Sen. Don Huffines for their efforts to secure a non-toll LBJ East.
Link to editorial here.
EDITORIAL: Villalba and McGough: Stop stalling the LBJ 635 East Project
By Jason Villalba and Adam McGough
Dallas Morning News
April 4, 2016

When running for political office in North Texas, whether for State Senate, the Texas House or the Dallas City Council, one quickly learns there is a single issue that unifies all citizens, political parties, business leaders, chambers of commerce, rotary clubs and community groups. To a person, all agree there is a current and growing need for more robust and efficient transportation infrastructure in Dallas County and all of North Texas.

Nowhere is this problem more salient than on Highway 635 from Central Expressway to Interstate Highway 30. The congestion, disrepair and clumsy layout of the primary transport artery in the north east quadrant of the county becomes evident after driving just a few minutes on that roadway.

As Dallas continues to grow at a pace that eclipses the rest of the state, our elected officials must endeavor to immediately find and implement solutions that address these needs in a way that works for all of our citizenry and our businesses. In the age of righteous indignation and well-intentioned fealty to ideological shibboleths, Dallas simply cannot afford to stand athwart the progress that is such a vital component of our growth and survival as a world class city.

And yet, certain of our officials continue to do just that. Anger and good intentions may win at the ballot box, but they will not fund the projects necessary to keep our highways running smoothly and efficiently.

No Texan, including the authors of this editorial, wants to utilize tolled roads to address our transportation shortfalls. We recognize that the hard working people of Texas pay their taxes to the state and that the state owes them a duty to find a way to provide the necessary services of government, including transportation. A tolled highway can, in some cases, become an additional tax on drivers.

But with respect to the proposed plan to create seven new lanes (each way) on Highway 635 from Central Expressway to IH-30, a project often referred to as the LBJ 635 East Project, the toll lanes are managed. This means you will only drive on a tolled lane if you choose to do so, similar to the Disney Fast Pass, which allows visitors to the theme parks to pay a fee to save a place in line. If you want to skip traffic at a busy hour or take advantage of a guaranteed travel speed to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, a managed toll lane will give you that opportunity. If you aren’t in a rush, you can choose not to pay. That is not a tax. That is Texas-style freedom.

The experts with the Department of Transportation and the Regional Transportation Council tell us that without the managed toll lanes, the LBJ 635 East Project will either never get completed in its current proposed form or will take more than twice as long to complete than currently projected. Yet, State Senators Don Huffines and Bob Hall, neither of whom have any particular expertise in transportation, have fought vociferously and adamantly to oppose any project whatsoever that contains a tolled component. These principled positions might be admirable if they were not so detrimental to those who are impacted every day by such inaction. The lack of construction sound walls and the presence of unwieldy and severe congestion on 635 East make it one of the most unpleasant and dangerous stretches of highway in the region.

The citizens of Dallas should be outraged at this intransigence. We should be well on our way to getting the transportation infrastructure our great city needs. And yet here we stand, into the second quarter of 2016 and eight short months until the next legislative session, and not one shovel of dirt has been moved to fix one of Dallas’ most pressing problems.

The time is now for real and courageous leadership on the issue of transportation in Dallas. The authors of this opinion piece and many other elected officials in the region stand with you, the people of Dallas, Garland and Mesquite, and we demand that the LBJ 635 East Project, in its current proposed form, be approved and initiated immediately. We ask you to call your senator, state house representative or city council member and urge them to approve the proposed changes or to explain to you why they oppose progress for Dallas. This issue is simply too important to wait on the sidelines while the just-say-no caucus finds its way.

Jason Villalba is a Republican representative in the Texas House and can be reached at Twitter @jasonvillalba. Adam McGough is a Dallas City Council member. Reach him at


TURF response

Unlike Villalba and McGough, anti-toll champions, Senator Bob Hall and Senator Don Huffnes, are actually working to fix LBJ East without raising taxes rather than hide behind the empty propaganda of a politcially motivated editorial. Shame on the Dallas Morning News for allowing such an attack piece to run in its paper without at least giving the other side equal time on the same page.

These two senators campaigned against toll roads and won their races against entrenched incumbents who supported and voted for toll roads. Huffines even knocked out the former Senate Tranpsortation Committee Chair, John Carona. They stand with Governor Greg Abbott who also campaigned with the promise to fix our roads without raising taxes, fees, or tolls, and he was elected by a wide margin over his pro-toll opponent, Wendy Davis. So it’s clear what the voters want and it ain’t more toll roads.

Elected officials have a duty to represent their constituents and to keep their campaign promises. Villalba and McGough claim that these senators are somehow causing some sort of delay in fixing Interstate 635 East (from US-75 to I-30) yet few have worked harder to prioritize this project and secure funding for expansion of I-635 E and to do it without tolls.

Villalba neglects to mention that the Texas Senate made Prop 7 a priority and passed it early last session as one of Governor Abbott’s emergency items. However, the House dragged its feet and delayed passage until the final days of the session. Together with Prop 1 and finally ending many of the diversions of the state gasoline tax to non-road purposes amounts to the largest infusion of road funding in Texas history. TxDOT said it needed $5 billion a year to stop having to resort to toll roads, and thanks to our great new senators Bob Hall and Don Huffines, TxDOT now has $5 billion a year more in the state highway fund for non-toll projects.

Building and maintaining roads and infrastructure is one of the core functions of government, and it’s clealry a top priority for both senators since they both sit on the Senate Transportation Committee. Villalba, however, is the one with no transportation experience. He’s never sat on the House Transportation Committee or lifted a finger to help stop the toll onslaught or address transportation issues as a House member. In contrast, Senators Hall and Huffines promised to fight toll roads and that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Villalba and McGough also claim tolls are needed in order to fund I-635 E. Yet the Texas Department of Transportation’s traffic and revenue studies show that tolls are insufficient to fund the proposed tolled portion of this project. So pushing tolls on I-635 E is a double tax scheme since tolls are not remotely economically feasible and tax dollars are needed to make any toll scenario work. That’s double taxation and it’s unacceptable.

Villalba and McGough whine that “elected officials must endeavor to immediately find and implement solutions that address these needs in a way that works for all of our citizenry.” Yet, toll lanes are designed to price the vast majority of drivers out of the lanes, so tolling is not a solution that ‘works.’

Let’s not forget who the real beneficiary of a tolled I-635 E is — Cintra. Cintra operates and collects the enormously expensive tolls on I-635 W that, conveniently, feeds right into the proposed toll lanes on I-635 E.

In fact, such ‘congestion pricing’ actually bases the toll rate on the level of congestion, not the actual cost of building the project or retiring its debt. So during peak hours, Texans pay a premium to drive.

Tolls don’t equal ‘progress,’ or ‘Texas-style freedom,’ but rather they represent Rick Perry’s failed toll-leveraged debt model that allows big spending politicians like Villalba an easy way out of fiscal restraint, which would be funding priorities instead of more waste. All citizens, not just the elites deserve equal access to our state highways. Advocating a runaway tax on Texans is far from ‘courageous leadership,’ it’s tired political rhetoric from the past to cloak an economically unfeasible toll project as the silver bullet to traffic problems.

Straus, Wolff try to rewrite toll road history in San Antonio

Link to article

Straus, Wolff attempt to rewrite history on toll roads at election time
By Terri Hall
February 16, 2016

It’s always interesting to watch politicians try to re-write history when election time rolls around. A case in point is State Representative Joe Straus, Speaker of the Texas House, and Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff. Both have supported tolls in the past and they’ve put up persistent roadblocks to removing tolls from San Antonio road projects, but now they’re taking credit for expanding US 281 without tolls. Of course, this was after a total rebellion from the grassroots and residents in the corridor for over a decade. We heard repeatedly why we had to ‘accept’ tolls, why it was a ‘done deal,’ and why these powerful men ‘could do nothing about it.’

It wasn’t until Governor Greg Abbott campaigned against toll roads and advanced the largest infusion of new road funding in Texas history during his inaugural first year in office that either Straus or Wolff actually made a major effort to expand area highways without tolls — and that was largely due to the fact that grassroots anti-toll groups like Texans for Toll-free Highways advocated and won protections for taxpayers in the legislation prohibiting the new funding from being used on toll projects. That’s when the dominos started to fall.

Well, voters, it’s time to say ‘baloney’ at the ballot box and call their bluff. Early voting starts today in the Texas primary and runs through Friday, February 26. Election day is March 1. Both Straus and Wolff have strong anti-toll challengers. In House District 121 to unseat Straus, grassroots candidates Sheila Bean and Jeff Judson are making a strong run at the Speaker. Both are opponents of toll roads, and tolls will be an issue in that race. Incumbent Kevin Wolff, also has a strong anti-toll challenger with Ret. Lt. Navy Commander Michael Koerner seeking to unseat one of the members of a political family dynasty in Bexar County — the Wolffs. Tolls will also be an issue in the race. All three challengers face an uphill battle, but at a time when voter outrage with the political landscape — local, state and national — is at an all-time high, a perfect storm just may be brewing — enough to unseat these two entrenched incumbents of the political class.

Straus is arguably one of the most powerful men in Texas politics as Speaker. All House bills are controlled by his committee chair appointees. No legislation passes without his approval. Even if you get your bill out committee, it can again be stymied by the House Calendars Committee, stacked with Straus lieutenants, where bills go to die by not being placed on the House calendar for an actual floor vote. Straus has been the regular target of conservative challenges both during the election of a Speaker by House colleagues and on the ballot box for the State Representative seat. Straus has repeatedly blocked key conservative legislation like Abbott’s ethics reform, banning sanctuary cities, and even delayed the passage of Abbott’s road funding bill until the very last minute, watering it down and placing a sunset date on the vehicle sales tax fund transfer where it expires just one year after it kicks in.

Straus’ committee chairs over House Transportation have repeatedly blocked anti-toll reform bills, like making the tolls come off the road when it’s paid for to prevent perpetual taxation, removing loopholes that allow free lanes to be converted into toll lanes, and blocking the use of gas tax and other public funds from propping up toll projects that aren’t financially feasible.

Wolff sits on the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, or AAMPO, charged with deciding what area road projects are funded with tolls. He’s repeatedly voted to toll 281, Loop 1604, I-10, I-35 — literally dozens of toll projects across the Alamo city. He twice allowed funds to be stolen from 281 to fund Loop 1604 as a freeway, forcing tolls to stay on 281. Over one billion in uncommitted funds have come through the AAMPO since the citizens have challenged area toll roads, yet Wolff and Straus never fought to insist the previously allocated non-toll funding for 281 be restored or that those funds be prioritized to remove tolls from AAMPO plans.  Wolff even told voters they could ‘fry me for it later’ when he voted to keep tolls on 281, despite new funding making non-toll possible. He allowed the 281 funds to be taken for Loop 1604 to appease his liberal Democrat colleagues on Commissioners Court.

Both Straus and Wolff support the latest version of the 281 debacle, too. Rather than return 281 to a complete non-toll expressway, they simply removed the toll element and kept the controversial conversion of two existing main lanes into HOV-bus lanes, that few cars will be able to access. So they’re shrinking highway main lane capacity from six lanes down to four.

They extol the virtues of the project and repeat the toll authority’s lie that they’re ‘doubling’ capacity on 281. Yet, all they’re actually ‘adding’ are frontage roads, not highway main lanes, and in fact, they’re taking away lanes by converting two lanes into the HOV-bus lanes. AAMPO officials, Via, and TxDOT admit the purpose of this road diet is to force Stone Oak, Fair Oaks, and Boerne commuters out of their cars and onto a bus.

While I-10 will also include an HOV-bus lane, that corridor will see a net increase of actual highway main lanes from four to eight, with two of those new lanes being the HOV-bus lanes. But no such luck for 281 users. Their misery will be made permanent, thanks to Kevin Wolff.

Wolff supports his father, County Judge Nelson Wolff’s, liberal attempts at behavior modification by forcibly imposing the HOV-bus lane conversion on 281 and the addition of an HOV-bus lane on I-10 because he won’t stand up to his dad and his love affair with unpopular Via projects. Nelson Wolff’s big government policies will hijack one of the remaining bastions of freedom Texans have enjoyed since the dawn of the highway program — freedom of mobility. Now a government bureaucrat will control when and how you can access highway lanes built with your tax money.

Straus and his staff defend the HOV-bus lane conversion on 281 to try and fool constituents into thinking they’re getting new highway capacity, when, in fact, they’re having two main lanes open to all cars today taken away and turned into restricted lanes controlled by Via. So even with the addition of overpasses, there will still be congestion in the 281 corridor for our lifetimes. Straus has also failed to deliver road funding to the Alamo city. Cities our size, like Ft. Worth, get triple the road funds of San Antonio, year after year, on Joe Straus’ watch. He promised to end the diversions from the state gasoline tax for several sessions but never got it done until Abbott made it a priority.

San Antonio deserves and must insist on more responsive, fiscally responsible leadership. Thankfully, voters have the opportunity to send these entrenched establishment politicians packing on March 1.

For a complete list of Texans for Toll-free Highways endorsements, go here:

HOV lane conversion on 281 in Alamo city will shrink capacity

Link to article.

Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff makes erroneous statements in this News 4 story. The Alamo Area MPO’s own consultant said HOV lanes have done nothing to increase carpooling or alleviate congestion. Ginger Goodin of the Texas Transportation Institute testified before the MPO last month that HOV-bus lanes are designed to change behavior and get people to switch modes of transportation.

Then there’s Wolff’s claim that the 281 project will add 6 new lanes. The only new lanes they’re building are FRONTAGE ROADS, not general purpose highway lanes. There are NO NEW highway main lanes whatsoever in this project, and, in fact, the HOV lanes will convert two of the six existing general purpose lanes (open to all cars) into an HOV-bus restricted lane, actually shrinking existing capacity and leaving only 4 non-HOV lanes when today there are six.

The public has a right to know how congested this corridor will continue to be when they’re promising one thing and delivering another.

Millions set aside for highway improvements
By Emily Baucum
February 9, 2016

SAN ANTONIO – Bexar County leaders set aside millions of dollars Tuesday to help revamp two major highways: Loop 1604 out west, and Highway 281 on the far north side.

It’s all part of a nearly billion-dollar plan to improve roads in growing parts of town.

The plan no longer includes toll roads but it does include something else we’ve never seen in this area: carpool lanes.

Drivers on the far west side already know progress on Loop 1604 takes patience.

“It was just stop-and-go traffic,” driver Shanara Guishard said.

Work is underway to expand the highway and add overpasses.

“You’re always stuck waiting in traffic,” driver Jeremy Duran said.

Bexar County is one of several agencies putting money into the pot.

Commissioners set aside $52 million to revamp Loop 1604 from Highway 90 to Culebra, and they paved the way for improvements stretching all the way to Bandera.

“So you’ll have a full divided highway from Highway 90 to I-35,” Commissioner Kevin Wolff said.

Commissioners also set aside $48 million to revamp Highway 281 from Loop 1604 north to the county line. Construction will hopefully start in early 2017.

“Loop 1604 to Stone Oak Parkway, you will see a total of six new lanes,” Commissioner Wolff said. “Two of those will be HOV lanes.”

They’ll be the first carpool lanes in our area, and he says research shows they should relieve congestion.

“All the data says the HOVs should work,” Commissioner Wolff said. “But we also have the ‘get out of jail free’ card: if it doesn’t, we’ll just turn it into a general purpose free lane.”

Both projects will take a couple of years to complete. Commissioner Wolff says if they cost more than expected, TxDOT would be the agency on the hook.

ELECTION 2016: TTH announces endorsements

As voters contemplate who to vote for before heading to the polls for early voting (February 16-February 26 for the March 1 primary), Texans for Toll-free Highways has been hard at work vetting and researching candidates in key contested primary races to help inform you of who the anti-toll candidates are and make our recommendations.

If you don’t see a race listed, it’s either because there’s no opponent in that race or because they didn’t return our survey or sign our candidate pledge. If a candidate is an incumbent, you can see how they voted on transportation legislation here.


Spread the word on Facebook and through other social media. Also be sure to share with any groups your active in.

We also list the Voter Guide results for Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF).

Congress defunds civil asset forfeiture program

Link to article here.

Funds yanked: Congress puts the brakes on civil asset forfeiture
By Terri Hall
February 1, 2016

Many conservatives are upset with the omnibus spending bill Congress passed at the end of the year, but one provision they should praise is congress rescinding funding for the Justice Department’s civil asset forfeiture program. Most Americans have no idea what civil asset forfeiture is until law enforcement seizes your vehicle and everything in it during a routine traffic stop even though you have committed no crime.

The program was initially launched to help local law enforcement agencies fight drug trafficking and other organized crime by seizing assets they suspect may be involved in those crimes. But now it’s morphed into a system where you don’t even have to be charged with a crime to have your property seized by police, and few innocent parties ever get their money or property back.

The modern use of civil asset forfeiture is rife with abuse and fraught with violations of citizens’ fourth amendment constitutional rights. Local law enforcement agencies now seek out high value assets to seize and use the proceeds from the sale of those assets to fund new vehicles for police departments or to fund other day-to-day operations of local law enforcement rather than seek to prosecute actual criminals and take down organized crime rings.

Many times it’s a driver who may be stopped and is found to have lots of cash on hand, so law enforcement jumps to the conclusion that the driver is involved in some sort of a drug-related crime and police immediately seize the cash, the vehicle, and all the property in the vehicle (and sometimes even the person’s home and other property) even though there’s no evidence of any crime nor do they charge the person for a crime.

It’s a very cumbersome, expensive, and lengthy process for an innocent party to get their seized property back, causing many to cut their losses and abandon their property altogether. Law enforcement is also known to threaten to charge innocent people with crimes if they seek to get their assets back, again causing many innocent parties to relinquish their property rather than fight an uphill, seemingly unwinnable battle.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that an ‘innocent owner’ defense is not constitutionally required. In states where such a defense is permissible, the innocent party is usually responsible for proving their innocence. The presumption of innocence seems nowhere to be found when it comes to civil asset forfeiture, leaving innocent parties the difficult task of fighting for their own constitutional rights against well-funded, well-organized government agencies.

The cites a Tennessee motorist that got stopped and the deputy found him in possession of $18,480 in cash. No drugs were found and the motorist said the cash was for a music deal, yet a sheriff’s deputy still confiscated the cash despite there being no evidence of any crime. The motorist was never charged with any crime. It took him almost two years in federal court to finally get his money back.

The federal government’s involvement stems from the ‘equitable sharing’ program through the Justice Department that allows local law enforcement to do an end run around state laws curbing civil asset forfeiture by invoking the federal forfeiture statute. The feds then split the proceeds with the locals skimming 20% for themselves, leaving local law enforcement with 80% of the booty to spend however they wish.

In response to the growing concern over how civil asset forfeiture collides with property rights, the Institute for Policy Research is hosting a summit on civil asset forfeiture on February 9 in Irving, Texas. The summit will feature grassroots and tea party favorites like State Senator Konni Burton, State Senator Don Huffines, and State Representative Matt Schaefer along with speakers from the both the left and the right – the ACLU and Freedom Works.

Other conservative think tanks, like Heritage Foundation, are also stepping up their efforts to educate the public to the abuses of civil asset forfeiture and demand lawmakers fight to protect Americans’ fundamental rights from wrongful forfeiture. The recent congressional action to defund the federal program only lasts through 2016, so expect both sides to be ready for battle in 2017.

BLOAT: Austin toll road costs triple

Link to article here.

Public outrage rises as cost of Austin toll road triples
By Terri Hall
January 17, 2016

Toll roads in Texas face growing opposition and a shocking revelation by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) just threw gasoline on the fire. The CTRMA tripled its initial cost estimates for its plan to add toll lanes to US 183 from MoPac to RM 620 in Austin from $225.7 million to a whopping $650 million. The 8-mile project will now cost $81.25 million per mile. By anyone’s estimation, that’s a staggering jump.

The CTRMA is seeking the approval of its $424.3 million amendment with the revised cost estimate by the Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) at its next board meeting. CAMPO board member and Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea expressed dismay at the scant, sketchy information initially provided to the board. But rather than join her in scrutinizing the hike, fellow board members were frustrated by her questions and wanted to press to approve. However, action was delayed until the February 8 board meeting.

The toll authority has since provided more detail on the reason behind the explosion in cost. The majority of it involves two sets of flyovers or direct connect interchange ramps with the highways that intersect US 183 to the north (RM 620) and south (MoPac). The other additions involve bridges from the southern interchange with MoPac’s toll lanes into the toll lanes to be built in the median of US 183. Combined, this adds over $364 million to the tab. Another $90.2 million would add an additional free, general purpose free lane for about 4 miles. Lastly, $69.4 million got tacked on to inflate all the costs for the year it would start construction in 2019.

One of the objections from toll opponents is the exorbitant costs involved in turning freeways into a two-tiered highway system, cordoning off toll lanes from free lanes and having to construct expensive flyovers, bridges, or ramps to give special access to the inside toll lanes. It’s far cheaper to add free, general purpose lanes open to all cars without all the complicated flyovers and bridges. Plus, general purpose lanes are far more efficient since an unrestricted lane carries far more traffic than a restricted toll lane.

Another concern involves the CTRMA’s use of state funds to subsidize its overpriced toll project. The toll authority admits it doesn’t even have preliminary data on how much of the new project cost can be repaid with strictly the toll revenues collected, but they’ve made clear they expect all Texas taxpayers to pick up part of the tab for their bloated toll road.

Melissa Cubria, Director of Texas Public Interest Research Group, believes this cost explosion casts doubt on the CTRMA’s ability to properly manage Austin’s toll system.

“The news that the US 183 boondoggle will triple in cost is the latest in a series of stories that undermine CTRMA’s credibility and indicate that CTRMA board members do not have the expertise to manage billions in taxpayer funds. At this point, they are spending taxpayer dollars like reckless Wall Street bankers,” Cubria observes.

The Texas Transportation Commission may not pony-up the bucks for the US 183 toll project for two reasons. First, the Commission is currently evaluating its role in toll projects and may cut-off or greatly reduce its subsidies to toll projects that cannot pay for themselves. The Commission has diverted over $7 billion in funds to toll projects, double taxing Texans to take toll roads. Governor Greg Abbott campaigned against toll roads and the Commission he appoints may end or at least greatly reduce, the amount of subsidies that toll authorities received during the pro-toll Rick Perry years. Second, all of the Texas Department of Transportation’s new funding, Prop 1 and Prop 7, is strictly prohibited from going to toll projects. The sheer amount of funding available to subsidize toll projects has all but dried up.

Gasoline tax is the only remaining source of funds without restrictions, and since it has not been increased in more than 20 years, it, too, is a shrinking source of revenue. However, Texas State Senator Don Huffines introduced a bill last year during the 84th legislature to block even gasoline taxes from funding toll projects. Though it failed to pass, State Representative Ron Simmons successfully added an amendment to a bill, HB 122, to prohibit Texas Mobility Funds from going to toll projects, and House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Pickett recently announced he’s on a war path to end managed toll lanes (inside existing freeways like is planned for US 183) in Texas calling the underutilized lanes ‘unacceptable in a growing state.’

So the state’s involvement in toll projects is in limbo, with toll opponents stacking up new allies in the legislature in the fight to prevent double taxation. With more than 40 challengers to many establishment, pro-toll incumbents, the anti-toll ranks could swell dramatically in time for the 85th legislature to convene in 2017. Whether the Commission acts to block further support of toll projects or the taxpayers stage a coup through its elected leaders in the legislature, toll projects that aren’t financially feasible like US 183 could well be on the ropes.

SNEAKY: IRS can revoke passports over tax debt

Link to article here.

IRS gains power to revoke passports for failure to pay taxes
By Terri Hall
Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research
January 4, 2016

Many Americans are shocked to find out that the recently passed federal highway bill, Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or the FAST Act, includes a provision that can take away or block them from having a U.S. passport. At a time when political scandals plague the IRS, which has been used to target conservatives, tea party and pro-Israel-affiliated groups, this is an especially shameful revelation brought to you by the House and Senate Republicans.

The GOP has put itself in a box. The Federal Highway Trust Fund has not been collecting enough revenue through the federal gasoline tax to pay for the level of spending thought necessary by the special interests. The GOP has also failed to fight to ensure every penny of the gas tax is, in fact, going to highways, not transit, rail, and bike lanes that automobile users do not use.

The federal gasoline tax, currently at 18.4 cents a gallon, has not been raised since 1993. Republicans do not want to raise taxes, including the gas tax. So, by taking a gas tax increase off the table and lacking the will to cut spending to offset the shortfall, Republicans have locked themselves into other schemes to raise the revenue needed to fund the federal highway program – schemes they’ve deemed more politically acceptable.

So, the GOP turned to tax compliance as their ‘solution.’ By giving the IRS the power to block and even revoke U.S. passports, hence one’s ability to travel internationally, for failure to allegedly pay federal taxes, Congress believes it can make up the difference by collecting more in taxes to help pay for the highway trust fund.

Is it any wonder voters don’t trust the Republican leadership in both the House and Senate?

The FAST Act actually creates a new section of the U.S. tax code, 7345, entitled, “Revocation or Denial of Passport in Case of Certain Tax Delinquencies.” While the focus is on those who owe $50,000 or more, because it includes interest and fees, many will fall into the category as fines and interest add up quickly. Indeed, the harsh new rules aren’t even designed to catch those who the government believes are fleeing the country to avoid paying taxes. It applies universally to those behind on paying their federal taxes, regardless of whether its criminal or civil in nature. The language is also very vague and much of the enforcement and application of this new law will be left up to the IRS to implement through the adoption of administrative rules. So, it’s ultimate reach is truly unknown.

Many view criminalization for failure to pay a debt as an illegal and unconstitutional revival of debtors’ prisons. Congress outlawed debtors’ prisons in 1833 and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled them unconstitutional multiple times, most notably it ruled in its 1983 case Bearden v. Georgia that it’s a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

Robert Woods, in his Forbes Magazine article on November 25, questions whether or not this new law will pass constitutional muster, “The right to travel is established, both between states and internationally. And although some restrictions have been upheld, it is not clear that this measure would pass the constitutional test.”

The passport provisions also represent a risk even for domestic travelers from four states. Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and New York refused to comply with the REAL ID Act that forced states to issue drivers licenses according to new federal standards. Taking effect in 2016, residents of those states may now be required by the TSA to show a passport instead of a driver’s license in order to board a plane for domestic travel.

None of this tax policy would have made it into this totally unrelated, bloated, 1,300-page transportation bill without the blessing of the tax writing committees and GOP leadership,  Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI-01) prior to becoming Speaker. While the language likely originated in the Senate, the House, which preferred to pay for the bill through tax reform, eventually conceded to include the IRS provisions into its bill, arguing tax reform won’t happen with Obama in the White House.

As part of this tax compliance scheme, the IRS has also gained the ability to utilize private debt collectors to accomplish this goal in Section 32102 of the tax code titled, “Reform of rules relating to qualified tax collection contracts.” You may be thinking, why is that a bad thing? Because private debt collectors use brutal tactics to collect money, and they can even charge the delinquent taxpayer for any costs related to the private company’s debt collection services, piling onto the tab owed    .

The IRS already had the ability to use private debt collectors, but now it’s mandated for inactive tax receivables for any tax debt that has been:
– removed from the active inventory for lack of resources or inability to locate the the taxpayer;
– more than 1/3 of the applicable limitations period that has lapsed and no IRS employee has been assigned to collect the receivable; or
– a receivable assigned to collections, but more than 365 days have passed without interaction with the taxpayer or a third party for purposes of furthering the collection.

The private debt collectors do not have to disclose that they’re a private contractor either. Only the Secretary of Treasury decides when companies can disclose the truth to taxpayers.

History has already shown that using private debt collectors hasn’t worked. It was first tried in 1996 and only lasted a year due to complaints of harassment and unfair tactics. Under George W. Bush, they tried it again with the same result – unfair tactics, even harassing the elderly parents of a taxpayer with 150 phone calls after the collections firm knew the taxpayer was no longer at that address. It also resulted in taxpayers paying out penalties to those whose rights the private debt collectors violated.

Both attempts resulted in a net loss to the government, meaning you and I the taxpayer. The first, a net loss of $17 million, and the second a net loss of $4.5 million, this after Congress was told it would reap a net gain of $1 billion. The actual cost to administer the program in the 2000s was $86 million. When you factor in the commissions paid out, add another $16 million cost to the total tab. A 2013 study by the National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA) showed that IRS agents were more effective in collecting debt than private contractors, yet here we are.

Private debt collectors are notorious for not giving accurate information about taxpayers’ rights and options. They have no incentive to help you resolve your claim, only to collect what’s owed. If the taxpayer believes there are inaccurate claims to the amount owed, the debt collector won’t look into it as an IRS agent would. There are also concerns about fraud and protecting the data privacy like your address, bank accounts, social security number, employer, medical bills, etc.

As we all know, there are plenty of scammers out there waiting to pounce on such an opportunity to pose as the IRS (or its contractors). At least 736,000 contacts have been made by scammers over the phone in the past two years alone demanding pre-paid debit cards be sent to them to resolve one’s tax debt, costing 4,550 innocent taxpayers over $23 million in fraudulent tax settlements. The government then issued warnings about such scammers informing taxpayers the IRS doesn’t usually make the initial contact by phone, but private debt collectors routinely initiate contact through phone calls. How’s someone supposed to know the difference?

No matter how you look at these two IRS power grabs, it spells trouble for the taxpayer. Whether you’ll become a prisoner in your own country by being denied a passport, or harassed by unethical and ruthless private debt collectors to settle an alleged IRS tax debt, the Republican leadership in Congress delivered this anti-liberty, big government reality to your doorstep after voters gave them the keys to the Capitol to do the opposite.
Terri Hall is the founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), which defends against eminent domain abuse and promotes non-toll transportation solutions. She’s a home school mother of ten turned citizen activist. Ms. Hall is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.