Accountability, reform, and transparency: Texas legislature delivers mixed bag

Source: Article

NOTE: This is the last in a three-part series on the transportation wrap-up to the 84th legislative session of the Texas Legislature.

For taxpayers, how toll roads are done are just as important as making progress in stopping them. In the 84th legislative session of the Texas Legislature that came to a close yesterday, concerned citizens are left stunned by the lack of action in holding toll entities accountable, despite a laundry list of scandal, waste, and abuse. The North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) is currently under investigation by the FBI for concerns about undisclosed conflicts of interest with some board members. A class action lawsuit was filed against the NTTA for excessive fines and fees, and the unpopularity of toll roads is reflected in the unpopularity of the unelected toll agencies that implement them. Yet, no action was taken to subject these agencies to sunset review, or even a forensic state audit.

Senator Don Huffines‘ bill, SB 1184, to audit toll agencies known as Regional Mobility Authorities (RMAs) passed the Senate, but failed to pass the House, which is breath-taking given the scathing expose’ of the waste and abuse inside RMAs by the Dallas Morning News. RMAs have directed contracts to former board members, engaged in no-bid contracts, charged taxpayers $20 million in ‘management fees’ to supervise TxDOT doing the work, and spent millions on lobbyists to kill pro-taxpayer reforms. Senator Bob Hall filed a bill, SB 1150, to outright abolish these duplicative agencies, and Senator Konni Burton and Rep. Lyle Larson filed companion bills (SB 721/HB 528) to subject the RMAs to sunset review. But Huffines’ audit bill (Rep. Tony Dale filed a companion bill in the House) was the only one that moved and it ultimately died in the House. Failure to hold these wasteful toll agencies accountable is a dereliction of duty by the legislature.

SB 1237 by Senator Van Taylor requires local transportation policy boards known as Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPOs) to broadcast and archive their meetings over the internet. Most MPOs meet during the work day. This will give Texans who have day jobs the ability to watch the meetings and hear the deliberations of these powerful boards that approve toll projects in their jurisdictions. Most MPOs are tone deaf to citizens who do show up to protest toll projects. Now their actions will be broadcast for all to see, making MPOs more accountable to the taxpayers they serve.

HB 1394 authored by Rep. Dewayne Burns (Senator Brian Birdwell filed the companion bill) will give counties outside the NTTA’s jurisdiction a say in toll roads that come through their counties. Another bill by Rep. Yvonne Davis, HB 2549, will allow courts to reduce or waive the fines imposed by NTTA that many drivers feel are excessive to the point of usury. HB 790 also authored by Rep. Cindy Burkett allows property owners along tollways to seek noise abatement measures if its determined the noise exceeds federal standards.

HB 20 by Rep. Ron Simmons is a reform bill to take the politics out of project selection at TxDOT. The aim is to put objective criteria in place and a subsequent scoring system to prioritize projects. Senator Lois Kolkhorst saved the day in committee when she stripped the language requiring local funding and/or local leveraging in order to get priority for state highway funds. Most local governments don’t have millions laying around to use as matching funds for state highways, so tolls have been consistently used to fulfill the local match requirements TxDOT has self-imposed during the Rick Perry years. If this language had not been removed, toll projects would likely have scored higher than non-toll projects and thus gotten priority for funding.

SB 1467 by Senator Kirk Watson expands locations of where commuters can pay their toll bills in person by allowing TxDOT to contract with third parties (like convenience stores), but bill payers will have to a pay an extra surcharge for the convenience. Big government just keeps expanding and, of course, they make us pay for it.

Burkett picked up where former legislators like former Rep. Ken Paxton now Attorney General left off in carrying the bill to subject the scandal-ridden NTTA to sunset review, HB 572. It never got out of committee, so she attempted to tack it onto another sunset bill, but it, too, failed.

Another bill filed by Burkett, HB 2620, would have made traffic and revenue studies or toll viability studies subject to open records laws and available to the public. Currently, such vital financial information is kept secret from the public and even elected officials. The NTTA testified against the bill and toll agencies vehemently fought the disclosure. It eventually passed the House Transportation Committee right before the deadline, but ran out of time to pass the full House. The senate version filed by Kolkhorst and Hall never got a hearing.

HB 13 by House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Joe Pickett was initially designed to be the enabling legislation to his own version of the big road funding bill SJR 5 (HJR 13), but when the Senate added Hall’s bill to curb red light cameras and another amendment by Sen. Van Taylor to prevent the last remaining freeway in Collin County, US-75, from having its HOV lanes converted into toll lanes, Pickett called a point of order and killed his own bill.

Several bills were filed to prevent the conversion of freeway lanes into toll lanes (another form of double taxation) and were a top priority for taxpayer groups, but none of them made it out of the House Committee, and they never even got a hearing in the Senate.

So there were many missed opportunities to restrain toll roads and protects taxpayers from this unaccountable new tax on driving. While the primary blame lies with the leadership, there were several floor votes by the members that could have enacted needed reforms to toll road abuses.

The Texas economy, called the ‘Texas miracle’ by politicians’ PR machine, cannot continue when many commuters are now facing $200-$400 monthly toll bills. The cost is so punitive, most Texans are being priced off the toll roads, which means they’re stuck in gridlock with longer and longer commutes, diminishing quality of life, and inhibiting the freedom of travel and the efficient movement of people and goods. Now it’s time for taxpayers to hold the leadership and the legislature accountable for their actions – both good and bad.

Abbott brought different atmosphere to Texas legislature

Source: Article

NOTE: This is the second in a three-part series on the transportation & property rights wrap-up to the 84th legislative session of the Texas Legislature.

Success can be measured as much by what didn’t pass as what did pass.

While anti-toll advocates may not be wholly pleased with their lack of progress in getting their bills through the 84th session of the Texas legislature that wrapped-up yesterday, they were successful in stopping many other bills that would have sailed through in prior sessions under former Governor Rick Perry‘s pro-toll leadership. Incoming Governor Greg Abbott‘s campaign promise to fix Texas roads without raising taxes, fees, or tolls immediately changed the atmosphere at the Capitol.

Indeed, during one of his debate’s with Democrat Wendy Davis he emphasized, “My plan does not involve any toll roads, period. I’m not interested in adding toll roads in my plan.”

However, despite Abbott’s pledge and focus on ethics and diminishing lobbying by former legislators, the influence of high-powered lobbyists, many hired by local governments and big business interests seeking special favors, continues to compromise pro-taxpayer and property rights bills despite changes at the top.

The Hall of Shame the taxpayers stopped:
• Several bills to privatize and toll public highways, known as public private partnerships (P3s). Senator Kirk Watson, Rep. Eddie Rodriguez attempted to sell-off I-35 to a private toll operator, and Senator Eddie Lucio and Rep. Mando Martinez attempted to sell-off FM 1925 in Cameron and Hidalgo counties. All bills would have extended the expiration date of the 23 existing authorized P3s until 2019.
• Watson and Rep. Celia Israel’s bill (SB 270, HB 594) to permanently force taxpayers to pay to reduce truck toll rates to the auto toll rate through taxpayer subsidies on the struggling SH 130 tollway.
SJR 62 authored by Senator Robert Nichols would have gut any attempts at toll cessation and changed the Texas Constitution to permanently authorize system financing, a Robin Hood raid of toll revenues from one road to prop-up another necessitating the toll stay in place in perpetuity.
• Israel’s bill, HB 1324, to impose exclusive bus lanes on the shoulders of highways in Bexar, Travis, and Tarrant counties while autos remain stuck in traffic or are forced to pay tolls for congestion relief. Passed House, went nowhere in Senate.
• HJR 109 by Rep. Joe Pickett to give counties the authority to establish Transportation Reinvestment Zones that use local property tax appraisal increases (and sales taxes within the zone) to pay for state highway projects including toll projects (a double tax).

Property rights a mixed bag
Eminent domain and roads go hand in hand, and eminent domain in the hands of private companies is one of the worst infringements on private property rights imaginable. HB 565 authored by Rep. Cindy Burkett (Senator Bob Hall filed a similar bill in the Senate – SB 444) to strip a grandfathered private toll corporation of its eminent domain authority would have effectively stopped the controversial Blacklands toll road east of Dallas. But this bill was watered down to allow the company, Texas Turnpike Corporation (TTC), to still enter into a hybrid deal like a public private partnership. Toll rates on P3s are in excess of 80 cents per mile, and use public money to subsidize the potential losses of the private toll operator. TTC hired the lobby firm headed by the former Transportation Commission Chairwoman under Perry, Deirdre Delisi, whose mother is also a former legislator.

SB 1812 authored by Senator Lois Kolkhorst requires the creation of a current eminent domain database and that it be made available to the public in a searchable format. SB 18 that passed in 2011, required all entities with eminent domain to report that authority to the Texas Comptroller by December 31, 2012, or lose their authority. Over 5,000 entities registered. However, there has been no requirement for new entities to register since then, and there is no current database of legitimate condemners available to the public. Lawmakers cannot begin to restrain eminent domain authority until it’s fully known what entities have eminent domain power, including how many private entities wield this government condemning authority.

Kolkhorst’s SB 474 was successfully tacked onto HB 3474 (by Rep. Garnet Coleman) to allow landowners to recoup their legal fees from eminent domain proceedings if the initial offer was 20% below the final value of the land as determined by the court. This would force condemning entities to make truly bona fide offers at market values instead of low-balling landowners and making them incur expensive legal fees in order to get the true market value price for their land. However, the bill ultimately died.

SB 709 by Senator Troy Fraser is one of the worst anti-property rights bills to pass this session. It makes it harder for landowners to win a contested case hearing when neighboring developers try to harm them and their use and enjoyment of their property. Special interests like the Texas Association of Business, who want to speed up their railroad job of trampling on property rights (everyone but theirs, of course) lobbied hard for this bill citing that the contested case hearing process is being abused by environmental groups who are outside local communities who use it to stop facilities they don’t like.

But the bill went much further than that. It made the likelihood of affected landowners prevailing in a contested case hearing before a judge much slimmer since it shifts the burden of proof from the developer onto the landowner. Unless a property owner has deep pockets to hire legal counsel and scientific experts to prove their case, they’re unlikely to stop harm being done by neighboring developers.

HB 632 by Rep. David Simpson was narrowly defeated, by a vote of 77-59, which would have blocked any transfer of water from happening without that community’s consent. Many rural Texans are under threat by plans to transfer large amounts of local water to urban areas. Simpson’s bill would have given locals say before their water gets sent elsewhere.

Another threat to rural Texas is the plan by Japanese private developer, Texas Central Railway, to build a high speed rail line between Dallas and Houston. Senate rider #48 was added to the budget by Charles Schwertner to block any state funds from going to subsidize the controversial rail line. However, it failed to stay in the final bill after some of the most powerful lobbyists in the state fought it. This despite the claim by the company in Senate Transportation Committee testimony that it would not seek any state funds for its private project.

Texas legislature leaves without stopping toll roads

Source: Article

NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series on the transportation wrap-up to the 84th legislative session of the Texas Legislature.

The 84th session of the Texas legislature just concluded yesterday, but the fallout will be felt by taxpayers for decades to come. Over 75 bills were filed to replace or curtail tolling or to make it more transparent and accountable. When factoring in property rights and efforts to restrict eminent domain abuse, the total came to 96. So with a pipeline full of bills should have sent a strong message to leadership that the taxpayers sent elected officials to Austin to significantly curb if not stop toll roads. But the momentum quickly came to a halt when only a handful of anti-toll bills got a hearing, and very few key bills passed. Of those that did, most were watered down.

Transportation and toll road concerns have been front and center for many years as a toll road onslaught has taken hold across the state, but Texans overwhelmingly elected a new Governor, Greg Abbott, last year who campaigned against toll roads. He emphasized in the debates, “My plan does not involve any toll roads, period. I’m not interested in adding toll roads in my plan.”

So the expectation of voters is that Abbott is going to stop the march of toll roads. But Abbott’s sole focus during the session was getting additional funds to the highway department and restricting those funds to non-toll projects. Meanwhile, 100% of the state highway fund (comprised of gasoline taxes and registration fees), can and is being used to subsidize loser toll projects. In fact, over $6 billion has already been diverted to toll projects, which is a Texas-sized double tax.

The Texas GOP platform and grassroots advocacy groups want the flow of public money subsidizing toll roads to stop as well as to remove the toll once the road is paid for (ie -once the debt is retired). But neither the House nor Senate moved those bills. Only three of the grassroots’ top seven priorities made it through.

Rep. Jeff Leach tried to protect taxpayers from double taxation by offering an amendment to the budget to block state funds from from going to toll projects, but it failed by a vote of 89-52 (even after lawmakers watered it down). The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has a one trick pony that works most every time. They send out their troops to tell legislators if they stop the flow of public money to toll roads, all their projects will come to a screeching halt since virtually all new capacity is slated to be tolled, and these projects are using mounds of state money to do it. Leach filed an amendment to HB 13 to do the same, but it was blocked from even being heard by Speaker Joe Straus and his parliamentarian through executive fiat (outside the normal rules for how amendments get considered).

Senator Don Huffines who filed SB 1182 as well as a constitutional amendment to protect the highway fund from being raided for toll roads, also tried to tack it onto another bill (HB 13 or HB 20) in the Senate, but Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick ultimately failed to support it and Huffines was told it lacked the votes to pass. Without public subsidies, 99.9% of all currently planned toll roads could not be built. It would force the projects to be done as non-tolled expansion.

The big funding bill that did pass is SJR 5, which is a constitutional amendment that will come before Texas voters November 3. It was authored by Senate Transportation Committee Chair Robert Nichols to dedicate $2.5 billion of the general sales and use tax (above the baseline of $28 billion), and thirty-five percent of the vehicle sales tax (above the baseline of $5 billion) to non-toll highways. The general sales tax won’t be implemented until 2017, and the vehicle sales tax dedication won’t kick in until 2019.

Both provisions are subject to the whims of the legislature and can be suspended with a two-thirds vote, however, they cannot reduce the allocations below 50% of the anticipated amount. The sales tax dedication sunsets in 2032 and the vehicles sales dedication sunsets in 2029. A majority vote of the legislature can extend the dedication in ten year increments.

The far better version of this bill, HB 2686, by Rep. Matt Shaheen would dedicate 100% of the vehicle sales tax to the highway fund immediately and permanently. But after the legislature got a hold of SJR 5, it’s been watered down to the point of no longer being a reliable long-term revenue source.

Abbott campaigned on dedicating a portion of the vehicle sales tax to highways and made it an emergency item in his State of the State address. The purpose is to get a long-term, reliable revenue source for highways since, by law, TxDOT has to show how it will fund projects 25 years into the future and it cannot put a project into the long-range plan until it shows how it will it be funded.

Gasoline taxes alone have not been adequate to fund new capacity for quite some time, but fearing the wrath of voters if they raised the gas tax, the legislature at the cheerful insistence of former Governor Rick Perry, turned to toll roads as their get out of jail free card. However, paying tolls is ghastly more expensive (15 – 80 cents a mile compared to 1-2 cents a mile for a gas tax funded road) than any gas tax increase, so the punitive, escalating toll taxes have caused a backlash. The Texas Transportation Institute found in a survey last fall that of 15 possible transportation solutions, Texans ranked toll roads dead last.

Those pesky gas tax diversions
Another reason for the funding shortfall, which is a particularly sore spot with taxpayers, has been the legislature’s persistent raid of gas taxes for non-road purposes. So this session, the legislature did put an end to most diversions, funding the Department of Public Safety (DPS) through another source. Ending the DPS diversion does add an additional $675 million to the highway fund annually. However, twenty-five percent of the gas tax is still diverted to public education. To end it would require a change to the Texas Constitution, which the legislature is already doing with SJR 5, and they could have included an end (or even a phase out) of the school diversion on the ballot.

Instead of truth in taxation, the legislature chose to use some general sales tax to plug the road funding hole in SJR 5, when they could have used that same sales tax (which already funds schools) to replace the lost school funding in order to send 100% of the gas tax to the highway fund as taxpayers expect. This is a much simpler and more transparent approach, but that was rejected in favor of a complicated new formula the average citizen cannot possibly trace to the original tax.

Major boost to road funding
SJR 5 together with Prop 1 that passed in 2013 and was approved by voters last year, and the partial end to gas tax diversions, means a total net gain of $5 billion a year in new road funding is headed to the highway fund. By anyone’s measure, that’s the most significant infusion of highway money in a generation. You’d think this would stop the threat of toll roads in itself. But judging by the last two Texas Transportation Commission meetings chaired by Abbott’s new Commission Chair and former legislator Tryon Lewis, it’s business as usual at TxDOT. The only state funds approved by the Commission ($418 million) have gone to two toll roads – not freeways. Maybe he didn’t get the memo about Abbott’s campaign pledge.

HB 122 by House Transportation Chairman Joe Pickett will stop TxDOT from issuing new debt from the Texas Mobility Fund, a fund that almost exclusively subsidizes toll projects. Rep. Ron Simmons successfully amended the bill on the floor to block those funds from being used on toll roads (but only for two years). But even that wasn’t without a challenge. TxDOT’s one trick pony was trotted out once again, threatening lawmakers the amendment would stop all their projects. Pickett had to call in Chairman Lewis to call off the dogs and convince House members that the sky wouldn’t fall and projects would not stop if they restricted Texas Mobility Funds to non-toll roads. It sailed through the Senate with the amendment in tact.

Elimination of some toll roads coming?
Pickett also authored HB 2612 which requires TxDOT to give a report to the legislature on the possible elimination of some currently open toll roads. It will lay out a plan to accelerate the pay-off of toll debt or buy them out in a lump sum sooner. It does not apply to tollways funded completely with bond debt by another entity, like the Harris County Toll Authority or North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA). It only applies to roads with state funding – not all toll roads.

So while passage of HB 2612 is progress, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Leadership in both chambers blocked the bill to eliminate all tolls once the debt is retired, SB 485 by Senator Lois Kolkhorst (and the House companion bill HB 1734 by Shaheen). SB 485 would also prevent most current toll projects from advancing due to the restrictions on Robin Hood financing schemes that rely on perpetual toll revenues from one road in order to finance and prop-up others that can’t pay for themselves known as system financing. HB 2612 by contrast requires a plan to eliminate some tolls, doesn’t end system financing, and does not prevent the current tsunami of planned toll roads across Texas.

Grassroots unveil toll road reforms at Capitol for Toll-free Texas Day

Link to article here.

TollFree Texas graphic 300Grassroots ask lawmakers for ‘Toll-free Texas,’ unveil reform package
By Terri Hall
March 25, 2015

Over one-hundred Texans fed-up with toll roads popping-up everywhere converged on the Texas state capitol Monday to unveil a package of toll road reforms, like taking the toll off the road when it’s paid for and preventing gas taxes from being used to build or bailout toll roads – a double tax. Rep. Scott Sanford (R – Collin) initiated the citizens lobby day sponsored by Texans for Toll-free Highways, Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), Texas Eagle Forum, Grassroots America, Lt. Governor’s Grassroots Advisory Committee Subcommittee on Transportation, and Texas Patriots, PAC. The groups advocated fiscal responsibility first when it comes to transportation.

With the infusion of over $1 billion a year in new cash from the state’s Rainy Day Fund with passage of Proposition One last November, citizens want to see toll roads restrained as the legislature contemplates sending more money to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

The grassroots groups’ reform package includes:
1) Prohibit TxDOT from using gas taxes or any other public money under its control to build, bailout or provide loan guarantees for toll roads. If you use tax money to build it, it should be a freeway, not a toll road. Not one penny of tax money should support a toll road. (SJR 43/SB 1182 – Huffines)
2) Mandate tolls come off the road it’s paid for (when the debt is retired). This would also repeal ‘system financing,’ or Robin Hood theft of toll revenues from one corridor to build or finance another, necessitating the toll stay in place, leading to perpetual taxation in conflict with Art I, Sec 26 of Texas Constitution. (SB 485/HB 1734/HB 3725 – Kolkhorst, Shaheen, Sanford)
3) Remove all loopholes in statute that allow free highway lanes to be converted into toll lanes and prevent the downgrade of free main lanes to frontage roads, which is highway robbery and double taxation. (HB 1835/SB 1238/SB 937 – Sanford, Taylor, V., Kolkhorst)
4) Strip private toll corporations of their eminent domain authority. No Texan should lose their land so another private party can make a profit off of it. (HB 565/SB 444/HB 1004 – Burkett, Hall, Davis)
5) Ban any and all forms of public private partnerships (called Comprehensive Development Agreements in Texas) that charge prohibitively high tolls and represent corporate welfare, cronyism, punitive taxation. (Strongly oppose – SB 269/HB 3899/HB 1968/HB 2577/SB 1591 Watson, Rodriguez, Martinez, Lucio)
6) End all diversions of the gas tax and dedicate vehicle sales tax to the state highway fund. (HB 1/SB 1/SJR 5/SB5 – Otto, Nelson, Nichols)

Working toward a ‘Toll-free Texas’
Sanford made national news with the help of his colleagues Rep. Matt Shaheen and Rep. Jeff Leach when they filed nine bills they dubbed ‘Toll-free Texas’ that address the highway funding shortfall, as well as reduce, and eventually eliminate, toll roads. The bills also aim to put elected officials in the driver’s seat on toll decisions (HB 1183/HB 1834 – Sanford, Shaheen), and prevent unaccountable taxation. All told, there are 78 pieces of legislation that address restraining toll roads (and the toll bureaucracies) or finding ways to properly fund the highway department to end the reliance on tolling.

Some reform bills seek to make toll authorities and toll road financing more transparent and accountable, like requiring transportation-related entities to be comprised of elected officials (HB 2601/SB 748 – Larson, Campbell) and require them to broadcast their meetings (SB 1152/HB 3593 – Hall, Burkett). Shaheen wants to prohibit transportation lobbying by toll/transportation boards (HB 1257 – Shaheen), and Sen. Bob Hall and Sen. Lois Kolkhorst want to make traffic and revenue studies that forecast toll revenues public (SB 939/SB 1046/HB 2620 – Kolkhorst, Hall, Burkett). Currently, state statute allows this vital information to be kept secret from the public.

Sanford also introduced legislation to require voter approval of all toll projects (HB 3725). Regional Mobility Authorities are particularly unpopular. Rep. Lyle Larson wants to subject them to sunset review (HB 528). Sen. Don Huffines filed a bill to audit Regional Mobility Authorities (SB 1184/HB 3114 – Huffines, Dale), while Hall goes a step further and seeks to abolish them altogether (SB 1150). The grassroots welcome and applaud the tidal wave of proposed transportation and toll road reforms introduced this session.

Over the last 14 years, lawmakers gave these agencies new tools and a blank check with no real oversight. With tolls everywhere and the cost of driving escalating beyond Texans’ ability to pay, this undue tax burden has reached the breaking point, and taxpayers are demanding transportation decision-making be more transparent and accountable to taxpayers. Their top priority is ensuring not one more penny of tax money gets dumped  into loser toll projects that can’t pay for themselves.

Cathie Adams, President of Texas Eagle Forum, also emphasized the need to restrict road taxes to non-toll highways, “Texans want to make sure that their tax dollars are spent on building and maintaining their roads. We are weary of those who’d rather turn transportation funds into money making schemes for foreign investors.”

JoAnn Fleming, Founder of Grassroots America, drills down into the cost to taxpayers, ”Grassroots America strongly supports a toll-free Texas. It’s time to end the corporate welfare schemes that put taxpayers on the hook for toll road losses while the private investors are guaranteed profits. Using massive amounts of tax dollars and debt to prop up toll projects that can never pay for themselves is unethical and dishonest, but multi-leveraged tolling is not the only taxpayer abuse that must end this session.

“The Transportation Commission and the Texas Department of Transportation must be reformed. Simply shoveling more money into a broken, untrustworthy system will never fix it.Texans deserve the highest quality highways constructed at the very best price. Anything less is a failure.”

Chair of the Transportation Subcommittee to the Lt. Governor’s Grassroots Advisory Committee, Michael Openshaw, put it this way, “Debacles like SH 130 in Austin and the shortfalls at the North Texas Tollway Authority demonstrate the fiscal catastrophes of trying to get ‘innovative’ in tollway financing.  Add to that the absolutely ludicrous new trend of turning the failed attempt at social engineering represented by HOV lanes (which changed no one’s behavior) now being converted to a variable toll lane for profit, fosters financial elitism and turns already paid-for lanes into money makers.”

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick adds, “As I’ve said many times in the past, we’ve relied too heavily on debt and tolls. It’s time we give transportation funding the priority it deserves and dedicate $5 billion in transportation revenue to fund transportation spending. Dedicating this revenue available through Senate Bill 5 will allow us to return to a pay-as-you-go system for our roadways and steer us away from past practices.”

“The citizen groundswell against toll proliferation in Texas is heartening to see. Texans unfortunately have experienced firsthand how interstate tolling can stifle economic productivity and tax-away prosperity, unfairly penalize drivers with fines for tolls they don’t owe, and restrict access to roads paid for by the public. The efforts of Toll-Free Texas are commendable and reflect a broader awareness by people that tolls are the worst possible way to fund roads,” agrees Julian Walker, spokesman for Alliance for Toll-free Interstates.

“Texans have stood up against toll roads time and time again, and I’m proud to be a longtime friend to TURF and like-minded groups. Property rights and fiscal transparency should always take priority when we plan our roads in Texas,” Kolkhorst affirmed.

Reflecting the sea change against tolling, Senator Hall stated, ”Under the old pay-as-you-go concepts, toll lanes were once a viable option for funding road construction. However, with the introduction of private equity funding and exotic funding schemes, they have become a double tax on the public and a tool for governments to control population behavior.”

“Texas has been a beacon of job creation and innovation, which has led to rapid population growth in our state. But this growth has strained our transportation infrastructure. We must provide proper funding of our roads for Texas families and businesses without burdening them with higher Taxes. Toll roads are not the answer.  The government shouldn’t charge Texans twice to drive on their roads. Texans made their voices clear with the passing of Proposition 1, and we need to step up and fund our roads without increased taxes, tolls, and fees. We need the best roads in America.  We have neglected road funding for 30 years. It is past time that the Texas Legislature made it a priority to fund our roads,” advocates Huffines.

“Our Texas drivers and taxpayers demand a toll-free future. It is wrong to continue to subject them to the ‘double tax’ of transportation taxes and tolls. It should be our commitment to deliver toll-free highways for our constituents,” argues Shaheen.

“Texas Taxpayers expect and deserve a more honest and open government that properly addresses transportation infrastructure – one of the core functions of government –without raising taxes, increasing fees or adding onerous tolls. As Legislators, we have an obligation to invest in our state’s ongoing transportation needs in a responsible and transparent manner in order to sustain our state’s continued economic success and quality of life, and I laud Representative Sanford for his leadership and vision in advancing ‘Toll Free Texas’ for all hardworking Texans,” urges Leach.

Anti-toll advocates seem to have the momentum as both Governor Greg Abbott and the Lt. Governor campaigned on many of these reforms. But taking nothing for granted, the ‘Toll-free Texas’ grassroots coalition sacrificed their time and dime to come to the Capitol anyway, realizing toll entities, local governments, and transportation boards want the status quo and will lobby hard to water-down and defeat needed reforms. But given the support of the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Transportation Committee members, the winds of change are blowing in favor of taxpayers.

Toll-Free Texas!

TollFree Texas graphic 300

Citizen Lobby Day

Monday, March 23, 2015
9:00 AM to 4:00 PM

Location: Texas State Capitol
Address: 1100 Congress Avenue
              Austin, TX 78701
(meet on the South Capitol steps)

Go to the TURF Registration Page to Register…

Your freedom to travel is at risk!

Gathering on South Capitol stepsConcerned citizens from across the state will gather in Austin to interact with lawmakers on transportation-related issues. We’ve seen a massive increase in our cost to drive through tolls, handing control of our public roads to private foreign corporations, and  unsustainable debt sweep the state, with more to come unless we make our voices heard.

This is a day when CITIZEN lobbyists come to the Capitol to advocate on what matters to grassroots Texans — like getting an affordable, pro-taxpayer transportation policy in place.

Lots of activities planned:

  • a press conference,
  • have our group recognized from the House and Senate floor,
  • visit offices and speak to legislators,
  • lawmakers address TURF group in special Q&A,
  • and a special visit from Governor Greg Abbott!

Go to the TURF Registration Page to Register…

Be prepared…

  • The public parking garage east of the Capitol is at 12th Street and San Jacinto. If that garage is full another is located north of the Capitol at 18th Street and Congress at the Texas History Museum. Both cost $8/day.
  • Get the t-shirt!Bring money for lunch. We plan to eat together in the Members Lounge where we’ll hear from some special guests. For a box lunch from Jason’s Deli, the cost is $10. You MUST RSVP by Monday, March 16 to reserve your lunch, otherwise plan on getting lunch in the Capitol Grill (wait times in the food lines can exceed 20 minutes).
  • Bring a notebook to take notes (optional). Fliers, maps and materials supplied by TURF.
  • T-shirts with our message will be available. Suggested donation $15. Please reserve your t-shirt ASAP.

Citizen lobyists being oriented

We need you!

We need a HUGE crowd to show up to talk to legislators about transportation. There are already some very bad proposals being pushed by special interests (more tolls in the hands of private corporations), and without a grassroots revolt, it’ll sail through without a whimper of opposition. Plan to come and have others join you.

If you’re interested in coordinating a carpool,
contact Terri Hall or call (210) 275-0640.

Go to the TURF Registration Page to Register…

Commissioners Approve Tolls for Northside of San Antonio

Reaffirm tolls on US 281, I-10 despite more road money coming to fix non-toll

(San Antonio, TX – Tuesday, January 17, 2015) Today, Bexar County commissioners passed a resolution brought by Kevin Wolff to ‘reaffirm’ what’s been dubbed the $825 million ‘Super Toll Plan’ for toll lanes on US 281 (from Loop 1604 to the county line) and I-10 (from Loop 1604 to Boerne), and the initial non-toll expansion of Loop 1604 W (though tolls are coming from Bandera Rd. to I-35).
County Judge Nelson Wolff, Commissioners Paul Elizondo, Chico Rodriguez,and Kevin Wolff, voted to adopt the resolution, with anti-toll newcomer Commissioner Tommy Calvert abstaining, despite public opposition and additional non-toll road funding coming from Prop 1 as well as $1.2 billion from ending gas tax diversions that’s coming in the new budget soon be adopted by the Texas legislature.
Every member of the court took turns saying they were opposed to toll roads. Judge Wolff noted $200 million in local tax dollars have gone into funding state highway projects and implored the legislature to do its job to properly fund roads. Yet, in the end, all but one voted in favor of adopting the toll plan, promising, yet again, to remove the toll lanes if new funding comes from the legislature.
“It’s political double speak to say you oppose toll roads then vote to adopt them, especially when you know new funding is coming,” argues Terri Hall, Founder/Director of TURF and Texans for Toll-free Highways.
Judge Wolff, Commissioner Wolff, and board members of the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) have previously promised to turn planned toll lanes back into free lanes on projects like US 281 when new funding became available. When running for re-election in a tight race, Nelson Wolff even sent a letter to the Transportation Commission asking to turn toll lanes back to free lanes on US 281 if Prop 1 passed. Prop 1 passed with 81% of the vote last November, but the first round of Prop 1 funds were sent elsewhere. So were Prop 12 funds, stimulus funds, and the streetcar funds that were taken from roads.
The commissioners’ move is not only premature, but totally out of step with Governor Greg Abbott’s vision laid out in his state of the state speech given today in a joint session of the Texas legislature, where Abbott promised to secure $4 billion more per year in road funding without tolls, and even declared transportation an emergency item to expedite it.
“The trail of broken promises that culminated in today’s vote is causing many to question whether the voters were lied to. Knowing that Prop 1 will add $1 billion a year in new road funds with more coming from the Texas legislature, the timing of this action couldn’t be more dubious. Who votes to re-affirm toll plans now, when Texas voters sent new leadership to Austin promising no more tolls and when the legislature is in the process of getting new funds to prevent tolls?” questions Hall. “Two new transportation commissioners are also coming, one a prominent San Antonian, Bruce Bugg, so at the very least, the commissioners should have waited to see what the legislature and the new commissioners do before they reaffirm the old regime’s toll roads.”
Suspicious timing, old guard being replaced
Former Governor Rick Perry’s Transportation Commission Chairman Ted Houghton is being replaced in just a few short weeks by an appointee of incoming Governor Abbott, who campaigned against toll roads. Houghton and Perry have made it their mission to impose tolls all over Bexar County, and they’ve been unsuccessful due to citizen resistance.
Hall emphasized the suspicious timing, “With passage of this resolution, the Commissioners are attempting to thwart the efforts by Abbott, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, and the Texas legislature to fix the road funding shortfall without more tolls, and hence get Bexar County freeways fixed toll-free as promised.”
What’ll cost? $8-$10 a day
The published toll rates of the toll authority, the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, range from 17 cents a mile – 50 cents a mile. The plan will impose ‘congestion tolling,’ to ensure drivers pay the maximum to use the toll lanes during peak hours (when everyone actually has to get to work).
So these new toll taxes will average $8-10 day or over $2,000 a year in new taxes just to get to work. That’s per driver, it’ll be thousands more per household. Those who can’t afford to pay tolls will be second class citizens on congested alternatives.
The more congestion on the roadway, the more you pay. These ‘managed’ lanes will be HOV-transit toll lanes giving special access to buses with exclusive direct connect ramps from inside the toll lanes to the $15 million dollar Via transit centers outside the tollway.
Public meetings
In addition, the Bexar County Strategic Mobility Plan will add tolls to Loop 1604 (from Bandera Rd. to I-35 at the Forum). Two public meetings on that project are scheduled for March 4 and 5. Another public hearing to add toll lanes to the I-35 corridor (from 410 S. to FM 1103 in Schertz) will take place next week, Thursday, February 26, at Morgan’s Wonderland.
Last month, the AAMPO transportation plan just added $605 million in TOLL ‘managed lanes’ on:
I-10 (from 410 to SH 130)
Hwy 151 (from 410 to 1604)
I-37/US 281 (from SE to downtown)
I-10 (from Boerne Stage Rd to Boerne)
This is in addition to the existing toll projects on:
US 281 (from Loop 1604 to Bexar County line)
Loop 1604 (from Bandera Rd to I-35, eventually the whole loop)
I-10 (from Loop 1604 to Boerne Stage Rd.)
I-35 (from downtown to Loop 1604, & eventually to the county line)


Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff is bringing a resolution to a vote on Tuesday, February 17 (see Item #69, on page 13 of the Commissioners Court Agenda) to reaffirm that he wants to impose toll taxes to drive US 281 (from Loop 1604 to the county line) and I-10 (from Loop 1604 to Boerne), and Loop 1604 (from Bandera Rd. to I-35 at the Forum).

Call Kevin Wolff‘s office NOW at (210) 335-2613 to urge him to pull down his resolution and use the new road money from Prop 1 (avg. $1 billion/yr) and the money coming shortly in the next budget to be adopted by the Texas Legislature (at least $1.2 billion) to fix these freeways without TOLLS!  View the plan here.

What will it cost me?
The published toll rates range from 17 cents a mile – 50 cents a mile. Wolff and his fellow commissioners along with his Dad, County Judge Nelson Wolff, will impose ‘congestion tolling,’ to ensure you pay the maximum to use the toll lanes during peak hours (when everyone actually has to get to work).

So these new toll taxes will average $8-10 day or over $2,000 a year in new taxes just to get to work. The more congestion on the roadway, the more you pay. In fact, the toll rate rises in real time to purposely knock cars out of the toll lanes if the speed drops below 50 MPH in the toll lanes, which is almost guaranteed behind a bus (these will be HOV-toll transit lanes, also called ‘managed lanes’)!

What’s the plan?
View the plan here.

On US 281, today there are 5-6 freeway lanes from Loop 1604 to Stone Oak Pkwy. When they’re done, there will still be just 6 lanes of highway, BUT, one existing freeway lane in the center will be converted into a HOV-toll transit lane (think bus lane, you’ll be paying a toll to drive slow behind buses, also called ‘managed lanes’ to hide the word ’toll’). No new highway lanes will be added at all, yet the toll authority (Alamo RMA) is conducting a half a million dollar ad campaign that tells commuters the toll road will DOUBLE existing capacity. All they’re adding are access roads, not highway lanes. So they’re counting the new frontage roads as ‘doubling your capacity.’

These HOV-toll lanes have NO ACCESS to Loop 1604 (on either proposed toll project) so if you need to get on 1604, you’ll be stuck in the congested general purpose lanes. On US 281, there’s also no exit for any local traffic until Stone Oak Pkwy, so commuters cannot access all those neighborhoods from the toll lanes, leaving more cars on the congested freeway.

North of Stone Oak Pkwy on US 281 there are 4 existing freeway lanes today. When they’re done with the freeway-tollway conversion, every single free lane will be converted into a toll lane. Commuters will have NO free highway option on the northern stretch of US 281 (from Stone Oak Pkwy. to the Bexar County line).

On I-10 and Loop 1604, the plan is to add two new HOV-toll transit lane each direction (although some documents only show one new lane on I-10). At Loop 1604 & I-10, the new direct connect interchange ramps will NOT be accessible to anyone other than those paying tolls. In both the I-10 & US 281 corridors, buses will have very expensive, exclusive direct connect ramps into/out of the toll lanes to Via’s park-n-ride transit centers in the Hill Country (where few will ever carpool or get on a bus). On US 281, the toll lanes do not connect to Loop 1604, and you’ll be paying a toll to get stuck behind a bus. If I-10 is one lane and not two, you’ll be paying a toll to get stuck behind a bus there, too.

Why now?
While both Wolffs have consistently voted to toll our area freeways, why are they voting to ‘reaffirm’ something they already did? Because former Gov. Rick Perry’s Transportation Commission Chairman Ted Houghton is being replaced in just a few short weeks by incoming Governor Greg Abbott who campaigned against toll roads. Houghton and Perry have made it their mission to impose tolls all over Bexar County, and they’ve been  unsuccessful due to citizen resistance. If the Commissioners pass this resolution, they’re attempting to thwart the efforts by Governor Abbott and the Texas legislature to fix the road funding shortfall without more tolls and hence get Bexar County freeways fixed toll-free as promised.

Bait & Switch – Broken promises
Sadly, when Nelson Wolff was running for re-election he sent a letter to the Transportation Commission to ask for Prop 1 money to be used to fix US 281 without tolls, now that he won re-election, he’s reneged on his promise and is voting to keep tolls on US 281.

Call Kevin Wolff’s office NOW at (210) 335-2613 to tell him to pull down his resolution and use the new road money from Prop 1 (avg. $1 billion/yr) and the money coming shortly in the next budget to be adopted by the Texas Legislature (at least $1.2 billion) to fix these freeways without TOLLS!


For more history, go here:
SA officials unveil $825 million toll plan
Board reneges on promise to fix 281, 1604 without tolls
Wolff flip-flops: ‘You can fry me for it later’

Blacklands Corridor – NE Gateway Tollway


The people have spoken and their will is clear – they do not want the proposed private Blacklands Tollway-Northeast Gateway corridor through Rockwall to Greenville in east Dallas. Nearly 1,500 people packed the theater to put their opposition on the record.

Private Northeast Gateway tollway near Dallas draws angry crowd (public meeting in Rockwall on Monday, September 22, 2014)

Is the NE Gateway a truly private road? See the Dangers of the Northeast Gateway Tollway (PDF) flyer.

Sign the petition

to oppose the proposed Blacklands Corridor Tollway/Northeast Gateway project.

Submit public comments

Public comments due by October 2, 2014 to

Be sure to include your full name and address with your comments.

Since this is being submitted electronically, be sure to ask for confirmation of receipt of your comments by NCTCOG.

State that you want the ‘no build’ option.

Feel free to give reasons whether it’s the use of eminent domain by a private company, the traffic counts don’t justify it, you’d rather see expansion of I-30, or other vital points, the main thing is to get the ’no build’ option on the official record. It comes into play later for potential legal challenges.

Schedule of meetings

Texas Turnpike Corporation (TTC) has scheduled 10 informal public information meetings starting September 25th and going through October 7th. Warning: Whatever they say does NOT count on the official record. This is designed to promote their own propaganda and possibly make concessions that could change later.
See details on the TTC web site…

Please remember according to the NCTCOG, RTC and TXDOT presentations, discussions, and paperwork this project is called the Blacklands Corridor Toll Road. The TTC/Public Werks is using the name “Northeast Gateway” (maybe trying to cause confusion with another project called “South Gateway”).

Action Item

One of the best ways to stop this tollway dead in its tracks is to get local cities and counties to pass resolutions opposing it. The City of Rockwall already passed one and put it in the official record September 22 at the Rockwall public meeting.

Ask your city/county to pass one immediately. You can use the resolution passed by City of Rockwall (PDF) as an example.

Related Documents

Local Grassroots Coordinator

Bryan Slaton, 469-585-2686, or by email


Salzman: The Pitfalls of P3s

Link to article here.

Read Randy Salzman’s entire expose on P3s in the June/July 2014 Issue of Thinking Highways here.

Salzman’s work is most comprehensive look at the dangers of P3s to date. It’s a must read for citizens and policymakers alike.

A “Model” Scheme?
Thursday, 14 August 2014 00:00 By Randy Salzman, Thinking Highways | News Analysis

With about two-thirds of America’s new transportation construction “public-private-partnerships,” design-build P3s have been highly praised over the last decade. Contractors, politicians and financiers have been claiming that tiny slivers of private money bring efficiency to the formerly public process of highway building, spurring innovation and freeing taxpayer dollars for other key needs. But as Randy Salzman discovers, it’s not without its problems

In the media, congress and across the political world, promoters pushing design-build public-private partnerships (P3s) are still claiming that private innovation is saving taxpayer money, creating good jobs and easing congestion.

In wanting to institute an “Infrastructure Bank” to address America’s “crumbling highway infrastructure,” even President Obama, using New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge as a backdrop, recently encouraged P3 construction with a US$302 billion plan. The president had apparently not read Congressional Budget Office research into P3s, nor heard the Tappan Zee contractor speak at a congressional hearing.

In March, Fluor’s senior vice president Richard Fierce bragged that his company was saving taxpayers US$1.7 billion on the new bridge across the Hudson until one congressman offhandedly remarked that he’d heard the Tappan Zee project would cost US$5 billion, not US$3.1 billion as the contractor had claimed.

“That may include work outside our present contract,” Fluor’s VP replied.

Design-build is in effect “cost plus,” tailor-made for expensive change orders once construction is underway when no politician can dare pull the plug on runaway spending. P3s are even more geared for lining the pockets of financiers; hence foreign money is flooding into US highway projects today. The costs and risks, it is consistently claimed, are dumped on the privates but the reality is much more complex and, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), at best delays taxpayer pain. There is little, if any, long-term savings for citizens, the CBO notes, and the tiny amounts of private equity serve primarily to get construction underway quicker.

“There’s a set of financial interests who have really learned how to mine the tax code,” P3 supporter Doug Koelemay, Virginia’s new director of Public-Private Partnerships, frowns.

The Very Model of a Modern Major PPP?
Virginia’s 1995 Public-Private Transportation Act is held up as the “model” by contractors and financiers, especially as it was implemented at break-neck speed during Governor Bob McDonnell’s administration. In four years, the number of Virginia P3s skyrocketed to 22 and with the Commonwealth signing over US$6 billion in P3s during 2012 alone, Infrastructure Investor magazine named McDonnell “man of the year” and called the state’s legal consultant, Allen and Overy, the world’s best law firm twice. Does any magazine for investors venerate hard bargainers for taxpayers?

“A great deal of the media praising public private partnerships in transportation projects comes from sources that have a self-interest in promoting them,” says Jack Trammell, now a candidate for Virginia’ 7th Congressional District. “A major factor motivating me to run for office is what I think should be a national concern about this trend away from transparency and toward greater taxpayer risk in such projects.”

In the past, even Virginia’s Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) never saw P3 contracts, only being allowed up-down votes on the total taxpayer bill, which consistently put 95+ per cent of all costs on state and federal taxpayers. The privates put up tiny bits of equity, though they imply more because they borrow dollars from Uncle Sam that they likely will not pay back and they sell bonds that Uncle Sam guarantees and which will cost taxpayers when the P3 goes bankrupt – as they almost inevitably do – about 15 years down the road.

It is a “win-win-win” for private money and contractors but for unaware taxpayers it could be the biggest scheme ever in Virginia – and potentially US – history. Is getting a highway or other transportation infrastructure, which may or may not be needed, returned to we taxpayers just when it’s beginning to need maintenance worth the fact that we’ve left virtually all construction costs, all risk, all financing costs and 10-15 years of tolls to the next generation of taxpayers?

A Clean Slate?
Secretary Layne has been shaken by what he’s found in a hard look at a couple of former transportation secretary Sean Connaughton’s P3 contracts. For example, although neither the Virginia Department of Transportation nor the Corp of Engineers ever indicated they could mitigate 480 acres of wetlands – and hence issue a construction permit – Virginia has paid 460 Mobility Partners almost US$300m and is on the hook for another US$900m for a highway that will likely never be built.

With that sort of issue possible in 21 other projects, Layne has ordered a “scrub” of all past P3s to find, for example, non-competitive clauses which prevent Virginia from improving nearby roads without having to pay toll operators for potential lost income. Whether the Commonwealth can get out of some of these disturbing contract stipulations is still up in the air.
We asked Secretary Layne if there was “anything criminal” in what he’s learned.

His hesitant reply, “I don’t think so,” was echoed by Koelemay but, still, the new administration has asked two CTB members to lead an inquiry and highlight better contracting methods. Regardless, “even if some of these ‘improvements’ (P3 projects) are desperately needed,” as Trammell puts it, “we shouldn’t get them at the cost of transparency and accountability to taxpayers.”

Trammell believes financiers can hide in plain sight because the terms of these contracts – often over 700 pages – are so complicated that even after studying the issue for more than a year, he can’t put all of the pieces together. How, he asks, could the general public, reporters without finance degrees or part-time bureaucrats like the Commonwealth Transportation Board understand this complexity? Especially when they don’t hear it.

“You did get a ‘high level briefing’ on the benefits of the [460] project,” Layne explained to CTB members in March, “but you were not privy to the [460] contract, the contract terms, the payments schedule, the risk being taken or any terms.”

CTB members were subdued with one thanking Layne for promising greater openness: “I have been very uncomfortable on a couple of projects we had (under Connaughton). I didn’t have the data I needed to make a decision at the same time I was asked to vote. Don’t ask me to do something without giving me the information I needed.” Another was shocked that “we allocated money yet we had no authority in approving the project?”

Only Jim Rich, later fired by McDonnell and Connaughton over his staunch opposition to fiscal irrationality, stood up and questioned financing and risk management when Connaughton brought rapid-fire P3s before the CTB over the past four years.

Layne, who served as head bond salesman for the 460 “Commonwealth Connector” and still supports the project, assures there will be “competition and transparency” in future P3 contracts. As secretary of transportation today, he said his prime “fiduciary responsibility” is to taxpayers, not bond holders, as it was when he ran the bond operation for the now-suspended 55-mile “Connector.”

Layne and Koelemay indicate the Commonwealth’s representatives in past P3, Connaughton and Tony Kinn, the original Virginia public-private-partnership office director, were outclassed and, due to ideological considerations and trapped by promises to do “something” about congestion, couldn’t just walk away from the table. They may not have realized their legal consultants were conflicted by work for private infrastructure bond sellers.

Media coverage of P3s over the past decade, furthermore, has been overwhelmingly positive, consistently following the contractor line that private innovation is offsetting significant amounts of expense, improving projects and freeing public dollars for other activities. However, the Congressional Budget Office indicates P3s provide little, if any, financial benefit to taxpayers.

“The cost of financing a highway project privately is roughly equal to the cost of financing it publicly after factoring in the costs associated with the risk of losses from the project, which taxpayers ultimately bear, and the financial transfers made by the federal government to states and localities,” the CBO’s Microeconomic Studies director told congress in March. “Any remaining difference between the costs of public versus private financing for a project will stem from the effects of incentives and conditions established in the contracts that govern public-private partnerships.”

In that congressional hearing, Boston’s Michael Capuano reminded congressmen that “people stole money” in prior equivalents of design-build P3s, and that’s why the highway construction paradigm became “inefficiency intended to avoid malfeasance.”

“We need to remember the potential downfalls before we go too far down the road too quickly and want to be conscious of not opening up the barn door,” he cautioned.

Washington, DC shadow congresswoman Eleanor Norton was more specific: “I wonder if it’s (P3) an equitable or fair deal for the public? There’s a very high level of public funding and a low level of private risk. The rundown of figures amaze me and I’m trying to find out what the real advantage here is of the public-private-partnership.”

Read the rest of the article here.