Coming soon to a theater near you…
Smith record causing opponent to raise Cain
By Terri Hall
October 29, 2015
It’s shaping up to be a tough re-election season for incumbents. One of them may be Baytown’s ethically challenged Wayne Smith. His voting record on transportation reflects a disconnect with many Texans in District 128 who oppose toll roads, especially the privatization of public roads. It’s a record that got challenger Briscoe Cain to take notice, and he’s running to replace Smith as a more conservative voice in the Texas House.
Elected to seven terms in the Texas House, Smith chairs the Committee on Licensing and Administrative Procedures. As a former member of the Transportation Committee and as Chair of the Licensing Committee, Smith has potential conflicts of interest as a licensed Professional Engineer who owned Wayne Smith and Associates Consulting Engineers up until his election to the House. He also served as Legislative & Government Affairs Chairman for the Texas Society of Professional Engineers as well as serving as its President prior to taking office. Smith’s committee has oversight over the Texas Society of Professional Engineers.
Despite Texas law prohibiting politicians from using campaign funds for personal use, Smith violated Section 253.035 of the Election Code on 32 separate occasions between July 2002 and June of 2007 to pay dues to the National Society of Professional Engineers, among other professional associations.
His wife, Brenda, picked up where he left off, serving as an attorney for Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, who, you guessed it, builds roads, including toll roads. So Smith is in the unique position of personally profiting from his connections to lawmakers and his influence over transportation and licensing policy.
Though Smith authored a bill, HB 1892, in 2007 to place a moratorium on private, corporate toll roads known as Comprehensive Development Agreements (CDAs) or public private partnerships, former Governor Rick Perry vetoed the bill and advanced a severely compromised bill, SB 792, in its place. Smith immediately caved to the governor, became his henchman on the bill, and even lied to his colleagues about the nature of market value tolling, claiming it only applied to the Grand Parkway project not every toll project across the state. Of course, once the bill passed, it was made very clear by legal experts and attorneys representing toll agencies that market value tolling did, in fact, apply to all toll projects in Texas.
So what is market valuation? It essentially allows a public toll entity to view the toll project as an ATM machine, similar to a private toll contract, and determine an upfront payment to be used on other projects based on its determined worth. This is just like Cintra offering Dallas officials $2.8 billion up front for Hwy 121 in exchange for the right to collect tolls for 50 years. It results in charging the highest possible tolls to use public highways since the toll is no longer based on the costs of constructing the road and paying off its debt. It would instead be based on how much officials think they could milk commuters for during congested hours. Market valuation is runaway taxation in the hands of un-elected toll boards.
William Lutz with Lone Star Report wrote in May 2007 of the ramifications of SB 792:
“A further flaw is it allows continuation of current policy, whereby the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) may require up-front ‘concession fees’ in exchange for building some new toll projects. The tolls that pay these concession fees are taxes, not user fees, because concession fees result in tolls over and above the amount required to build and maintain the road. Since the fees are paid back over time from toll revenue, it increases the burden of debt on our children and grandchildren. In short, concession fees, which are continued by the ‘market valuation’ language in SB 792, allow the government to raise taxes and do off-budget spending in a manner concealed to the public and without proper legislative oversight and authorization.”
The San Antonio Express-News on June 3, 2007, describes the Robin Hood scheme, “The provision would require market valuations to gauge how much money a toll road could bring in, including what motorists are willing to pay, and earmarking the profits to other area projects. ‘I’m uncomfortable with it,’ Bill Thornton (Chairman of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority) said of the mandate. ‘Government is not here to make a profit, government is here to provide a service.’”
The word given to House members in the back rooms prior to the vote on the House floor was ‘follow Wayne Smith.’ The leadership said if he votes for something, follow. If he votes against, follow. That’s what the governor wants.
A report in the Austin American Statesman, May 17, 2007, echoed the same sentiment when Smith said, “We could end up with another bill on the governor’s desk that he’ll veto” if members push too far with changes.
That statement summarizes Smith’s approach to governing. Go along to get along. If you push too hard, you might make waves or get leadership mad at you. Never mind if leadership is asking you to go against your own constituents’ best interests or your own values and principles.
Smith also authored bills to give money to rail boondoggles (HB 2434, 81st session) and to grant eminent domain powers to what amounts to private developers who control Municipal Utility Districts (HB 4201, 84th session). He voted to allow toll entities to ‘own’ their toll projects in perpetuity (HB 1112, 82nd session), virtually clinching their ability to continue to charge tolls indefinitely, which make tolls a permanent new tax.
In addition, he’s a big fan of Transportation Reinvestment Zones (TRZ), patterned after Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones (TIRZ), and voted to allow TRZ property taxes to be used to subsidize toll roads, a double tax. Smith’s wife served on a TIRZ board in Harris County, posing another potential conflict for a sitting legislator. How can he see clearly on legislation pertaining to TIRZ when his wife was part of one? Many grassroots groups and even the Houston Chronicle and Houston Press view TIRZs as placing taxing authority in the hands of un-elected boards, opening the door to corruption and mismanagement.
With friends like this, who needs enemies. Smith has become a career politician, serving for 12 years. It’s clear he represents special interests instead of his constituents’. Taxpayers deserve better and now they have a choice in the race for Texas House District 128. For more information on Cain, go to: http://briscoecain.com/.
Alamo city transportation board approves road diet for Hwy 281
Today, the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) unanimously voted to approve a resolution to do the US 281 project (from Loop 1604 to the Bexar County line) in San Antonio without tolls. However, the new proposal involves converting one existing, unrestricted freeway lane into an HOV-bus lane (a restricted lane), shrinking existing capacity open to all cars rather than expanding it. While there are six general purpose (unrestricted) highway lanes today, once the conversion is completed, there will be only four.
Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) officials claim the current roadway is akin to a frontage road, despite maps from the U.S. Geological Survey and documents from the Federal Highway Administration showing otherwise. TxDOT argues they’re not shrinking highway main lanes by crediting the addition of new frontage lanes to the outside of the existing highway in the lane count. This fuzzy math enables them to assert they’re ‘doubling’ existing capacity.
While commuters are celebrating the removal of tolls from this project, which has experienced two rounds of litigation and years of political wrangling to achieve, residents still struggle to see how taking away an existing, unrestricted highway lane open to all cars and converting it into a restricted HOV-bus lane will alleviate congestion.
Officials admit it’s designed to change behavior and force people out of their cars and into a carpool or a bus, which many consider a form of social engineering. Carpooling or taking a bus is impractical for the vast majority of commuters. Via Metropolitan Transit is insisting on shrinking the highway capacity with its HOV-bus lane conversion to incentivize commuters to ride the bus in order to support its new $15 million Park-n-Ride at the corner of Stone Oak and US 281. However, this bus-carpool lane is only for seven miles.
The Park-n-Ride buses don’t begin until Stone Oak Parkway, so in reality, the benefit of the exclusive bus lane is only for three miles. It’s been dubbed the ‘lane to nowhere.’ It doesn’t connect to any other HOV-bus lanes anywhere in San Antonio because there are none. Buses can utilize the new frontage roads alongside US 281 without creating exclusive lanes.
The AAMPO consultant from WSP-Parsons Brinkerhoff who gave a presentation to the board on August 28, admitted HOV lanes do not solve congestion. HOV lanes are persistently underutilized and most buses still run empty. Even with the exclusive lanes, buses still add to your overall commute time due to wait times and stops.
In a 2004, Pravin Varaiya, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, did an academic study of HOV lanes and highway congestion which states: “An HOV lane suffers a 20% capacity loss compared with multi-lane freeways. HOV lanes are either under utilized or suffer degraded operations. HOV lanes do not measurably increase car pooling. HOV lanes do not reduce overall highway congestion.”
Part of a ‘road diet’
Mayor Ivy Taylor recently unveiled her vision for San Antonio a few weeks ago to the city council to put San Antonio on a ‘road diet.’ It’s unprecedented to take an existing unrestricted lane and turn it into a restricted HOV-bus lane. Up until now, HOV lanes have been new lanes or special lanes utilizing the shoulders of medians. Never before has a lane open to all autos been converted into an HOV-bus lane.
If the plan moves forward as is, this HOV-bus lane would be the first installment of what will eventually be such lanes on every highway in San Antonio. The AAMPO board is spending $300,000 to study imposing HOV-transit-toll lanes across the Alamo city. But that will take decades. Regardless, when single occupancy vehicle commuters are faced with deliberate government-imposed road scarcity, they’ll remain stuck in congestion.
According to AAMPO documents, congestion weary commuters were promised an additional general purpose lane on US 281 since the late 1990s. Commuters desperately need the additional lane for the project to be successful in relieving congestion.
Texas House Speaker Joe Straus was instrumental in getting the tolls off US 281 in recent weeks, so residents say they’ll continue to seek his help to secure the new, general purpose lane that was promised to residents nearly 20 years ago.
(Austin, TX, September 9, 2015) With voters overwhelmingly embracing a move away from toll roads by electing Greg Abbott as the new Texas Governor, many voters want to know how their elected leaders did in delivering on their promises. Anti-toll and property rights watchdog group Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) just released its Report Card from the 84th Legislature today. Over 75 anti-toll bills were filed. Combined with property rights legislation, the total came to 96.
Nine lawmakers achieved the distinction of earning an A+. Those legislators are: Jeff Leach, Matt Rinaldi, Scott Sanford, Matt Shaheen, Jonathan Stickland, and James White in the House, and Bob Hall, Don Huffines, and Lois Kolkhorst in the Senate.
“Having this many anti-toll champions in the legislature is a big improvement over last session when only Rep. Jonathan Stickland achieved the top grade of A+ with just three others achieving ‘A’s. However, there’s lots more work to be done and many lawmakers have a lot of room for improvement. Most anti-toll and property rights bills were watered down or never even got to the floor. That’s got to change in order to protect taxpayers from rampant double and triple taxation,” related Terri Hall, Founder/Director of TURF.
Other stars who earned an ‘A’ grade were Bryan Hughes and Will Metcalf in the House, and Charles Schwerter and Van Taylor in the Senate. Leadership overall fared better in the 84th session than in prior sessions with the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Speaker going from ‘F’s to ‘C’s.
In 2015, there are significantly fewer failing grades. In the House, it went from over 110 ‘F’s down to 54. In the Senate, it went from 28 ‘F’s to just 3. Most fell somewhere in the middle with ‘C’s, but many more came close to earning an ‘A’ with a big jump in those with ‘B’s.
A total of twelve bills, seven amendments and two riders to the budget were used to determine the grades. Most related to tolling and transportation, but a few bills or amendments related to property rights. Some were only relevant in one chamber. TURF lists the complete methodology and specific legislation at the end of the Report Card.
“With campaign season in full swing in many areas of the state, it’s vital for voters to know how their representatives voted while in office so they can hold them accountable,” notes Hall. “Now’s the time to compare notes to what was promised and what was actually delivered.”
TURF’s top priorities included:
• Stopping the flow of public money to toll roads (especially gasoline taxes – SJR 43/SB 1182, SB 1172, HB 122 by Huffines, Nichols, Pickett).
• Taking the tolls off the road when they’re paid for (SB 485/HB 1734/HB 3725 – by Kolkhorst, Shaheen, Sanford).
• Removing loopholes that allow freeway lanes to be converted to toll lanes (HB 1835/SB 1238/SB 937 by Sanford, Taylor, V., Kolkhorst).
• Stripping eminent domain authority from a grandfathered private toll corporation (HB 565/SB 444/HB 1004 by Burkett, Hall, and Davis, Y.).
• Prohibit the authorization of more public private partnership toll roads.
End diversions of the gasoline tax (SJR 12, SB 61, HJR 36, HJR 27/HJR 28/HJR 29, HB 2737/HJR 114 by Perry, Huffines, Larson, Pickett, and Capriglione).
• Dedicate the vehicle sales tax to highways (SB 5/SJR 5, SB 341, HB 202, HB 373, HB 469/HJR 53, HB 1081/HJR 53, HB 2686 by Nichols, Huffines, Leach, Simmons, Metcalf, Paul, and Shaheen)
• Abolish Regional Mobility Authorities (SB 1150, SB 721/HB 528, SB 1184/HB 3114, HB 1257 by Hall, Burton, Larson, Huffines, Dale, Shaheen).
TURF achieved versions of six out of eight of their top priorities.
For a complete list of TURF’s legislative agenda and bills filed, go here.
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.
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.
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.
Link to article here.
Grassroots 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.
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)
Your freedom to travel is at risk!
Concerned 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!
- 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.
- 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.
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.