Local Planners Pushing Expansion of 1604 Without Toll Lanes

The Bexar County Metropolitan Planning Organization, the body created by the Legislature to guide transportation planning in the San Antonio area, is moving forward with a plan to construct the long-awaited expansion of Loop 1604 on San Antonio’s north side without resorting to toll lanes, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.

MPO Chair Kevin Wolff told News Radio 1200 WOAI and KLRN-TV’s ‘On the Record’ that he is pushing for a vote of the MPO to change direction on the long awaited project.

“We will essentially be passing a resolution asking TxDOT and the Texas Transportation Commission to, instead of doing 1604 as a toll, give us the $500 million needed to complete that project, which is our most congested portion in the entire county, from Bandera Rd. to I-35,” Wolff said.

The entire cost of constructing two new lanes in each direction from Bandera Road to Interstate 35, a 24 mile project, is $800 million, but $300 million had already been secured from other sources.

Wolff didn’t say where the extra $500 million might come from, but since the original concept for the expansion was proposed, voters statewide have approved two propositions to free up money from various sources, including the gasoline tax and sales tax revenue from vehicle transactions, specifically to pay for non tolled highway improvements.

Wolff pointed out that the mood among state officials from Gov. Abbott on down is decidedly anti toll today, as opposed to the mood when the 1604 project was first conceived and pro toll Gov. Rick Perry was in office.

Abbott and Legislative leaders have both expressed a desire to complete major transportation projects without tolls.”

You are probably looking at over the next three to four months for this to get in front of the Texas Transportation Commission and hear what their decision is,” Wolff said.

But Wolff pointed out that all Commission members are appointed by Abbott, and are well aware of their feelings about toll roads.

He also said the political mood in Bexar County has long been anti-toll, due largely to the lobbying efforts of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom founder Terri Hall.

Wolff didn’t say whether this new method of funding would delay the start of the construction on the badly needed new lanes.

Link to story…

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Calling all motorists abused by punitive toll fines & fees: Don’t miss toll collection hearing August 27!

Texans are tired of the scam being perpetrated upon them under the guise of toll fines and fees, and they’re demanding REFORM.

Last session, thanks to the must-pass TxDOT sunset bill, we were able to tack-on a magnificent toll collection reform bill (written by Ina Minjarez, D – San Antonio) that capped toll fines and fees at $48/year per driver. Sadly, it only applies to a limited number of TxDOT toll roads, not to the North Texas Tollway Authority, Harris County Tollway Authority or any of the 9 Regional Mobility Authorities.

So our work is NOT finished. Plus, there’s a catch!

The conference committee, led by Sen. Robert Nichols, gutted our reform to de-criminalize failing to pay a toll bill. The committee voted to put criminal penalties back into the bill so you can still be treated as a criminal, have your vehicle registration blocked and possibly even face jail time, for the inability to pay a toll bill. The House passed the amendment to de-criminalize by a vote of 136-3. So we need to work on the Senate to understand they should be representing the will of the people and take away criminal penalties for inability to pay a bill. Blocking someone’s vehicle registration arguably inhibits that person’s ability to pay the bill by jeopardizing their ability to get to work.

Make your voices heard

Please come to the interim legislative hearing that’s deliberating extending the toll collection reforms we passed last session to ALL toll entities. It’s also our chance to ask them to remove the criminal penalties for inability to pay a toll bill.

Senate Transportation Committee Hearing
on Toll Collection Practices
Monday, August 27
10:00 AM
Capitol Extension Rm E1.016
Texas State Capitol
Austin, Texas

Toll collection will be taken up the second half of the committee hearing. They are allowing public testimony on toll collection practices. We’ve heard from thousands of Texans about their unfair toll bills and the ruthless collection practices utilized by these government agencies. Now is your time to have your voices heard!

For those wishing to speak, sign up by filling out a Witness Registration Card (usually found on the table at the back of the committee room) and turn it in to the committee clerk sitting at the front dias.

Even if you do not wish to speak, we could use as many bodies of ordinary citizens in the room as possible since the paid lobbyists for the toll agencies will be there en force to keep the status quo!

Submit written comments, too!

If you are unable attend in person, please send your written comments with your full name and address (so they can verify you’re a real person) to Terri Hall, Founder/Director, Texans TURF (terri@texasturf.org ), and we will submit them to the committee. If you received an erroneous toll bill, or perhaps a toll bill where an entity tacked punitive, unreasonable fines and fees onto your toll bill or had your vehicle registration blocked or car impounded, please tell us your stories. We want to pass them onto the committee so they see the very real impact these punitive fines and fees have on REAL Texas taxpayers.

Digging Deeper

Go here and here for more background on what got passed last session and the reforms we still need next session.

Though the Reason Foundation pushes toll roads as a policy, this article is instructive as it speaks to the criminalization of ordinary behaviors, like driving, and how, increasingly citizens must get permission from the government to live everyday life. Toll billing practices are yet another way the big hand of government reaches into our lives and uses the threat of taking away your ability to drive to force you to pay up.

GO VOTE! Now’s our chance to elect anti-toll champions

Run-Off Early Voting: May 14-18
Election Day: May 22

Chip Roy

Dr. Stuart Spitzer

Thomas McNutt

Jill Wolfskill

Brent Lawson

Q: Many of you ask, how do we get our anti-toll reforms passed? How do we have our new law capping toll fines/fees at $48 a year to apply to ALL toll roads? I thought the Governor and Lt. Governor said ‘No more tolls,’ so why am I still seeing toll roads go up everywhere?
A: The short answer to these questions is we haven’t had the votes to get all of our reforms passed in a ‘clean’ bill without interference from the toll bureaucrats & special interests.

The way we get progress is to have enough lawmakers committed to protecting taxpayers from punitive toll taxes to get our reforms across the finish line.

That’s where elections come into play. We need more anti-toll lawmakers representing we the people in local, state, and federal government.
We’ve carefully vetted these candidates and they’ve committed to our legislative agenda in writing. We have a real chance at significantly changing the composition of the Texas legislature with so many anti-toll candidates in the run-offs.
Your vote counts even more in run-off elections when turnout is low. So be sure to go vote and bring friends and family with you to the polls!
************
RUN-OFF ELECTION
EARLY VOTING: May 14-18
ELECTION DAY: May 22
************
NOTE: All of the candidates listed are in GOP primary election run-offs. No Democrats have responded to our candidate survey. All candidates are ‘A’ rated by TURF.
TURF - A rated
Deanna Metzger
Matt Beebe
Gregory Parker

 

Trump coalition letter presses Abbott to keep ‘No Toll’ promise

IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Coalition’s call for ‘No new toll taxes’ from Trump creates problem for Abbott in Dallas

Grassroots Coalition wants Governor to keep his promise, while they go on offense against Trump plan for tolls

(April 18, 2018 – Austin, Texas) The Texas Conservative Grassroots Coalition’s latest project – strong opposition to parts of the Trump infrastructure plan, which calls for toll roads and corporate welfare public/private partnerships – is being led by Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), Texans for Toll-free Highways, and Grassroots America – We the People PAC. The Coalition’s opposition was voiced in a letter to President Donald J. Trump and expresses widespread displeasure among Texas conservative grassroots leaders with Trump’s infrastructure plan.

“While some have called the Trump proposal DOA on Capitol Hill, we take nothing for granted and made the trip to D.C. to deliver it to the White House personally to ensure the President got the message from a BIG, red state with 38 electoral votes – we don’t want tolls!” declares Terri Hall, Founder/Director of Texans for Toll-free Highways and Texas TURF.

JoAnn Fleming, Executive Director for Grassroots America – We the People PAC stated, “We are much more confident that Texas – under the leadership of Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick – will make much sounder transportation decisions than the far-flung bureaucracy in Washington, which makes no actual progress in stopping wasteful practices or balancing the federal budget! This is why we support a federal block grant of our federal highway funds back to Texas with a bare minimum of federal strings.”

TURF hand-delivered copies to all U.S. House Members serving on the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, as well as all U.S. Senators serving on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (the committee that handles surface transportation legislation). In all, TURF visited more than 75 offices in D.C. last week, many of which were sit-down meetings with Congressional Members and the President’s senior staff.

The Coalition also delivered the letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, urging the Governor to stand strong against tolls as he promised to fix Texas roads without new toll taxes, (which he reiterated last fall as he directed the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to rework 15 toll projects to be completed without tolls). Last week, the Regional Transportation Council (RTC) proposed to defy the Governor, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, and other state elected officials, such as Sen. Bob Hall and Sen. Don Huffines, who represent the area. The RTC plan advocates adding two toll managed lanes as part of the expansion of I-635 E from US 75 to I-30. Rumblings from the Governor’s office appear to suggest he’ll go along.

Abbott’s Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Bruce Bugg made his intentions crystal clear in a letter to the RTC in March that he expected a non-toll solution or no deal. Angered by the apparent about-face, grassroots leaders have drawn a line in the sand and refuse to budge.

“Managed lanes are toll lanes. Tolls are taxes. This project is not toll viable per TxDOT’s own study and requires taxpayer subsidies. Everyone will pay for it, but only the few who can pay tolls (like the $1/mile on MoPac in Austin), will ever be able to afford to drive on them,” Terri Hall of TURF explains.

In 2015, the legislature passed House Bill 20, requiring TxDOT to put explicit policies in place to ensure the highest priority projects got funded first. Yet, that’s not what happened. The majority of the new funds were allocated to low priority projects, by design, so that TxDOT could claim there’s not enough money to fix the big urban projects. This incentivizes local governments to tap a toll revenue stream for the most congested roads, which creates unaccountable slush funds outside the reach of taxpayers.

Grassroots America’s Fleming says, “This is just another problem of TxDOT’s own making. The voters gave them $5 billion more per year in new funding (with passage of Prop 1 & 7), and they squandered it on low priority projects so they could cry poverty in urban areas and slap tolls on commuters already choking under the burden of toll taxes. Special corporate interests, promoted by anti-taxpayer local government shills, benefit most from these unfettered tolling and multi-leveraging schemes.”

Fleming added, “Working families across Texas have made it abundantly clear that they do not want more toll roads. In fact, 90% of Republican Primary voters approved of a March 6 ballot resolution that stated, ‘No governmental entity should ever construct or fund construction of toll roads without voter approval.’ This means the Republican base has Gov. Abbott’s back on his strong opposition to more toll roads and more debt. His base wants him to keep his campaign promises.”

The RTC’s actions indicate if local governments lobby the Governor and his Transportation Commission for toll ‘managed’ lanes, that they’ll consider giving toll projects a green light despite campaign promises.

“It’ll be used as a model by every other local board, and we’ll end up with tolls everywhere after the Governor promised no more,” Terri Hall predicts.

The Coalition applauds Abbott’s challenge to local governments on an array of anti-liberty and anti-taxpayer local ordinances, and they expect him to continue to keep his promises for the highway system directly under the jurisdiction of the State of Texas.

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Anti-toll candidates & Proposition win big in primaries

IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Anti-toll candidates, proposition won in GOP primaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

Trump plan to lift ban on tolling existing interstates draws scorn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chance at LBJ E fix without tolls scuttled by Transportation Commission delay

Unexpected delay by Commission puts non-toll fix to LBJ E in Dallas on hold
By JoAnn Fleming and Terri Hall

A showdown was expected at today’s Texas Transportation Commission meeting over Interstate-635 E as elected officials seeking to make good on their campaign promises to end tolls were butting heads with transportation interests seeking to lobby for more tolls. Thanks to the tireless work of Senator Bob Hall who had brought the various factions together, all the players from across the spectrum had agreed to advance a non-toll expansion of Interstate-635 E (from US-75 to Interstate 30) without tolls, sidelining tolled express lanes in accordance with the policy of Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, who recently pulled the plug on future toll roads in response to grassroots pressure. The non-toll plan is what appeared on today’s agenda.

However, to everyone’s surprise, Chairman Bruce Bugg announced that he would delay action on the project. He referred to a $1 billion funding gap between the old toll plan and the newly brokered non-toll version, but Transportation Director of the Regional Transportation Council Michael Morris very articulately begged to differ.

Morris laid out several scenarios of how the non-toll freeway expansion was fully funded and how it could move forward today without further delay. Even the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Deputy Executive Director Marc Williams testified the non-toll project was, in fact, ‘fiscally constrained,’ which means fully funded.

Morris believes there are at least five areas where the project costs should be reduced under the new plan, and both he and Hall strongly encouraged the commission to take action in today’s meeting and not delay this project another day.

This and 14 other toll projects were put on hold after Abbott and Patrick issued strong statements in November directing the highway commission to pull toll roads from the state’s plan and go back to the drawing board to get them done non-toll with existing taxes.

Hall, Morris, and the area’s Transportation Commissioner Victor Vandergriff were all blind-sided by the commission’s delay. Approval of the deal at today’s meeting would have been a win-win for all parties, especially Texas commuters and taxpayers. However, now it’s unclear as to how quickly the commission will act, whether it will be at its next meeting in February or indefinitely. Morris said any delay costs the taxpayers $5 million a month.

Hall stands with Abbott who promised to fix Texas roads without more taxes, fees, debt, or tolls.

“For an executive who can afford to take the toll lanes, he gets to race home and make himself a martini, but for the poor working guy, he has to decide whether to get home faster or whether he can buy the baby some milk,” Hall articulated.

“Tolls are a cruel form of taxation without representation. They’re punitive,” Hall noted.

He’s pointed out recently that toll taxes create a long-term penalty for the working class. At today’s average cost of $5.00 each direction, it will cost the family of a worker – over the course of their lifetimes – in excess of $135,000 for the ‘privilege’ of using the toll lane!.

“That’s like taking a home or a couple of college educations away from that family, while they face a daily fee that could well be the equivalent of a $25.00 per-gallon gasoline tax. This is an outrageously unacceptable tax burden,” Hall argues.

Tolls were once pushed as necessary to get projects funded, but with the advent of Prop 1 and Prop 7 as sources of new non-toll funding, officials have a way to get projects moving without the additional toll tax. Now the argument has become, tolls are necessary as a way to ‘manage’ traffic. It’s an attempt by government bureaucracies to ‘manage’ congestion through variable pricing, also known as congestion tolling. The more cars that use the managed lanes, the higher the toll in order to knock cars out of the lanes to maintain a certain speed in the toll lane. Meanwhile, the adjacent ‘free’ lanes remain congested for the foreseeable future.

Managed lanes signal the end of freeway expansion. When frustrated commuters demand more capacity, the bureaucrats’ answer will be carpool, get on a bus, pay the toll, or stay stuck in traffic. Some local politicians have bought into the thinking that the only way to address congestion is through tolls, which the majority of Texas voters reject (take a look at the Texas GOP platform).

When tolls under a managed lane scenario are already exceeding $1/mile on MoPac in Austin and over $4/mile to get into Washington D.C. today on I-66, this unsustainable, untenable situation must come to an end. Thanks to taxpayer heroes like Senator Bob Hall, congestion weary commuters on I-635 E have help on the way and the conservative grassroots has his back.

ATFI issues statement following leak of draft Trump White House Infrastructure plan

IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Alliance for Toll-free Interstates

Statement: Trump Tolls Would Help Wall Street, Hurt Main Street

(Richmond, VA, January 22, 2018) Following the leak of the draft Trump White House infrastructure plan, the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates issued the following statement, which can be attributed to spokesperson Stephanie Kane:

“The leaked Trump infrastructure plan is a complete reversal of President Trump’s commitment to putting America First. Although then-candidate Trump campaigned against lining the pockets of Wall Street and promised to be the voice for the working class, this plan does the opposite. President Trump is choosing Wall Street over Main Street. It would take money from hardworking Americans and give huge profits to toll road investors – many of which are foreign companies.

“The leaked document allows ‘states flexibility to toll on interstates’ and reconciles ‘the grandfathered restrictions on use of highway toll revenues with current law.’ That translates to a complete reversal of the current federal ban on tolling existing interstates. Tolls are simply a new tax. They are wildly inefficient, sacrificing money that could go toward construction instead going to corporate profits and administrative costs. In addition to the diversion onto secondary roads which causes congestion and public safety issues, tolls will do unimaginable harm to businesses, as shipping and manufacturing prices skyrocket to account for these new costs.

“The current Trump plan could result in a patchwork of tolls that span coast to coast. This plan is not innovative or good policy – it is simply a nationwide plan for #TrumpTolls. There is a real opportunity for a long-term solution to our transportation infrastructure needs, but it shouldn’t include tolling our interstates.”

To learn more about ATFI and join the Alliance, please visit TollFreeInterstates.com. Connect with the Alliance on Twitter at @No2Tolls and Facebook at facebook.com/TollFreeInterstates

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Abbott, Patrick: ‘No more tolls’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boom!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should voters promote pro-toll Burkett to senator?

Burkett wants highest possible toll taxes for constituents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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