BAIT & SWITCH: TxDOT yanks express lane, shrinks existing capacity on US 281 in Alamo city

UPDATE as of July 13, 2017:
TxDOT finally responded to our inquiries about this apparent bait & switch on the lane count on US 281. They produced the same schematic presented to the public and clarified the new lanes in the southern section are technically auxiliary lanes and transition lanes from the interchange, so they don’t technically count those in the lane number, however, there will be FOUR main lanes each direction up to Stone Oak Parkway.

Double crossed: Express lane taken away, turned into HOV-bus lane after new lane promised to public
Congestion weary commuters thought they’d finally get a break. Expansion of US 281 in San Antonio is set to go to construction on Sunday, July 17, but it’s not what the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) presented to the public. Today, US 281 has three general purpose lanes each direction (from Loop 1604 to Evans Rd.). The plan  was to add an additional HOV-bus lane, overpasses (so cars can bypass those wretched stop lights impeding traffic flow), and to build frontage roads to the outside of the existing highway.However, the plan now shows only two express lanes each direction and one HOV/bus lane. So they’re taking away an existing express lane and shrinking the expressway from three down to two. The unelected bureaucrats at TxDOT and the local transportation boards point you to the new frontage roads as the new capacity.281 schematic from July 2017TxDOT’s explanation as of July 10, 2017: The $192 million project to expand US 281 to a six-lane expressway with frontage roads between LP 1604 and Stone Oak Parkway will begin on July 17. The finished product will have three express lanes in each direction, one of those lanes being reserved for transit and carpool vehicles. Frontage roads will match the existing road today with two or three lanes each way.

I went to Jacobs Engineering to review the plans a year ago to ensure there would be four main lanes each way — three general purpose lanes and one HOV-bus lane each direction (because this has been a bone of contention for over a decade). Now, that’s not what they’re going to build according to a new schematic being promoted by TxDOT. Too bad so sad for John Q taxpayer, though. They pulled a fast one and they’re going to construction this weekend.

April 30, 2016 Official Jacobs schematic for 281 & EncinoRio - click to view detail

Bait & Switch: This is what was presented in the final public Open House for the US 281 project in May 2016. We obtained this directly from the consultant doing the schematics, Jacobs Engineering. Compare this to the schematic above and you’ll see they’re shrinking exisiting highway capacity and converting an existing general purpose lane into a restricted HOV-bus lane, which violates both current law and a law that takes effect on September 1 — a law we worked to get in place for precisely this reason — to prevent TxDOT from intentionally causing congestion on our public highways by converting existing lanes into toll lanes or other restricted lanes and crediting frontage roads as the new ‘highway’ capacity.

To add insult to injury, Webber got the contract. Webber Construction passes itself off as an American company, but it’s a subsidiary of Ferrovial, the parent company of Spain-based Cintra who tried to privatize and toll US 281 back in 2005. It’s also the company that went bankrupt on the first Texas public-private toll project, SH 130. Of course, nothing is coincidence when you’re dealing with a crony system deliberately set-up to abuse taxpayers by allowing unelected bureaucrats to direct contracts to well-connected companies. Cintra’s lobbyists have been alive and well at TxDOT and in the state capitol since toll roads became Rick Perry’s legacy 15 years ago.

The timing is suspect, too. Anti-toll groups just passed a new state law that protects taxpayers against the conversion of an existing general purpose lane into an HOV or toll lane (or from having a general purpose lane downgraded to a frontage road). However, it doesn’t take effect until September 1.

Many consider Texas the cradle of liberty and a bastion of limited government conservatism. But who let’s a state agency abuse taxpayers and deliberately thumb their noses at a state law they know is coming online that was passed by wide margins by the people’s duly elected officials? Who sits idly by and allows bureaucrats to overrule their elected representatives and sneak in a change that shrinks highway capacity and will do irreparable harm to a major U.S. highway for a generation? Apparently Alamo city state and local elected officials will unless the people speak up.

Texans angered over SH 130 bankruptcy deal that wipes out money owed to taxpayers

Zero: Money owed taxpayers for SH 130 toll road erased by bankruptcy court

The defunct SH 130 tollway just emerged from bankruptcy court and the news isn’t good for taxpayers. In 2007, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) entered into a Comprehensive Development Agreement, or public private partnership, with SH 130 Concession Company, a subsidiary of Spain-based Cintra and Zachry Toll Road 56, which had ownership dispersed among Australian and many other foreign entities. The 41-mile southern stretch of SH 130 opened in November 2012, designed to be a bypass around congested downtown Austin. But the traffic never materialized and the private concession company sought bankruptcy protection in March 2016. According to the terms that emerged from bankruptcy court, all of the private entity’s $1.4 billion debt was wiped away, leaving federal taxpayers left holding the bag for the $430 million federally-backed Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan given to the private entities.

Texas taxpayers feel betrayed. Former Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson swore under oath before the Senate Transportation Committee on March 1, 2007, that if the private entities went bankrupt, the Texas taxpayers would get the road back free and clear of any debt. Free and clear means no debt obligations, and therefore no need to continue to charge tolls for usage. However, that didn’t happen. Instead, new owners were brought in, Strategic Value Partners, $260 million in new debt was issued, and the new private company will continue to charge tolls until the contract is up in 2062 — for a road that now owes virtually no debt compared to its original $1.4 billion.

The Build America Bureau, an arm of the federal government, is also a 34 percent owner in the new deal, as a move to placate the expected taxpayer backlash for having the taxpayers’ original federal loan wiped out by the court. Specializing in distressed assets, Strategic Value Partners is yet another global company with offices in Connecticut, England, Germany and Japan.

Some are asking why the state of Texas didn’t step in and insist the public interest was protected and defended in bankruptcy court. Taxpayers have a right to know why they didn’t get the road back, why their $430 million federal TIFIA loan was wiped out, and why they have to continue paying tolls for another 45 years to use a road that’s lost $1.2 billion of its $1.4 billion original value. The state also had a revenue sharing agreement with the previous owners, Cintra-Zachry. Will the state ever see any of that promised toll revenue?

Track record of failure
This isn’t the first time the taxpayers ended up on the losing end of such a public-private toll road deal. The South Bay Expressway in San Diego went bankrupt in less than three years of operation, and federal taxpayers were forced to write down nearly $80 million on that federal TIFIA loan in 2011 — a loss of 42 percent. There’s a growing list of toll road failures, yet these private equity firms know how to make money even when they go bankrupt through tax benefits and by how they set-up their complicated corporate structures.  They funnel everything through their own subsidiaries. The deals are set-up so that one arm pays the other a host of fees (management fees, transaction fees, etc.) and oftentimes even pays the company’s own construction firm to build the project, among other gimmicks.

Short-seller investor and president of Kynikos Associates, Jim Chanos, recently felt the need to remind Americans that the techniques used by Australian company, Macquarie Group, under public private partnerships are politically unpopular, and rather than drain the swamp, put Wall Street over Main Street.

”In my own view, these public-private projects are not what core supporters thought they were getting with Trump. It’s going to be great for Wall Street investment banks, but I’m skeptical that a lot of people are going to be able to get excited about the economic growth coming from them,” Chanos said in a June interview with Institute for New Economic Thinking.

The critic credited with being the first to spot Enron’s financial fraud compares Macquarie’s financial antics to a Ponzi scheme. With President Donald Trump signaling he wants to push public private partnerships and toll roads as a major part of his $1 trillion infrastructure plan, it’s necessary to sound the alarm bells anew.

Gotcha provisions that come back to haunt taxpayers
These corporations have an army of lawyers to ensure their investors get a return on their investment, so aside from the public subsidies, they find creative ways to further socialize every potential loss through ‘compensation events,’ ‘non-compete clauses’ (that prohibit or penalize the expansion of free routes), ‘adverse event’ triggers, and even manipulation of speed limits on free routes.

Texas taxpayers are also paying to subsidize truck toll rates to get truckers to take SH 130 ($18.7 million/yr). While the subsidies only technically apply to TxDOT’s section of SH 130, it still provides indirect relief to the private section of SH 130 by increasing the number of truck toll payers. Private equity firms also force taxpayers to pay for other losses like uncollectible tolls, and they use the state as their toll collector – giving them access to the power to block vehicle registration for failure to pay a toll.

Anti-toll advocates say giving that kind of power to private corporations that the people cannot hold accountable gives up the state’s sovereignty over public infrastructure and critical corridors that are the very lifeblood of the Texas economy. They say no elected official should cede control of public roads, and therefore hand the keys of the Texas economy, over to private corporations in such sweetheart deals.

Revolving door
Deirdre Delisi, former Chair of Texas Transportation Commission, is now a new board member for Strategic Value Partners. Strategic Value Partners could be cashing in on her inside connections to TxDOT since this road has major structural and pavement issues yet to be resolved with TxDOT. According to a San Antonio Express-News investigative report, “The end of the road,” by Katherine Bluntpublished in September 2016, an independent contractor, HDR engineering, found 160 pavement defects in its 2014 inspection. In a letter to the company in 2015, the state notes, “TxDOT remains concerned with the short-term and long-term deficiencies related to the pavement conditions.”

In addition to the pavement deficiencies, TxDOT also found Cintra-Zachry to be in ‘persistent developer default’ (defined as 52 or more breaches in a one-year period), which encompasses not only the pavement deficiencies, but also other areas of its contract, constituting a breach of contract. The concession company had amassed 122 in just 2015 alone. Plus, there has been a significant increase in flooding events since the road was built, leaving homeowners in the area with 30 inches of water in their homes at times.

TxDOT said this, too, was a breach of contract, and demanded the company construct detention ponds at a cost of $1.4 million. Texas taxpayers and homeowners have a right to know if these pavement defects, flooding problems, and persistent developer defaults will be remediated by the new owners per the original contract or whether this, too, will be wiped away by the bankruptcy court or by undue influence exerted by Delisi, as a board member of the new company with close ties inside TxDOT.

A coalition of anti-toll and conservative grassroots groups are asking Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to insist the new owners comply with the original contract by making needed repairs at no extra cost to Texas taxpayers and determine why Texans did not get the highway back, allowing it to become toll-free. In the meantime, Texans will continue to pay tolls to a group of foreign investors for a generation.

Reforms make it to Governor’s desk

IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: Terri Hall, Director
Texas TURF, & Texans for Toll-free Highways
(210) 275-0640

 

Anti-toll reforms finally pass Texas legislature

Reforms changed in conference, but still cripple future toll roads

(Austin, TX – Sunday, May 28, 2017) As the Texas legislature comes to a close tomorrow, a must-pass bill to continue the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), SB 312, cleared its final hurdle yesterday evening. The House passed a strong anti-toll bill May 17, adding several good anti-toll measures pushed by grassroots pro-taxpayer groups for over a decade. But rather than concur with the strong House version, the Senate chose to reject the House version (which signaled trouble ahead), forcing both the House and Senate to appoint a conference committee to work out the differences in the bill.

This is where the chicanery usually happens, and it did.

The House suspended the rules and rushed a vote to concur with the conference committee’s changes and the Senate followed before it adjourned Saturday evening as well – pushing passage of a 100-page bill before anyone could read what was in it.

The rules governing conference committees are very limited. Conferees cannot add anything into a bill that isn’t already in either version the House or Senate passed. They essentially decide what amendments stay in or get removed. However, loopholes and exceptions were added to SB 312, and the House and Senate authors did not fully notice their colleagues of the loopholes and completely new language they added.

For example, at the very end of this lengthy bill in Section 78 pertaining to the prohibition on an HOV lane being converted into a toll lane, it grants a new exception for all projects that are contained in the state’s air quality implementation plan prior to September 1, 2017. This means virtually every managed toll lane project on the books in Houston and Dallas-Ft. Worth — the Texas cities that are in non-attainment for federal air quality standards — can still convert an existing HOV lane into a toll lane, despite both chambers voting to prohibit it.

This exception was not deemed a significant problem in committee nor did it prevent passage by the full Senate when Sen. Bob Hall’s SB 1143 (which is the same language of the amendment tacked onto SB 312 in the House) passed, 29-2. Yet new language was suddenly required at the eleventh hour and was added into the bill without adequately notifying lawmakers of the change that impacts several projects, including one important to Hall’s constituents, where an HOV lane on I-635 East is slated to be converted to a toll lane.

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst and Rep. Joe Pickett‘s amendment, which was a bill that had already passed the Senate, SB 812, also had completely new language inserted. Their amendment requires toll project entities to repay any funds they receives from the state. The public resents having their ‘free’ road funds going into toll roads then having to pay again to use them. The state currently grants most toll entities road taxes to the tune of $10 billion and has rarely required any of those funds to be repaid to the state. In fact, the local toll agencies get to keep most, if not all, of the toll revenues locally.

Both the House and Senate voted to stop unrestricted grants of highway funds to toll projects and require funds to be repaid, yet a handful of conferees overruled them to allow toll projects as far back as January 1, 2014, to move forward without requiring repayment of those funds if the environmental review on those projects had commenced by that date.

“The whole purpose of this amendment is to require funds to be repaid on any project that isn’t already operating as a toll road. To retroactively continue this abuse not only betrays the legislative actions taken by the majority of the House and Senate, it also betrays the taxpayers forcing the double taxation to continue,” concluded Terri Hall, Founder/Director of Texas TURF and Texans for Toll-free highways.

For whom the bill tolls
An amendment by Rep. Ina Minjarez sought to remove criminal penalties for toll violations and drastically reduce the administrative fees and fines that could be levied against motorists. It passed by an overwhelming majority in the House by a vote of 136-3. Yet, this same handful of conferees put criminal penalties back into the bill. The House debated the criminal penalties and overwhelmingly decided to remove them. They felt strongly that no Texan should be made a criminal or have their ability to drive taken away for failure to pay a fine/fee. It’s a throw back to debtors prisons.

The new language actually captures more people as ‘violators’ by making them a criminal if they simply haven’t paid a single toll after supposedly receiving two bills. The toll could be for one trip for $.20 or $2.00 and they’ll now be punished under what used to be a habitual toll violator with 100 or more unpaid toll transactions.

Many Texans complain they never receive the first bill from the toll entity and then later get a late payment notice after being put into collections, erroneously, and after penalties are already imposed. This happened to Rep. Tom Oliverson who described his outrage at the experience during the House debate on SB 312 leading up to the overwhelming adoption of the Minjarez amendment to de-criminalize.

“Though special interests and their lobbyists attempted to undo the intent of what they see as hostile legislation to their existence and add and remove language outside the public purview, anti-toll groups delivered a major blow to future toll roads in Texas with passage of SB 312,” Hall declared.

Perhaps the biggest victory of all was killing the bill to re-authorize public private partnership toll roads, HB 2861. Nineteen Texas highways would have been handed over in government-sanctioned monopolies giving private, foreign corporations the exclusive right to extract the highest possible toll in 50-year sweetheart deals. That era is now over. There’s also plenty to celebrate in SB 312.

Anti-toll reforms in SB 312:

1) Texans will now be protected from having their free lanes converted to toll lanes or having their free lanes downgraded to frontage roads.
2) Despite the exceptions added, HOV lanes cannot be converted into toll lanes.
3) Toll administrative fees will be capped at $48/year, and any criminal fines are capped at $250/year (versus the current system where thousands can be tacked on).
4) Tolls will be removed from Camino Columbia toll road in Laredo and the Cesar Chavez toll project in El Paso (after a vote by local El Paso officials who have indicated they support removing the tolls). This sets an important precedent to get tolls removed from other projects.
5) Any state funds for toll projects that had environmental review commence by January 1, 2014, must be repaid. The grant/subsidy, double tax gravy train is now over.

Taxpayers pushed for over a decade to get these reforms in place and finally got them in SB 312. While there’s still much work to be done to completely reform toll policy in Texas, the majority of the heavy lifting began with passage of SB 312 last night.

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TxDOT bill hijacked by toll lobby, loopholes diminish anti-toll progress

Hastily approved TxDOT sunset bill offers some toll relief, but riddled with new loopholes

As the Texas legislature comes to a close tomorrow, the antics of some lawmakers warrants scrutiny when it comes to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) sunset bill, SB 312, that passed yesterday evening. The House passed a strong anti-toll bill May 17, adding several good anti-toll measures pushed by grassroots pro-taxpayer groups for over a decade. SB 312 must pass or the highway department goes away. Rather than concur with the House version, the Senate chose to reject the House version (which signaled trouble ahead), forcing both the House and Senate to appoint a conference committee to work out the differences in the bill.

This is where the chicanery usually happens, and it did.

The Texas Legislature web site did not have SB 312’s conference committee report available to be viewed by the public until after 2 PM Saturday. It was not eligible to be voted on until 2:10 PM Sunday, yet the House suspended the rules and rushed a vote to concur with the conference committee’s changes at 6:30 PM. The Senate did the same before it adjourned Saturday evening as well — pushing passage of a 100-page bill before anyone could read what was in it.

The rules governing conference committees are very limited. Conferees cannot add anything into a bill that isn’t already in either version the House or Senate passed. They essentially decide what amendments stay in or get removed. On rare occasions, they could go to their colleagues and ask them to vote to go ‘outside the bounds’ of what a conference committee can do in order to add in new language under strict limits if lawmakers agree. However, loopholes and exceptions were added to SB 312, and the House and Senate authors did not fully notice their colleagues of the loopholes and completely new language they added.

For example, at the very end of this lengthy bill in Section 78 pertaining to the prohibition on an HOV lane being converted into a toll lane, it grants a new exception for all projects that are contained in the state’s air quality implementation plan prior to September 1, 2017. This means virtually every managed toll lane project in Houston and Dallas-Ft. Worth, the Texas cities that are in non-attainment for federal air quality standards, can still convert an existing HOV lane into a toll lane, despite both chambers voting to prohibit it.

This exception was not deemed a significant problem in committee nor did it prevent passage by the full Senate when Sen. Bob Hall’s SB 1143 (which is the same language of the amendment tacked onto SB 312 in the House) passed, 29-2. Yet new language was suddenly required at the eleventh hour and was added into the bill without adequately notifying lawmakers of the change that impacts several projects, including one important to Hall’s constituents, where an HOV lane on I-635 East is slated to be converted to a toll lane.

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst and Rep. Joe Pickett’s amendment, which was a bill that had already passed the Senate, SB 812, also had completely new language inserted. Their amendment requires toll project entities to repay any funds they receive from the state. The public resents having their ‘free’ road funds going into toll roads then having to pay again to use them. The state currently grants most toll entities road taxes to the tune of $10 billion and has rarely required any of those funds to be repaid to the state. In fact, the local toll agencies get to keep most, if not all, of the toll revenues locally.

Both the House and Senate voted to stop this unrestricted gravy train and require funds to be repaid, yet a handful of conferees overruled them to allow toll projects as far back as January 1, 2014, to move forward without requiring repayment of those funds if the environmental review on those projects had commenced by that date. The whole purpose of this legislation is to require funds to be repaid on any project that isn’t already operating as a toll road. Lawmakers should, at a minimum, demand TxDOT produce a list of just how many toll projects this exception allows to move forward without repaying the taxpayers.

For whom the bill tolls
An amendment by Rep. Ina Minjarez sought to remove criminal penalties for toll violations and drastically reduce the administrative fees and fines that could be levied against motorists. It passed by an overwhelming majority in the House by a vote of 136-3. Yet, this same handful of conferees put criminal penalties back into the bill. The House debated the criminal penalties and overwhelmingly decided to remove them. They felt strongly that no Texan should be made a criminal or have their ability to drive taken away for failure to pay a fine/fee. It’s a throw back to debtors prisons.

The new language actually captures more people as ‘violators’ by making them a criminal if they simply haven’t paid a single toll after supposedly receiving two bills. The toll could be for one trip for $.20 or $2.00 and they’ll now be punished under what used to be a habitual toll violator with 100 or more unpaid toll transactions.

Many Texans complain they never receive the first bill from the toll entity and then later get a late payment notice after being put into collections, erroneously, and after penalties are already imposed. This happened to Rep. Tom Oliverson who described his outrage at the experience during the House debate on SB 312 leading up to the overwhelming adoption of the Minjarez amendment to de-criminalize. The House never even made a whimper, nor did it express any outrage at the conferees trampling on the intent of their amendment and hence thousands of Texans who fall victim to this toll violation nightmare when they voted to adopt SB 312’s conference committee report in haste last night.

With the public trust in government at an all time low, the Texas legislature delivered more fodder to get voters angry. The flagrant violation of the legislature’s own rules and lack of transparency alone, much less the content of what was passed, provides enough angst to warrant accountability for those who perpetrated it. The way conference committees roll in Texas is taxpayers take a back seat to government lobbyists who undo the intent of what they see as hostile legislation to their existence and add or remove language, at will, outside the public purview. Conferees are not supposed to rewrite legislation on the fly behind closed doors and fail to fully inform or get permission from their colleagues.

The ten conferees — Senators Robert Nichols, Kirk Watson, Chuy Hinojosa, Kelly Hancock, and Van Taylor, and Representatives Larry Gonzales, Geanie Morrison, Richard Raymond, Cindy Burkett, and Senfronia Thompson — hijacked the House amendments in order to allow toll entities to continue as usual under the status quo when both the Senate and House decidedly voted to restrain tolling and bring greater protection to the driving public from runaway toll taxation, fines, and fees that are financially straining many Texans.

There are some shiny spots in this otherwise gloomy picture, however. Perhaps the biggest victory of all was killing the bill to re-authorize public private partnership toll roads, HB 2861. Nineteen Texas highways would have been handed over in government-sanctioned monopolies giving private, foreign corporations the exclusive right to extract the highest possible toll in 50-year sweetheart deals. That era is now over. There is still plenty to celebrate in SB 312 as well.

Anti-toll reforms in SB 312:
1) Texans will now be protected from having their free lanes converted to toll lanes or having their free lanes downgraded to frontage roads.
2) Despite the exceptions added, HOV lanes cannot be converted into toll lanes.
3) Toll administrative fees will be capped at $48/year, and any criminal fines are capped at $250/year (versus the current system where thousands can be tacked on).
4) Tolls will be removed from Camino Columbia toll road in Laredo and the Cesar Chavez toll project in El Paso (after a vote by local El Paso officials who have indicated they support removing the tolls). This sets an important precedent to get tolls removed from other projects.
5) Any state funds for toll projects that had environmental review commence by January 1, 2014, must be repaid. The grant/subsidy, double tax gravy train is now over.

Taxpayers pushed for over a decade to get these reforms in place and finally got them in SB 312. However, the temptation to do a victory lap is tainted by the conference committee’s actions that left the bill riddled with exceptions and loopholes that must be addressed in a future session. Now it’s time to hold key players accountable for what they did.

HB 2861 Record Vote

Those who voted to hand 19 TX roads to private, foreign toll operators are:
Yeas 51 — Allen; Alonzo; Alvarado; Are´valo; Blanco; Burkett; Button; Coleman; Collier; Cortez; Elkins; Farrar; Flynn; Geren; Giddings; Gooden; Guerra; Gutierrez; Hernandez; Howard; Huberty; Israel; Johnson, E.; King, K.; King, P.; Koop; Longoria; Lucio; Martinez; Moody; Morrison; Murphy; Neave; Oliveira; Ortega; Perez; Phillips; Raymond; Rodriguez, E.; Rodriguez, J.; Rose; Sheffield; Shine; Smithee; Thompson, E.; Thompson, S.; Turner; Uresti; Villalba; Walle; Workman.

 

Taxpayer champions who voted against are:
Nays 82 — Anderson, C.; Anderson, R.; Bailes; Bell; Biedermann; Bohac; Bonnen, D.; Bonnen, G.; Burns; Burrows; Cain; Canales; Capriglione; Clardy; Cosper; Craddick; Cyrier; Dale; Darby; Dean; Deshotel; Dukes; Dutton; Faircloth; Fallon; Frank; Frullo; Goldman; Gonzales; Gonza´lez; Hefner; Herrero; Holland; Hunter; Isaac; Kacal; Keough; King, T.; Klick; Krause; Lambert; Landgraf; Lang; Larson; Laubenberg; Leach; Lozano; Metcalf; Meyer; Miller; Mun˜oz; Murr; Neva´rez; Oliverson; Parker; Paul; Phelan; Pickett; Price; Raney; Reynolds; Rinaldi; Roberts; Romero; Schaefer; Schofield; Schubert; Shaheen; Simmons; Springer; Stephenson; Stickland; Stucky; Swanson; Thierry; Tinderholt; VanDeaver; White; Wilson; Wray; Zedler; Zerwas.

Absent, Excused — Anchia; Paddie; Wu.
Absent, Excused, Committee Meeting — Ashby; Davis, S.; Davis, Y.; Sanford.
Absent Unexcused — Bernal; Cook; Gervin-Hawkins; Guillen; Hinojosa; Johnson, J.; Kuempel; Minjarez; Vo.

Source: House Journal Recorded Vote

See press release: VICTORY: Grassroots KILL private toll bill, secure Abbott’s vision for toll-free future

VICTORY: Grassroots KILL private toll bill…

IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: Terri Hall, (210) 275-0640

 

Defeat of private toll road bill affirms Abbott’s pledge to voters 
Promise to fix roads without new tolls or debt gets bipartisan support

(Austin, TX – Friday, May 5, 2017) Texas taxpayers can breathe a sigh of relief tonight as a bipartisan effort to defeat expansion of private toll roads in Texas went down in flames by a vote of 79-51 in the Texas House. Taxpayer champions Rep. Jeff Leach (R – Plano), Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R – Bedford), and Rep. Joe Pickett (D – El Paso) led the floor fight, noting 90% of Democrats and 95% of Republicans oppose new toll roads in Texas, and both party platforms oppose privatized toll roads in particular. Governor Greg Abbott promised to fix Texas roads without new tolls or debt, and the Texas House delivered on that promise today by killing Rep. Larry Phillips HB 2861.

Pickett and Stickland made impassioned speeches opposing the bill. Leach emphasized both party platforms oppose this type of toll project and that the voters just gave the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) $5 billion a year in new funding by passing Proposition 1 and Proposition 7.

He asked the bill’s author, “Why do we need this bill now?”

Then Leach directly asked Pickett whether or not the House needed to pass HB 2861 to get the projects done, and he answered with a firm, ‘No.’

Stickland bluntly argued the reason why he’s now serving in the House is because his predecessor Todd Smith voted to turn 183 and 121 into toll roads that devastated his community. He intimated that voters took out their vengeance by electing a new representative.

“My constituents hate it,” asserted Stickland, referring to the privatized toll roads that run through Ft. Worth that are locked into 50 year contracts operated by Spain-based Cintra.

Pickett sounded the alarm about the need to draw a line in the sand, “If we don’t stop it now, it’s never going to stop.”

He warned that passage of HB 2861 would dig the debt-toll road sinkhole even deeper and told his colleagues that Prop 1 and Prop 7 expire, and they’re going to have to address the debt problem very soon. He also shared frustration that neither he nor the public has any idea where all this toll revenue is going. It lacks transparency and gets eaten up by the toll road bureaucracies, or in this case, the private entities the public cannot hold accountable.

“This is so people can make money,” contended Pickett.

Terri Hall, Founder and Director of Texans Uniting for Reform and Reform (TURF) and Texans for Toll-free Highways hailed the defeat of HB 2861, “A bipartisan coalition swept the Rick Perry-era of toll roads aside, and today we officially started the Abbott era that firmly opposes new toll roads, especially privatized toll roads that give an exclusive right to a single company to extract the highest possible toll from the traveling public for a half century at a time.”

JoAnn Fleming, Executive Director of Grassroots America – We the People agrees, “A broad coalition of groups across Texas made it clear that they would not tolerate the expansion of private toll roads and the corporate welfare they represent to continue to spread like a cancer across the Lone Star State. We applaud the work of our champions in the House and thank the Governor for his leadership in firmly setting a new course away from debt and toll roads and moving forward with a new fiscally responsible, sustainable future.”

Roads in HB 2861:
– I-35 in Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio
– I-45 in Houston
– Hwy 290 (Hempstead Tollway) Houston
– I-30 in Ft. Worth
– I-635 E in Dallas
– Loop 1604 in San Antonio
– 290 W in Austin (from MoPac to Oak Hill)
– South MoPac in Austin
– South Padre Island Second Access Causeway
– International Bridge Corridor Project
– Hidalgo County Loop project
– FM 1925 in Cameron & Hidalgo Counties
– Hwy 83 Hidalgo County
– Hwy 68 in Hidalgo County
– Outer Pkwy in Cameron County
– Loop 49 in Tyler (two projects)

Hall concludes, “Special interests continue to push these ‘innovative’ financing schemes despite the public opposition because private toll contracts and design-build procurements drive up the cost to build, putting more money into the pockets of road builders at great expense to Texas taxpayers. Our elected representatives just said, ‘No more.’ You’re not going to gouge our citizens just to get to work.”

See article: HB 2861 Record Vote

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Secret agreement handed private toll firm control of public roads

How sad that this happened just days before we celebrate Texas Indepenence Day, March 2.

City hands control over public roads to private firm
By Terri Hall
March 1, 2017

In a stunning betrayal of open government, the Cibolo City Council voted 6-0 to approve a 50 year development agreement with Texas Turnpike Corporation (TTC) granting it the exclusive right to build, operate and maintain what’s been dubbed the Cibolo Parkway — a tollway linking I-35 to I-10 through mostly rural farmland northeast of San Antonio. The agreement was negotiated behind closed doors and was kept secret from the public until it was approved last night.

Even worse, the city council gave TTC the rights to develop a project the taxpayers have already paid for, the expansion of FM 1103, the city’s primary connection to I-35. By doing so, they’ve granted a private corporation a virtual monopoly over the existing non-toll competitor to its private toll road. TTC can intentionally slow down the free option to force more cars onto its for-profit toll road by manipulating speed limits, access points, and stop lights. It’s a developer’s dream and a commuter’s worst nightmare.

The city tried to reassure residents there is no non-compete clause, prohibiting or penalizing the city from building any competing free roads. The agreement may still bind the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the county from expanding free roads. But who knows since no member of the public could see it before the council voted on it? So while the city touts it’s protected taxpayers from a non-compete provision, it handed TTC control of the adjacent competing free lanes of FM 1103, achieving a form of a non-compete out the gate.

The agreement offers no way out for the city, except an eventual buy out opportunity after the road gets built. But those buy out agreements are just as thorny as these complex development contracts. Most private toll road developers require the public entity to pay them for any future loss in toll revenue, often making it more expensive to buy them out than the original cost to build it.

One has to wonder how any elected official could green light approval of a project before a toll feasibility study has been performed, the environmental review complete, or final route selected. It’s worse than putting the cart before the horse, it’s putting special interests above the public interest. The company insisted on having an irrevocable agreement in place with the city before it invested $10-$12 million for the feasibility study. Nice work if you can get it, but what about the taxpayer?

No formal public hearings were hosted by TxDOT to notify residents of the proposed project, so unless you happen to look at the city council agenda every two weeks, a resident had no way of knowing what just happened, much less have the ability to stop it since the majority of it was done behind closed doors with a private entity.

Throwing landowners under the bus
Cibolo has become a bedroom community of San Antonio, but before homes stacked the landscape, Cibolo’s roots were decidedly agricultural with farming and ranching dating back to Texas’ days as a republic. The mayor and council weren’t afraid to show their intentions when public discussion about this possible private toll road began to surface last year. Their primary interest is in economic development, which is code for flipping farmland into a commercial tax base. The city acted so desperate for new economic development, it signaled to TTC that it would sell out its current residents for the promise of a higher tax base from its new ones.

The southern boundary of the city that was most recently annexed occurred over the objection of many landowners. Now their worst fears have been realized as a private developer who cozied up to the mayor and council got himself an iron clad contract to mow them over and change their way of life. Roads are disruptive to the native landscape and often split farms in half. Many will not be able to continue farming or even have the ability to access the other side of their property without an overpass (built at the developer’s expense, which isn’t going to happen in most cases). That’s the city’s intent – to drive out the farmers and welcome in big box stores generating lots of sales tax for it to spend. New residents, more traffic, and, they hope, more riders for the toll road.

Eminent domain for private gain
The city has agreed to use eminent domain to take land from its residents and confer it to a private entity for private gain, not for a legitimate public use. While the road is open to the public (so is a mall or restaurant) if they pay a toll, this arrangement is for a private toll road whose corporation will use the city’s police force to become its private toll collector and speed enforcer.

John Crew Public WerksWhile the politicians argued eminent domain would only be used as a last resort, that’s the club TTC’s CEO John Crew needs to get landowners to sign over their land in negotiated settlements. We’ve seen it used prolifically — sign on the dotted line for the amount we’re offering or we’ll take it with eminent domain and pay you even less.

Numbers don’t add up
In town of just 25,000 residents, it’s hard to conceive of how any toll road could be profitable. The city must be banking on literally hundreds of thousands of new residents to make the numbers work. Cities with populations over a million and lots of urban congestion have toll roads that can’t pay for themselves. It just doesn’t add up that this little city will provide enough users to pay back $125 million plus interest, plus profit over 50 years. No elected official has any control over the eventual toll rates that will be charged. So there is no cap or limit. While the consultants tried to say the free market would keep rates in check, roads by their very nature are a monopoly. Just ask the residents in Ft. Worth and Dallas who are paying a private Spanish firm in excess of $20/day in tolls to get to work if they think that’s market rate or reasonable.

But numbers and data don’t matter. The city council seems to think they’re getting something for nothing — even if the toll road goes bankrupt, they get it back at a fire sale price. But the private company knows how to make money even when a toll road goes bankrupt. They put in very little of their own money and borrow the rest. The developer makes their money on the front end so that when it goes south, it’s the bond holders who are at risk, not the developer. If the road goes into bankruptcy, the road will remain operational, but control then gets handed to the bond investors in bankruptcy court where a bunch of the debt gets written down and off the books and the investors hire another operator, starting the process all over again. Control does not revert back to the public or the city. Only if the city exercises its buy out option would the residents get it back under public control.

Taxpayer money in play
The city manager and its lawyers bragged the city had no financial risk in the deal, yet, ironically, the city had to hire extra legal and engineering consultants to review the agreement, which is, of course, at taxpayer expense. There’s more to come since next up is negotiating the formal operating agreement. Policing of this private toll road will also be done by city police. While the developer is supposedly responsible for paying to hire the extra personnel, who is responsible for those public employees’ pensions, benefits, etc.? I’d bet money it’s the taxpayers. Who will collect the tolls and what enforcement does the private company have access to? If it’s anything like the SH 130 tollway, TxDOT does the toll collection and state law allows a user’s vehicle registration to be blocked for failure to play tolls, even when it’s for a private toll road.

The city, like TxDOT, loves to claim the road and right of way is still technically owned by the city and hence the public, but that’s only so the private toll company can use the public’s policing and enforcement powers for its for-profit toll enterprises. For tax purposes, these corporations show ownership and depreciate it like an asset.

Then there’s the tax money it would take to buy out the private developer at some point in the future. No matter how you slice it, Cibolo residents just got sold out by their elected officials. They’ve lost control of FM 1103, the ability to determine the toll rates, the route, the exits, the overpasses, the toll collection procedures, and a whole bunch more. Taxpayers will be paying for extra consultants and legal haggling for the foreseeable future. Accountability at the ballot box will now be your only recourse. Sadly, there are no remaining pain-free options.

Tolls aren’t necessary, do what the public voted for

Link to Op/Ed here.

Use Prop 1, Prop 7 funds to fix Loop 1604 without tolls
By Terri Hall
Founder, Texans for Toll-free Highways
February 28, 2017
San Antonio Express-News

Much in the same way taxpayers got the message about tolls being inevitable on US 281 and I-10, the Express-News editorial told our community, ‘Tolls are necessary, deal with it.’ Taxpayers don’t appreciate being told what to do, especially when it comes to the long arm of government reaching into our wallets. Contrary to the narrative, tolls are no longer a ‘user fee’ where only those who use the toll lanes pay for them. When $326 million in our gas taxes will be used to subsidize the construction of toll lanes inside Loop 1604, everyone will pay for them. But only the select few who can fork over up to $23 a day in tolls will be able to use them.

That’s right. The plan calls for dynamic tolling where the toll rate changes in real time and can reach the maximum during peak hours, which is $.50/mile. So if you need to drive all 23 miles during rush hour, you’re looking at $23/day in new toll taxes to use lanes your gas taxes helped pay to build. That’s double taxation and warrants a taxpayer revolt. Tolls, once imposed, tend to never disappear. If it’s one thing a government bureaucrat won’t give up, it’s an unaccountable revenue stream in the hands of unelected boards. They can always find a use for your money.

Local elected officials are banking on voters having a short memory. They want you to forget about passage of Prop 1 and Prop 7 that together with the end to most gas tax diversions will boost the highway fund nearly $5 billion more per year. A recent report states that an additional $80 billion in new road funds will be available in the next 10 years. Yet the Express-News says there’s still not enough money, and you miserly taxpayers should agree to a gas tax hike, tolls, and anything else they can dream up to steal your money, like the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority’s agenda to secure another hike in your vehicle registration fee. This is AFTER the $10 fee hike Bexar county elected officials got passed in 2013.

Let’s not forget Governor Greg Abbott’s campaign promise to fix our roads without raising taxes, fees, tolls, or debt. He unveiled his Texas Clear Lanes Initiative last year promising Prop 1 and Prop 7 funds would go to the most congested roads across the state. Yet the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) chose to spend our community’s new funds on lower priority projects so that they can profit off of the congestion on the north side and impose tolls. In fact, Loop 1604 on the south and east side of town will get Loop 1604 expanded without tolls, while north side commuters are told ‘tolls are necessary, deal with it.’

Taxpayers should not stand for a targeted, discriminatory toll tax to be imposed on the north side against their will. The AAMPO votes on it March 27. Make your voices heard.

Keep Free Lanes Free Act filed by Taylor, Sanford

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

SENATOR VAN TAYLOR AND REPRESENTATIVE SCOTT SANFORD FILE LEGISLATION TO STOP PROLIFERATION OF TOLL ROADS

AUSTIN, TX – State Senator Van Taylor and State Representative Scott Sanford filed the Keep Free Lanes Free Act. Filed as S.B. 891 and H.B. 1311 respectively, these bills would prohibit the conversion of any free lanes into tolled or managed lanes.

Senator Taylor stated, “The people of Senate District 8 have spoken loud and clear that they are fed up with the excessive tolling that engulfs our communities. Tolls are just a tax by another name. The people’s tax dollars funded ‘free’ lanes to begin with and converting those lanes into tolls is simply government trying to orchestrate double tax.”

Representative Sanford added, “Tolls are extracting an additional tax on our families and businesses.  Collin County is surrounded by tolls, making us a gated community with one large transportation bill.”

Collin County represents the most heavily tolled county in Texas. In the 2016-2017 biennium, Texans pay an estimated $7,055,828,000 in gas tax. Divided by the estimated 27,862,596 Texans, every man, woman, and child accounts for about $126 per year in gas tax. Collin County residents pay an additional $288 million, or approximately $265 per man, woman, and child in tolls each year.

Senator Taylor continued, “The state should not force Collin County residents to front the infrastructure bill for the state and pay over triple the transportation tax compared to many other Texans. Over the course of a work life, the average commuter who uses a toll road twice a day in North Texas will pay over $100,000 in tolls. Collin County families could spend that money on buying a home, putting their children through college, or saving for retirement — not subsidizing the transportation needs for the rest of state.”

Over the past two sessions, the Texas Legislature approved historic transportation funding including: $1.3 billion by ending diversions from the Highway fund, $3.4 billion to date from Proposition 1 that passed in 2013, and an estimated minimum of $2.5 billion a year starting in 2018 from Proposition 7 which passed in 2015. Importantly, the Legislature accomplished this by prioritizing funding and not increasing taxes.

In 2014, the Collin County legislative delegation consisting of Senator Taylor and Representatives Jodie Laubenberg, Scott Sanford, Jeff Leach, Matt Shaheen and former Representative Scott Turner successfully blocked efforts to covert free lanes on US 75 into tolled lanes.

A seventh generation Texan, local small businessman, and decorated Marine Officer, Van Taylor serves the majority of Collin County and a portion of Dallas County in the Texas Senate where he is widely recognized as a conservative leader. Taylor serves as Vice-Chairman of the Sunset Advisory Commission and is also member of the Natural Resources and Economic Development, Education, Health and Human Services, Intergovernmental Affairs, and Nominations Committees. Van and his wife, Anne, married after his return from Iraq and are the proud parents of three young girls. Van and his family reside in Plano near the land his great-grandfather farmed during the Great Depression.

Representative Sanford is a life-long Texan, and a Baylor Bear for about half of that time. He earned BBA and MTax degrees, and maintains a CPA license in the State of Texas. His career path includes positions at Ernst & Young, and ownership in two franchise endeavors. Scott has served Cottonwood Creek Baptist Church in Allen, TX (formerly First Baptist Church in Fairview) since 1997 and is currently the Executive Pastor. He married Shelly Parks in 1987. They live in McKinney, the heart of the 70th House District. Their son, Ryan, graduated from McKinney Boyd High School. He is a sophomore at Baylor. Lauren, their daughter, is a junior at McKinney Christian Academy. Scott enjoys fishing, but likes catching even better. He is a water and snow skiing enthusiast, but not at the same time. In Austin he serves on the House of Representatives Urban Affairs Committee and the Human Services Committee.

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Huffines files bills to prevent double tax toll roads, hold toll agencies accountable

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                       Contact: Brent Connett
January 27, 2017
SEN. HUFFINES FILES TRANSPORTATION REFORM & 
ACCOUNTABILITY BILLS
Senator Huffines pursues transparency, truth in taxation, and keeping Texans moving forward

AUSTIN — Senator Don Huffines (R-Dallas) today filed a package of bills to end toll roads and bring more accountability to the transportation dollars (taxpayers’ money) that are allocated by the state to Regional Mobility Authorities:

Senate Joint Resolution 35 and Senate Bill 639 – Ending Toll Expenditures out of the State Highway Fund
Senator Huffines stated, “Texans are tired of tolls. In 2013, the Legislature and voters worked together to pass Prop 1 – a much-needed surplus in transportation funding – with the condition that none of it be spent on toll roads. Then, in 2015, legislators and voters teamed up again to get even more transportation funding with Prop 7, and these funds are also restricted from toll usage. It’s time to finish the job by entirely closing the state’s major road funding account to toll roads. Texans are tired of the ever-creeping expansion of toll roads in our state. My district has been almost entirely swallowed by toll roads. It’s time for the state to end its dependency on tolls – that’s why I filed SJR 35 and SB 639, which will protect the state’s primary transportation infrastructure fund from being used on toll roads.”

Senate Bill 637 – Bringing Transparency to Regional Mobility Authorities
Senator Huffines stated, “The idea underpinning the creation of Regional Mobility Authorities (RMAs) – to deliver transportation projects at a local level was sound in theory, but has been deeply flawed in execution. To date, TxDOT has pledged loans and grants totaling $3 billion of taxpayers’ money to the nine RMAs throughout the state with very little to show for it. It’s time for Texas to hold RMAs accountable for the tax dollars they’re spending. The leading transportation researchers in the world, Texas A&M Transportation Institute, have noticed that ‘RMA reporting requirements are minimal and may not capture detailed financial and operating data.’ At this juncture, the state’s funding of RMAs is tantamount to pouring money down a well. SB 637 would require state audits of any RMA that receives state money, a measure I believe will shine a little light on exactly where our taxes are going and how they’re being used or misused.”

Senate Bill 638 – Prohibiting the Government from Lobbying Government
Senator Huffines stated, “Our laws are clear when it comes to all state agencies like TxDOT and legislative lobbying – it’s illegal. Regional Mobility Authorities, however, enjoy a loophole that allows RMAs to use tax dollars on legislative lobbying instead of on roads. We must stop cutting a taxpayer check to RMAs with one hand while shaking their lobbyists’ hands with the other. Road dollars must be spent to keep Texans moving forward.”

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Senator Don Huffines represents the North half of Dallas County in the Texas Senate. First elected in 2014 and now serving in his second legislative session, he serves as Vice Chairman of the Senate Veteran Affairs & Border Security Committee, and as a member of the Senate Committees on Natural Resources & Economic Development, Education, Intergovernmental Relations, and Administration. Senator Huffines is an advocate for free markets, fewer regulations, and believes in limited government, personal responsibility, and that individuals have the God-given right to pursue their own path.