Legislature fails to deliver for toll-weary drivers

Lawmakers leave without giving drivers toll tax relief

Sometimes a win isn’t gauged by what you pass, but by what you stopped. The results of the 86th legislative session are definitely the later. In short, the taxpayers got very little as far as toll tax relief. With 28 different toll systems and 55 toll projects in place today, without passing toll cessation Texas drivers will never see an end to paying toll taxes nor an end to toll agencies expanding their existing systems out further and further — forever. However, the grassroots opposition to five bad toll road bills that would have handed Texas’ public highways to private, foreign entities in 50-year sweetheart deals along with other giveaways to private toll companies, managed to kill all of them — the worst being HB 1951 by Matt Krause, a member of the Freedom Caucus.The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) alone (not to mention the other 12 local toll agencies across the state) has put more than two million Texas drivers into collections for unpaid tolls. Just TxDOT has imposed over $1 billion in fines and fees in addition to the actual tolls owed. The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (Austin area) testified before the Senate Transportation Committee last August that of the $100 million its collected in tolls, $85 million was fines and fees. Toll fines and fees are out of control and making Texas drivers virtually an unlimited ATM machine to feed relentless unelected toll bureaucracies — in short, tolling has become a license to steal.Many toll billing problems are unintentional on the part of the driver with malfunctioning toll tags, expired payment cards, and changes in address creating a massive roadblock for millions of Texas drivers. Yet, the grassroots toll collection reform bills (SB 382 and its House companion HB 4580) never got a hearing in either chamber’s Transportation Committee, despite promises to expand the toll collection reform that passed last session that capped administrative fees at $48/year and other penalties at $250/year. Reforms from the 85th session only applied to TxDOT and a handful of other projects, leaving millions of Texas drivers still facing unpayable fines and fees and being deemed criminals for non-payment, resulting in a block on vehicle registration or having one’s car impounded.

When the legislature finally repealed the Driver Responsibility Program (HB 2048 by Zerwas that traps drivers with unplayable surcharges that prevent them from driving legally) and banned red light camera tickets, HB 1631 (Stickland), this session, which includes prohibiting cities from blocking vehicle registration over an unpaid red light camera ticket, it defies logic that they failed to address this problem that criminalizes millions of Texas drivers over unpaid toll bills. SB 198 (Schwertner) and SB 1311 (Bettencourt) allow drivers to be billed electronically. Schwertner’s bill requires toll entities to check for an electronic toll tag account before sending a paper bill by mail (eliminating the longstanding double billing schemes), to notify drivers of a malfunctioning toll tag if problems occur more than 10 times in a 30 day period, and requiring toll entities to share information to prevent double billing for the same transaction, but both bills barely make a dent in the massive toll collection scam. Lawmakers also decided to make parents criminals if they don’t face their two-years olds in their car seat the right direction by passing HB 448 (Turner).

Tolls in place forever

The bill known as ‘toll cessation’ (SB 374 by Hall and HB 436 by Shaheen) — to force tolls to come off the road when the debt is paid — was given a token hearing in the House, but was left to die in a tolling subcommittee. Senate Transportation Committee Chair Robert Nichols once again blocked the bill from even getting a hearing this session. Keeping tolls in place after the debt is paid violates the Texas Constitution Article 1, Sec. 26 that prohibits perpetuities, a fact lawmakers have been made aware of since 2011, but no action has been taken to force toll agencies to comply. Vast numbers of lobbyists have been hired by 13 different toll agencies across Texas to ensure this unconstitutional practice continues. Both SB 29 (Hall) and HB 281 (Middleton) to ban the practice of taxpayer-funded lobbying failed to pass — thanks to taxpayer-funded lobbyists crawling the capitol to kill any restrictions on their ability to lobby against taxpayers.

Foreign-owned toll road frenzy

But what did the leadership choose to advance instead? A massive bill to re-authorize foreign-owned toll roads forever with no expiration, HB 1951 (Krause), along with several other bills that were giveaways to the private toll industry. Krause flip flopped his position opposing foreign-owned toll roads (voting to kill it) last session, only to author a bill authorizing such toll contracts into perpetuity this session. Doing so directly contradicted Governor Greg Abbott’s campaign pledge of ‘No more tolls.’

New House Transportation Committee Chair Rep. Terry Canales flip flopped on his position against toll roads. He promised voters in writing that he was opposed to all forms of tolling when he was seeking the endorsement of anti-toll groups when he was first elected in 2012.

Canales promised, “I do not support any form of tolling. First and foremost, I do not like the concept nor practice of building toll roads. Furthermore, I am adamantly opposed to investing in toll roads that cannot pull their own weight so to speak. What good does it do us as taxpayers to have to subsidize and/or pay to build a toll road then pay to use it? This appears to me as a public fraud, and a gross injustice.

“As a legislator I would strongly oppose toll roads in general. I think it is highly unfair to the taxpayers to be burdened by toll roads which have already been built and paid for by their tax dollars.

“Use existing funds to finance our roads (including ending diversions of road taxes to non-road uses). TxDOT should regularly be audited from top to bottom. I believe many of the funding problems we have with respect to our infrastructure are directly related to the mismanagement of funds, and poor accounting practices. Without fiscal transparency and accountability, we will continue to face budget problems, which in turn lead to the demise of our infrastructure.”

Yet, Canales not only heard and voted five bad foreign-owned toll road bills out of his committee (which require massive public subsidies and taxpayers guarantee the private operator’s profits that he said he was opposed to), he authored two of them. Thankfully, the grassroots opposition organized behind Texans for Toll-Free Highways and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (Texas TURF) killed all five bills.

When Ft. Worth drivers have recently faced paying $15 to drive just 5 miles on Spain-based Cintra’s toll system, the North Tarrant Express, it’s going to anger a whole lot of Texans that these problems continue unabated. These toll entities, whether public or private, have been given a license to steal from Texas drivers, well beyond the actual cost of building the road. Drivers need tax relief, too, and they need to hold their legislators accountable for their inaction.

Property rights & Transparency

There is some good news to report with regards to transparency and property rights. SB 943 (Watson) passed, cleaning up several loopholes the Texas Supreme Court warned lawmakers existed that allowed private companies that do business with the state to keep significant aspects of their contracts secret from the public.

SB 1648 (Bettencourt) would make it a criminal offense for elected officials to violate quorum. Something known as a ‘walking quorum’ is a practice that’s become rampant, particularly with the Austin City Council, where public officials discuss upcoming agenda items behind closed doors amongst themselves outside of a formal posted public meeting, a deliberate violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act. Putting criminal penalties on officials who violate the law will put teeth into the act and make any violation more enforceable.

HB 803 (Patterson) would require toll agencies to produce better financial reports so that elected officials as well as the public can more easily discern where the toll revenues are going — is the toll going directly to retire bond debt, expanding or constructing new toll projects, or other ‘mobility’ initiatives? The bill will expose a longstanding cancer known as ‘system financing,’ which is the practice of obligating surplus revenue from one project to build or expand other toll projects, co-mingling funds together to ensure no toll project is ever paid off. Following the money trail is the first step to getting toll cessation finally passed.

In the final days of the session, pipeline companies were successful in hijacking a strong property rights bill, SB 421 (Kolkhorst) using the iron fist of Rep. Tom Craddick, who took the bill away from its House sponsor, gutted it, then placed it on the local calendar so it couldn’t be amended. This move effectively killed it for the session despite Senator Lois Kolkhorst’s attempts to restore the previously agreed to language by both property rights groups and pipeline companies in a conference committee. SB 421 would have given landowners basic protections from eminent domain abuse, like defined minimum easement terms, a public hearing requirement, and protection from low-ball offers.

While SB 572 (Kolkhorst) is good news for micro home foods businesses, granting small cottage food vendors (home-based food businesses) more freedom to sell their products without onerous governmental red tape, HB 2755 (Price) would impose unlimited permit fees on food trucks by local governments.

In all, there’s very little to write home about for the 86th legislative session when it comes to relieving the toll tax burden, toll collection abuses, and protecting property rights. Now it’s time to hold the state’s leadership, their committee chairs, and every member of the legislature who failed to act accountable. Election season is just around the corner. Ask yourself, who’s interest did your Texas legislators and leaders represent? Yours, the lowly taxpayer, or the special interests — or even worse, their own self-interest. Time to send the majority of them packing.

Toll price of express lane in Washington D.C. spikes to $46 for Tuesday morning commute

Link to article here.

How much does it cost to get to D.C. from I-66?

On Tuesday, a commuter posted a photo on Twitter showing the toll road nearly reaching $50!

The amount has hit the wallets hard for solo drivers traveling the nine-mile stretch between Interstate 495 and Route 29 in Rosslyn. Those who carpool are able to use the Express Lanes for free. Single drivers have to pay the toll Monday through Friday from 5:30 to 9:30 a.m. in the eastbound direction, and from 3 to 7 p.m. in the westbound direction.

In the past, the Virginia Department of Transported has said the toll prices go up and down based on how many people are using the I-66 Express Lanes, and it has kept traffic down and moving by cutting travel time by several minutes.

Most recently, the D.C. Council proposed spending nearly $500,000 to studythe idea of charging tolls and a congestion fee to drive in certain parts of the District.

Maryland’s plan to expand I-270 and the Beltway has growing public support. Governor Larry Hogan plans to add express lanes with adjustable tolls to the Beltway and I-270, while keeping the existing lanes free.

 

GOUGING: Cintra soaks commuters, charges $3/mile to drive privatized toll lanes on North Tarrant Express

Link to article here.

On this Texas toll road, drivers want to know why they’re paying $15 for just 5 miles
Why some Fort Worth toll roads are charging up to $15
By Gordon Dickson
April 23, 2019
Ft. Worth Star Telegram

Some North Texas drivers say they’re alarmed that tolls on some of the Dallas-Fort Worth region’s TEXPress lanes are skyrocketing to as much as $15, up from just $1 during less heavily-traveled periods.

Susan Forbes could hardly believe her eyes when she saw the price posted on the electronic sign, which pointed the way to an entrance for the TEXPress toll lanes on Texas 183 in Bedford.

She was about to enter a toll road that would charge her $15 for a distance of less than six miles.

“I paid it because I had already passed the exit,” explained the resident of Fort Worth’s Meadowbrook neighborhood. She commutes each day to an internet technology job in North Dallas.

“I knew I had been paying a lot more since the TEXPress opened,” she said, “but Holy Cow!”

Some North Texas drivers are alarmed at how high the toll rates are going up on the region’s TEXPress lanes, which have been open in the Dallas-Fort Worth area for about five years now. The idea of the TEXPress lanes is to give motorists on heavily-traveled freeways a choice — stay in traffic on the main lanes toll-free, or pay extra to get on the express lanes and get around the congestion.

Toll prices can be raised as often as every five minutes, theoretically to limit the number of drivers willing to get on the TEXPress lanes.

But, as the operators of the TEXPress lanes are finding out, raising the prices on the TEXPress lanes doesn’t always have the intended effect of thinning out the traffic. In some cases, it seems the higher the toll rates go, the more motorists want to use the TEXPress lanes.

Perhaps to those motorists, the higher toll prices are a signal that gridlock ahead on the toll-free main lanes is really bad, and paying a higher toll is better than being stuck in traffic for an hour or more.

Forbes says the same stretch of Texas 183 where she paid $15 has also charged her $13.05 on a different occasion. She provided a copy of her North Texas Tollway Authority monthly bill to show the $13.05 charge.

Some North Texas motorists have noticed a tremendous spike in the cost of driving TEXPress toll lanes in the Fort Worth area. Among them is Susan Lynch Forbes of Fort Worth, who recently paid $13.05 to travel on just five miles of Texas 183 in Bedford and Hurst. Photo Courtesy of Susan Lynch Forbes
The tollway authority operates the popular TollTag payment system, in which drivers pay tolls automatically with a sticker on their windshield. However, the tollway authority does not own the TEXPress lanes.

The tollway authority does operate its own toll road system, with roads such as Chisholm Trail Parkway in Fort Worth and the President George Bush Turnpike in Dallas. Those toll roads have much lower maximums of only 20 cents per mile, and the price doesn’t change based on traffic.

The TEXPress lanes, although they accept TollTags as a payment, are operated by a private-sector group of companies who have far greater flexibility to jack up the prices in response to traffic conditions.

“I’m on track to spend $5,000 or $6,000 this year, if I keep it up,” Forbes said in an email. “That’s compared to 2k a few years ago.”

Fort Worth-area commuters are wondering just how high the tolls can possibly go.

Michael Hustedde, an east Fort Worth resident, recently avoided getting on the TEXPress lanes on the same stretch of Texas 183 when he saw the toll price was $11.45. He was more accustomed to seeing prices in the $4 to $5 range for that stretch during rush hour.

“Traffic was its usual awful, but there wasn’t a wreck or anything to justify such a high price,” Hustedde said in an email. “Was this a computer error, or did a contract limiting the maximum rate expire?”

Hustedde provided a link to a list of frequently asked questions on the TEXPress lanes website, which indicates that the private companies managing the toll lanes, North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners, should only charge up to 75 cents per mile. Using that rate, the 5.7 mile stretch of Texas 183 from the Texas 121 split in Bedford to near North East Mall in Hurst should cost no more than about $4.28 — not $15, $13.05 or $11.45.

But it turns out that the 75-cent ceiling, which was created by the North Central Texas Council of Governments years ago as a regional policy for Dallas-Fort Worth based on 2010 dollar calculations, has actually increased because of inflation adjustments and now stands at 90 cents per mile, according to one official.

And, according to the council of governments, the company operating the TEXPress lanes has authority to temporarily exceed the 90-cent limit as necessary to reduce the number of cars on the toll lanes and keep traffic moving.

In other words, the 90-cent-per-mile is only a soft cap that can be exceeded when traffic warrants it.

“The cap on tolls may be temporarily exceeded during times of deteriorating performance to ensure speeds of 50 mph or above and adequate levels of service,” Michael Morris, transportation director for the council of governments, said in an email. “The situation you describe is a result of drivers continuing to take tolled managed lanes despite the high price. We are exploring the reason for this behavior as well as the capacity of the non-tolled lanes.”

Officials from North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners say they’ll meet with counterparts from the council of governments as well as the Texas Department of Transportation during the next few weeks to discuss how the tolling technology determine its prices and how the traveling public responds.
Despite the allegations by some motorists that they are being gouged by high toll prices, North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners stands by its technology, a spokesman said.

“The dynamic tolling system for the North Texas managed lane corridors, that is designed to keep a certain level of traffic moving at a minimum of 50 mph at all times, is working as expected and according to the regionally approved policy providing drivers in North Texas a reliable alternative for their daily trips and commutes,” spokesman Robert Hinkle said in a statement. “As the managed and express lanes network expands, traffic volumes on those corridors continue to grow and driver behavior is evolving. As a result, tolls during peak travel times have periodically spiked due to high demand in the managed lanes, and have impacted a small percentage of overall drivers.”

Some drivers have learned how to avoid the TEXPress lanes during the busiest time of day.

Chris Bellomy, who as recently as late 2017 was paying $180 to $200 a month in tolls while commuting to his information technology job in Plano, says he is now paying far less.

Mainly, he spends more time working at home.

“I haven’t seen the worst of it,” he said, “because I generally avoid rush hour commutes.”

California local governments push congestion tax to get into LA

Link to article here.California Cities Push Congestion Tax
Southern California governments lobby to impose congestion tax on Los Angeles motorists.
The Newspaper.com
April 4, 2019A group of California counties and cities is desperate to join European colleagues in imposing a congestion tax on commuters. The Southern California Association of Governments issued a federally funded report last week exploring the feasibility of tolling drivers who enter downtown Los Angeles, raising money for transit and bicycle lanes.The study looked at various LA neighborhoods to determine where gridlock could best be exploited to raise funds. The options included Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Hollywood, the downtown area, the San Fernando Valley, Santa Monica and Westside. The researchers said the tax would increase the number of people using bicycles by nine percent and walking by seven percent. According to the report, Angelenos will enjoy paying the charge because of these benefits.

“The Mobility Go Zone Program is expected to improve mobility and the transportation-user experience,” the report explained. “In practice, this means people will enjoy travel time savings to get to their respective work, leisure, school or other destinations.”

The introductory rate for the charge would be $4, paid by vehicles entering the charging zone during peak periods. Automated license plate reader (ANPR or ALPR) cameras would track cars and bill drivers who lack a FasTrak toll transponder. Comparable European cities have a congestion tax rate of about $15 per trip.

Over a decade, the operational costs of paying third-party vendors to collect the toll would run $326 million, including $15 million for the cost of toll collection equipment. The tax itself would collect from motorists between $87 million and $135 million per year for a net profit of $69 million per year.

The report concluded that the congestion tax would increase carpooling by 51 percent and reduce automobile miles traveled by 20 percent, reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Such a tax would could be a tough sell to the public in Los Angeles. As the 1980s band Missing Persons put it, “Only a nobody walks in LA.” When the question was put to residents in Manchester, England, in 2008, some 79 percent voted against the idea of a congestion tax.

The idea of congestion charging was popularized in the UK in 2003 when London’s mayor at the time, Ken Livingstone, imposed the tax. In 2008, Livingstone was defeated by six points by Boris Johnson who campaigned on scaling back the charging zone.

Transport for London data show that the congestion charge has failed in its stated goal of controlling traffic levels downtown. Documented journey times inside the charging zone in 2007 were the same as in 2002, before the tax was collected, according to a 2008 report. An independent study found no reduction in pollution within zone. Currently, about half of the $360 million paid in tolls annually goes to the overhead cost, leaving $178 million in profit — most of which comes from late payment penalty tickets.

A copy of the report is available in a 5mb PDF file at the source link below.

Source: Mobility Go Zone Pricing Feasibility Study (Southern California Association of Governments, 3/31/2019)

‘Traffic Sucks’ – I-35 billboard pitches toll road bill

Link to article here.

The group “Texans for Traffic Relief” is behind the billboard. They want voters to decide whether roads will be tolled.

AUSTIN, Texas — One of the biggest busts in our boomtown is I-35.

It just hasn’t kept up with how much traffic there is.

A new billboard off of Airport Boulevard and I-35 sums it up. It reads: “Traffic Sucks.”

The group that put it up said one way to fix I-35 is to toll it.

“Texans for Traffic Relief,” a 501(c)4 organization, wants to get you to vote whether highways will be tolled.

“Some people like toll roads, some people don’t like toll roads,” David White, the group’s executive director, said. “We want to empower local communities to make the best decisions for them.”

The group is proposing HB 1951, the “Toll Payer Protection Act,” which would use private-sector investments to pay for expensive projects like I-35.

“There are companies across the country and the world who do infrastructure,” White said. “So, we want to incentivize them to come, if it’s voter-approved. And if the tolls come off the road and the road is paid for.”

The political action committee “Texans for Toll Free Highways,” instead, proposes bills to stop tolling and cap toll fines.

“You might have a $20 toll bill that you owe, but have thousands of dollars in fines and fees tacked onto that bill.” Terri Hall, the founder of the PAC, said.

The PAC is wary of even a taxpayer vote on tolls.

“There’s kind-of this fake veneer that it’s pro-taxpayer to say it’s all okay if we privatize tolling the roads. As long as there’s a public vote on it,” Hall said. “But it’s more like they put a gun to the public’s head and make them think, ‘Hey, there’s no other way that we can get this road fixed unless you do it our way.”

TxDOT said it is considering non-tolled express lanes on I-35. That project is estimated at $8 billion.

The department said it only has $790 million set aside so far.

At the Capitol, State Senator Kirk Watson (D) Austin proposed several transportation bills, including managed lanes for I-35. He said that could be HOV or toll lanes.

The department said it only has $790 million set aside so far.

At the Capitol, State Senator Kirk Watson (D) Austin proposed several transportation bills, including managed lanes for I-35. He said that could be HOV or toll lanes.

SHAFTED: Patrick deals blow to toll opponents by removing allies from committee

Patrick gives toll opponents a raw deal with new Senate Transportation Committee

Senator Bob Hall

Senator Bob Hall

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick announced committee assignments for the 86th session of the Texas Senate last week, and there’s no way to sugar coat it — toll opponents got shafted. The most notable shake-up on the Senate Transportation Committee is the removal of Vice Chair Senator Bob Hallfrom the committee. Four years ago, a group of freshmen senators known for being the fabulous eight took the Texas Senate by storm and ushered in a new era of conservatism in the upper chamber. Hall, Don HuffinesLois KolkhorstCharles Perry, and Brandon Creighton were part of that group and their appointment to the Senate Transportation Committee was considered a gift by Patrick to the grassroots for creating a deliberate, conservative voting block on what had been a crony capitalist, pro-toll committee controlled by toll road special interests.

Senator Don Huffines was removed last session at the behest of the pro-toll committee chairman, Senator Robert Nichols, which began to erode the grassroots voting block. Huffines had filed a whopping 11 anti-toll bills his freshman session, so the loss of Huffines was bad enough. He was replaced with Kelly Hancock, whose Warren Buffet bill to get special access to the Texas auto market for special interests while continuing to exclude others, got slapped down by the grassroots quicker than a gnat on your knee. Hancock also made a comment during an interim committee hearing on toll collection reform advocating for a barricade blocking Texas drivers from tollways until they paid their toll bills similar to an airport parking lot that won’t let you out until you pay up. He was tapped to replace Hall as Vice Chair. Creighton was also taken off the committee. While Perry remains on the committee, many view Senator Kolkhorst as the only vocal toll opponent left on the committee.

Who did Patrick replace the anti-toll voting block with? Senator Royce West is back on the committee, which is shocking considering his law firm has profited from public bond sales for Dallas Rapid Transit among other public entities. The same is true of Juan ‘Chuy’ Hinojosa who remains on the committee — his law firm does business with a litany of public toll road authorities. So Dallas now has someone representing them on the committee who stands to personally gain from bond deals instead of Hall who is a staunch opponent of toll schemes and without potential conflicts of interest. Wouldn’t newly elected Senator Angela Paxton have been a good choice to represent taxpayers in the North Texas area, especially since she hails from the most toll-concentrated county in the state, Collin County?

Newly elected Senator Carol Alvarado was also appointed to the committee, who consistently received an ‘F’ on anti-toll report cardswhen she was a House member. Charles Schwertner is also new to the committee, and he’s earned an ‘A’ average on anti-toll report cards, however, his influence has been greatly diminished by a sexting scandal, ultimately forcing him to resign from leadership over the Senate Health Committee. Make no bones about it, toll opponents had the rug pulled out from under them.

Hall is a rare lawmaker who digs into the nitty-gritty of an issue, studies the problems, and formulates solutions that are a better deal for taxpayers. Hall has already filed bills to repeal the universally disliked Driver Responsibility Program (that traps the poor in an endless cycle of criminal penalties they cannot possibly pay to get their drivers license back legally), to remove tolls once the debt is paid, to repeal exorbitant toll fines and fees that have been used to bludgeon and abuse Texas drivers into financial ruin and criminal penalties, a bill to help get major transportation projects funded without raising taxes, as well as a bill to make local toll authorities more accountable by broadcasting and archiving their board meetings over the internet. It’s safe to say, Hall has become a transportation expert and takes aim at the bureaucracies wreaking havoc on Texas drivers everywhere. So why would Patrick remove him from the one committee where most of Hall’s focus, energy, and expertise has been directed?

Patrick asked for and received the endorsement from Texans for Toll-free Highways, PAC for his stellar record fighting toll roads since he was first elected Lt. Governor. So the removal of Senator Hall from the Senate Transportation Committee is a major kick in the gut to taxpayers and his own supporters, especially considering the recent retirement of former House Transportation Committee Chair Joe Pickett, a huge advocate for removing tolls from roads that are paid for who had declared war on toll managed lanes that are making congestion worse, not better.

There are few places to turn to find reputable, reliable toll opponents willing to fight for taxpayers and call out toll bureaucrats when they’re trying to pull a fast one (which happens frequently in committee). Removing one of the biggest anti-toll advocates not only from his leadership position as Vice Chair, but from the committee altogether, just doesn’t pass the smell test. Something’s terribly wrong and voters need to be made aware that the fix is in — don’t expect toll road reform. Apparently toll taxes, that now approach the level of a property tax bill for many households topping $300/month per driver in some cases, is not part of broader tax reform being touted by leadership. After making a strong ‘no more tolls’ promise in November 2017, it’s hard to fathom how the composition of the Senate Transportation Committee could be any worse for toll opponents. Voters need to hold Patrick’s feet to the fire and demand toll tax reform along with property tax reform this session. What good does it do to put money in one pocket only to take it out of the other? That doesn’t give Texans net tax relief and silence is approval.

Bidding Pickett farewell, longtime transportation taxpayer ally retires

Farewell: Pickett’s love for transportation and sticking up for taxpayers will be sorely missed
Pickett Joe jpg 800x1000 Move Texas ForwardRetiring Texas State Representative Joseph Pickett (D – HD 79) is one in a million. Truly there is no one in the Texas House who undertook transportation as a matter of personal study with the aim of improving every step of the process for both the government agencies in charge of delivering projects and also for the forgotten taxpayer like Joe Pickett. He announced his retirement right before Christmas citing his battle with cancer and the need to fully recover without the rigors of a legislative session. It’s truly a devastating loss for the people of Texas. Here’s why.

No one knows Texas transportation like Pickett, and there is no one currently in the Texas House who can come close to replacing his depth of knowledge and expertise anytime soon. He’s been in the Texas House since 1995, serving first on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation then on the Transportation Committee itself, eventually chairing the committee for two sessions.

Pickett not only served on his local Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) in El Paso as a councilman, but also during most of his tenure in the Texas House. He also served as Chair of the El Paso MPO for several terms. Local MPOs are where the nitty gritty of transportation projects take place. These boards, comprised of local elected officials and transportation agency officials, decide which local projects get priority over others and where gas tax dollars and transportation funds get allocated. Ever since the Rick Perry ‘toll everything so we can generate new revenue and not call it a tax’ began, the MPOs often decide whether or not a road project is tolled. Those are fighting words for many Texans faced with high monthly toll bills that approach the level of a property tax bill for many families in urban areas. Pickett had the savvy and finesse to challenge TxDOT, toll agencies, and MPOs about various toll project decisions and discern whether or not it was truly warranted or just a potential cash cow for an unaccountable agency.

In recent years, Pickett declared war on toll ‘managed lanes.’ Managed lanes can mean a lot of different things, but they primarily involve a restricted express lane inside the general purpose lanes of an existing freeway where access is given based on paying a toll, being a registered carpool, or using some form of mass transit. The toll rates on these lanes change in real time throughout the day — going up based on the level of congestion on the adjacent free lanes. Toll rates skyrocket past $1.00 a mile during peak hours in many cases, like the managed lanes inside MoPac in Austin or the privatized managed lanes on I-635 in Dallas and I-820 in Ft. Worth. It’s become an unaccountable new tax on driving knocking the majority of Texas drivers out of lanes their tax money paid for (in part or in some cases the lanes are 100% tax-funded). This is why today’s version of tolling is called a double tax — you’re paying a toll to use a lane you’ve already paid for.

Pickett was largely responsible for two of the largest infusions of new highway funding in state history — Proposition 1 in 2014 and Proposition 7 in 2015. He was also an advocate of ending the 25% diversion of state gasoline tax to public education as a matter of principle. He believes it violates truth in taxation and betrays the public trust when politicians collect a tax for one purpose then spend it for another. Pickett was also one of the first legislators to sound the alarm that the state was in over its head with road debt, and he cut off at least one major source of debt, the Texas Mobility Fund, of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) in 2015.

But his legislative accomplishments barely scratch the surface of what his transportation legacy will be. Ultimately, Pickett was best known for drilling down into the numbers, doing his research, understanding every category of funding and every nuance of state transportation and used it to hold TxDOT and the many toll agencies now online (over 13) accountable to lawmakers and the public who funds them. Last session alone, he authored bills later turned into amendments to remove tolls from a highway in El Paso that was already paid for, to ensure gas taxes and other public funds weren’t handed out like candy to toll agencies as subsidies requiring any public money to be repaid to taxpayers, and to prevent the conversion of free lanes into toll lanes.

No House member tried to hold the transportation agencies accountable like Pickett. He used his depth of knowledge and expertise to fight for taxpayers and a more efficient and nimble process rather than give them a free pass or use one’s leadership on the committee to benefit their district or personal agenda as many do.

Pickett leaves behind a legacy unrivaled by anyone in the Texas House, and he will be dearly missed. The people of Texas not only owe him a debt of gratitude, they’ve lost one of their greatest advocates and allies in the Texas legislature. Without his wealth of knowledge to keep the agencies and their narrative to lawmakers in check, special interests and taxpayer-taxpayer-funded lobbyists of the agencies themselves will become the new ‘experts’ for lawmakers, allowing cronyism and self-interest to creep into Texas transportation absent a robust taxpayer watchdog.

Thankfully, Texas has Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) and Texans for Toll-free Highways as volunteer citizen watchdogs on transportation and toll road issues. Their role will be more vital than ever without Pickett in the House, who has been their reliable voice in committee and on the floor of the House during the throes of heated debate defending the truth and ensuring the agency’s talking points don’t cow lawmakers into a corner. Pickett knew when the agencies were bluffing and when they truly needed a new infusion of cash. Without his knack for sniffing out deception, taxpayers will be hard pressed to find a floor debater to defend them. So while we honor his legacy and wish him a fond farewell, we grieve the retirement of one of Texas’ best. He’s left his mark, and we’re forever grateful for his 24 years of service in the Texas House.

Toll Taxes Taking a Toll

Many Texans are faced with paying an extra, burdensome toll tax on driving just to get to work or travel across the Lone Star State. Drivers are shocked to find tolls that exceed $1 per mile during rush hour, costing hundreds of dollars a month and thousands per year in new taxes on driving. Tolls have become like a second property tax bill for many households.

Tolls are financially ruining many Texas families to the point that they either have to move closer to work or move away completely to avoid the extra tax. On top of the tolls themselves, Texas drivers are being hit with huge fines and fees.

A recent report by KXAN showed Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) alone has put over 2 million Texans into collections for past due bills.

TxDOT imposed over $1 billion in toll fines and fees, and they only operate a handful of toll projects, mostly in Austin. Austin, like every urban city in Texas, also has a second unelected toll agency that recently admitted only $15 million of the $100 million it has collected was for actual tolls — the other $85 million amounts to fines and fees. It’s an epidemic.

Toll agencies can block your vehicle registration and even impound your car on the spot if you have unpaid tolls. Since many Texans have a car payment, they could be forced to make payments on a vehicle they can longer drive while at the same time, have no way to get to work to pay the toll bill and fees for impoundment.

The Texas Legislature has made unpaid tolls a criminal offense. This brings us back to a form of debtors’ prison, which is unconstitutional.

Gone are the days when toll roads were occasional and the toll came off the road once the debt was paid. Now unelected boards have been empowered by the legislature to create complicated toll systems that are financially interdependent, making it so no toll project is ever truly paid for, allowing tolls in perpetuity — which violates the Texas Constitution.

This ought to concern every Texan, and our legislators need to hear from us about changing the law to make tolls come off these roads once the initial debt is paid.

Source article


Freeways are the only fair way, say leaders in Collin County, where the last three highways have been fully tolled

Between existing toll roads and a $600 million commitment in a Nov. 6 bond election, Collin County residents are well-invested in their highways.

So invested, in fact, that their top elected official, County Judge Keith Self, says they’re tired of paying as they go. 

“We’ve got the highest concentration of toll roads anywhere in the state,” Self said. “We’ve got people spending a lot of money to get places. We’re not trying to get more toll lanes, we’re trying to figure out how to build more freeways like everyone else has.”In their transportation bond presentations this fall, county leaders showed maps comparing Collin’s limited-access highways to those of 1960s Dallas County, when it hit the 900,000-plus population threshold where Collin County sits today.

Dallas in the 1960s had interstates 20, 30 and 35 and Central Expressway as a new north-south freeway, and it was completing the Interstate 635 connector loop. 

By the 1970s, Central had reached most of Collin. But today, some 50 years later, it remains the county’s only free limited-access highway. The others — Dallas North Tollway, Bush Turnpike and Sam Rayburn Tollway — are full-on toll roads. And there are no limited-access roadways on the eastern half of the county, which is one of the nation’s fastest-growing.

The comparison is not just of Dallas and Collin maps, but of government’s shift in philosophy over the decades in its funding of roads and the increasing cost of transportation infrastructure.

“The state transportation budget has gone down from 33 percent of the state budget. It dipped as low as 7 percent,” Self said. “That’s a statement.”

However, as he nears the end of his 12-year run as county judge in January, Self is also critical of the process — saying that Dallas and Tarrant counties get the bulk of the attention, and most available dollars through the Regional Transportation Commission.

The RTC is a metropolitan planning organization, assigned by federal law to allocate federal and state transportation dollars in the 12-county region. Its members are locally elected officials with seats divided according to population. Collin’s five seats among 44 doesn’t seem much to leaders of a county with a population of 900,000.

“We have to be on the radar,” McKinney City Council member Chuck Branch said in criticizing the RTC at a recent work session to discuss U.S. Highway 380. “We don’t really have a leg to stand on when it comes to representation.”

The RTC operates in conjunction with the North Central Texas Council of Governments. The council of governments’ executive board, of which Self is a member, has no authority to override RTC decisions. It answers to the Texas Transportation Commission in Austin.

“We have a regional legislature known as the RTC that has no oversight,” Self said. “The process is broken because the metropolitan planning organization carries too much authority. The state has got to claw back.”

That’s exactly what happened, he said, when the RTC recommended that the LBJ East project be built with new tolled lanes through Lake Highlands, Garland and Mesquite. Through three legislative sessions, then two trips to Austin for Texas Transportation Commission votes, those who didn’t want new toll roads pushed back. Today, the approved plan for LBJ East includes no new toll lanes.

Michael Morris, transportation director for the council of governments and staff liaison to the RTC, also cited LBJ East as a recent example of how state oversight worked to hone the process. 

“There is nothing the RTC can do that the Texas Transportation Commission does not endorse,” Morris said. On LBJ East, he said, the state commissioners stepped in to underline the sensitivities state leaders are showing regarding tolled roadways.

The process for LBJ East — a $1.8 billion project — was seen as a model for how Texas mega-projects would be funded in the future. And Collin County has freeway needs that are even bigger projects. County leaders are adamant that those projects, including Highway 380 and the Outer Loop, be built as freeways.

“Everybody is short of money,” Self said. “Government is, at its base, the allocation of scarce resources.”

Morris said he gets the message and, with the help of RTC members including Duncan Webb, Self’s colleague on the county commission, says significant dollars are set aside for Collin’s next builds.

RTC allocates money based on congestion. Its formula indicates that Collin County accounts for 20 percent of the area’s congestion. That translates to $900 million in federal and state dollars set aside in 2016 for the county’s future.

“The partnership we have with the state gives us 10 percent additional for right of way and 10 percent for engineering,” Morris said. “With the Collin County bond, they’re sitting on $1.5 to $2 billion. I personally know of no other place in the nation where there is $2 billion waiting for non-tolled projects than Collin County.”

Morris said that once cities reach a consensus on the route for Highway 380, it will be inserted into the Mobility 2045 plan and officially become a regional priority.

“It’s unfortunate that 50 years ago, 380 wasn’t built as a freeway,” he said. “It would have been hard back then for people to have forecast the growth, but the spacing indicates that somewhere right where 380 is today needs to be a freeway facility.”

By Ray Leszcynski, Communities | Source article

Anti-toll candidates win in midterm election

Anti-toll candidates fare well in midterm election

The midterm election in Texas concluded with new battle lines drawn and the margin between parties closer than ever in what was considered a solidly red state. Anti-toll candidates fared well, winning the majority (18 of 27) of the races endorsed by Texans by Toll-free Highways. Likewise, Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom’s (TURF) Voter Guide, that rates incumbents based on voting records and its survey on toll roads and property rights related questions, saw many of its top rated candidates who had contested races chalk up victories. All the anti-toll candidates at the top of the ballot won, including Ted Cruz, two congressional candidates, Ron Wright and Chip Roy, as well as Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. The state’s two top leaders, Abbott and Patrick, put a line in the sand last November declaring no more tolls moving forward. Voters re-elected both and they’ll hold them to that promise

The biggest defeats came in the Texas House with 9 anti-toll backed candidates losing, and one outcome is still too close to call as it’s undergoing a recount in House District 132 where incumbent Mike Schofield has fallen behind his challenger. While tolls may not have played a huge role in several of those races, the hardest ones to choke down are the losses of two anti-toll champion senators, Konni Burton (R – Colleyville) and Don Huffines (R- Dallas), and House Freedom Caucus anti-toll champion Matt Rinaldi (R – Irving). The other four anti-toll backed senate candidates won their races: Bob HallAngela PaxtonDonna Campbell, and Pat Fallon.

The Democrat bump from the energy brought to the midterms by Beto O’Rourke’s U.S. Senate race made many races close and flipped many Republican held seats to Democrats in urban areas, particularly Dallas County. Only a handful of Democrats engaged the grassroots on the toll issue, and most failed to return candidate surveys or vetting questionnaires, so it’s unclear where they stand on toll road issues.

The two standouts are Democrats Terry Meza (HD 105) and Vicki Goodwin (HD 47). Texans for Toll-free Highways endorsed Goodwin over incumbent Paul Workman, representing west Travis County who consistently earned an ‘F’ on our TURF’s legislative Report Cards, racking up one of the worst voting records on toll road issues in the Texas House. Meza has engaged on the issue and is ready to work with the grassroots to relieve this undue tax burden on working families in Irving and Grand Prairie. Incumbent Rodney Anderson rated fairly well on TURF’s Report Cards, but there’s no question the toll tax burden is a major issue in the district and the Metroplex. Moving forward, Meza is not a net loss for taxpayers in HD 105 on toll roads.

With the Democrat surge over Republicans in urban areas complicating how to interpret this midterm election in general, overall, the anti-toll cause is in good shape heading into the 86th Legislative Session regardless of the overall two-party battle lines. The grassroots will remain laser focused on legislation to remove the toll once the debt is paid off and expanding the toll collection reforms secured last session to all toll agencies. At least 14 taxpayer funded toll agencies will be lobbying hard against taxpayers seeking to cap toll fines and remove tolls on roads that are paid for. With new leadership in the House and strong allies in the senate and governor’s office, voters should expect both to pass in spite of taxpayer funded lobbying by toll bureaucracies.