Should voters promote pro-toll Burkett to senator?

Burkett wants highest possible toll taxes for constituents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grassroots to TxDOT: ‘Read our lips – No new toll taxes!’

IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Read our lips: “No new toll taxes!”

Grassroots Coalition of 67 Organizations Call Out
Transportation Agencies for Breaking Governor’s
Promise for No More Toll Roads

(November 8, 2017 — Austin, Texas) Today, a Texas Conservative Grassroots Coalition project led by Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), Texans for Toll-free Highways, and Grassroots America was hand-delivered to Gov. Greg Abbott and his new Transportation Commission Chair, Bruce Bugg. The Coalition letter insists that the Transportation Commission, TxDOT, and all related mobility authorities make good on Governor Abbott’s promise to build needed roads without new toll taxes. The Coalition project was launched in response to last week’s proposal by TxDOT to the Transportation Commission to approve over a dozen new toll projects in the state’s ten-year plan. Fifteen of the 17 projects are toll projects, including I-35 in Austin and San Antonio, I-635E in Dallas, I-45 in Houston, and Loop 1604 on San Antonio.

JoAnn Fleming, Grassroots America’s Executive Director said of the latest proposal for new toll projects, “Apparently, the state and local transportation bureaucracies didn’t get Gov. Abbott’s memo during his first campaign for Governor and haven’t listened ever since. The Governor has repeatedly underscored his vow to get Texas off the toll road and debt scheme. He’s made it clear he wants the state on a pay-as-you-go plan for road construction, and voters have approved the funding.

“So, it’s about time TxDOT, the Transportation Commission, the RMAs and the MPOs all got on the same page with Governor Abbott. We are sick and tired of this nonsense.  There’s always another bureaucratic plot afoot with perpetual whining that they don’t have enough money.  If they spent one-quarter of their time working to eliminate bone-headed, wasteful processes that burn through cash, instead of devising ways to defy the Governor and the state constitution, we’d all be better off.

“This goes back to the Sunset Advisory Board’s Report to the 85th Legislature, which stated, ‘As currently structured, TxDOT’s project development process is not meeting expectations and is not prepared to effectively handle the influx of new transportation funding projected to double over the next decade.  TxDOT has not met key on-time or on-budget measures for several years…’. It’s time for these bureaucracies to stop undermining our Governor and do their jobs. Gov. Abbott needs to put his foot down to stop these rogue actions, which undermine his administration.”

Terri Hall, Founder and Director of TURF and Texans for Toll-free Highways, notes, “Working families across this state have made it abundantly clear that they do not want more toll roads. Taxpayers approved two constitutional measures giving the biggest boost in highway funding to TxDOT in a generation, and they are rewarded with more toll roads? Talk about disrespect! Texans elected this governor on the promise that he was parting ways with the Rick Perry toll road cram down. Gov. Abbott even ran television campaign ads promising to fix our roads without tolls. Now his highway Commission is on the verge of approving 15 more toll projects? It’s decision time, and he’s running for re-election. How this comes down will not go unnoticed by the grassroots.”

Senator Bob Hall, Vice Chair of the state Senate Transportation Committee, strenuously objecting to more toll roads, explained, “Toll taxes create a long-term penalty for the working class. At today’s average cost of $5.00 each direction, it will cost the family of a worker – over the course of their lifetimes – in excess of $135,000 for the ‘privilege’ of using the toll lane! That’s like taking a home or a couple of college educations away from that family, while they face a daily fee that could well be the equivalent of a $25.00 per-gallon gasoline tax. This is an outrageously unacceptable tax burden, and Governor Abbott must step-in to stop it before it’s too late.”

Chairman Bugg’s comments indicate that if local governments lobby the Commission for toll ‘managed’ lanes, that they’ll consider giving toll projects a green light, despite the Governor’s campaign promises, “When a local community comes to this Commission and states that they want to add capacity, and they know the funds are not available, they want to support a managed lanes concept; and when the funds that Governor Abbott and the Texas Legislature worked so hard to provide are not being used, then I think this Commission needs to consider the local community’s support for a managed lane project.”

Coalition partners want Gov. Abbott to challenge local governments on their abusive use of excessive tolling just as he did on an array of anti-liberty, anti-taxpayer local ordinances during the past legislative and special sessions.

Taxpayers also want Governor Abbott to investigate why the public is being told there’s not enough funding for the most congested roads after they only recently voted to approve nearly $5 billion in new annual funding with approval of Prop 1 and Prop 7.  In 2015, the legislature passed House Bill 20, requiring TxDOT to put specific policies in place to ensure the highest priority projects are funded first. Yet, that’s not what has happened. The majority of new funds have been allocated to low priority projects – by design – so that TxDOT could cry poverty and enable local governments to tap a toll revenue stream for the most congested roads, creating unaccountable slush funds outside the reach of taxpayers.

Constitutional crisis?
Texas Conservative Grassroots Coalition leaders say the Transportation Commission is in violation of the law because the Commission is using Prop 1 and Prop 7 funds – money that is constitutionally barred from use on toll projects – to subsidize the US 183 toll project in Austin.

TxDOT’s presentation to the Commission on October 26 clearly shows $120 million in Prop 1 and Prop 7 funds are to be used on the US 183 toll project. In a clever deception, the agency claims it can make the move appear legal by separating the financing of the toll lanes from the non-toll lanes; however it’s all part of the same project! In the same presentation, TxDOT states that it will be doing the US 183 toll project under one contract procurement, not as two separate projects.

TxDOT’s prior policy, as evidenced in a 2014 letter to State Rep. Ron Simmons by then-Deputy Executive Director of TxDOT John Barton, clearly states if any part of a project has a toll element, it would not be eligible for Prop 1 funds. Prop 7 has the same constitutional restriction as Prop 1 and cannot be used on toll projects either.

“Apparently, TxDOT has decided they are not required to follow the Texas Constitution.  
Their brazen actions at the Commission last week are a movement toward lawlessness. If a state agency can simply break up a toll project into two parts in order to subvert the constitutional restrictions voters deliberately put in place on Prop 1 and Prop 7 funds, then it will continue to do so on every toll project. This scheme, if not challenged, will set a dangerous precedent, and we’re not going to stand for it,” concludes Terri Hall.

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BOMBSHELL: Senators find out tolls charged on roads that are paid for

Sparks fly as senators discover numerous toll roads with no debt on them, prompts call to remove tolls
By Terri Hall
September 15, 2016

It’s not often that the very sleepy subject of transportation offers a fiery discussion, but yesterday’s Senate Transportation Committee meeting did not disappoint. In a rare olive branch extended to grassroots anti-toll advocacy groups, Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom and Texans for Toll-free Highways, Chairman Senator Robert Nichols invited them to address the committee about one of its interim studies – a study on the elimination of toll roads.

Just the title evokes strong emotions on both sides of the issue, and those emotions were in plain view Wednesday. Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Executive Director James Bass laid out the numbers of how much it would cost to retire tolls on roads built with state funds. Let me say that again, toll roads that were built with state money. That means gasoline taxes and other state funds were used to build the road, but Texas drivers are being charged again, through tolls, to use it — a double tax scheme.

An early pay-off would cost $24.2 billion, while the existing debt as of January 1, 2016, was $21.6 billion. That’s what building roads with debt begets. It costs far more than paying cash, anywhere from 40% more to 100% more. TxDOT now spends over $1 billion a year in payments to cover its debt. If the toll bonds stay on course to the final pay-off dates, the cost mushrooms to $39.9 billion.

The use of public funds to, in essence, bail out toll projects that cannot pay for themselves with the toll revenues only, was the subject of much consternation by the conservatives on the committee. Senator Lois Kolkhorst has twice authored the bill to make tolls come off the road when the debt is repaid. She was quick to jump in and grill Bass on the Loop 375 Border West Highway toll project in El Paso.

Bass called it a unique financial arrangement, and Kolkhorst, visibly irritated, responded, ’Well, explain that ‘unique’ arrangement.”

First, the entire project is paid for state funds. Not one penny of debt is owed, yet drivers will be be charged tolls to use it (it’s currently under construction). The project is jointly owned by the state and the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority (or RMA), even though the RMA put no funds into the project. In fact, the state gave them $500 million in Texas Mobility Funds which granted the RMA ownership in proportion to that dollar amount, and the state paid the $130 million balance of the $630 million project with gasoline taxes. So the state gave away over 80% ownership to an unelected toll authority who will reap over 80% of the toll revenues for a 100% paid for highway.

It’s no wonder the senators suffered from shock.

“So we paid the RMA for their ownership. That’s a pretty good deal,” Kolkhorst quipped sarcastically.

“Let me get this straight. The state of Texas put money into a project and then gave half of the ownership to an RMA where they will forever in perpetuity get half of the revenue?”

Bass corrected her and said it was actually more than half the ownership and revenue.

“So this is what I don’t understand and this is the problem. The road is paid for. Now we’re going to create a toll road for the people of El Paso, and I’m just going to say this okay, because all of that is tax money, and that’s worse than I’ve ever seen…this is not right,” Kolkhorst expressed with frustration.

“At what point do you say, we shouldn’t toll this because it’s paid for? At what point do we say there’s no debt on this road, it’s paid for, and, by the way, you get to pay for it again, AND to add insult to injury, the people that paid for it never get the money back? Does that make sense to anybody in this room? This is what frustrates lawmakers like me when we try to give TxDOT money… It’s more expensive to build a toll road, so we paid more for it than we would have it had been non-tolled,…so enough!”

Senator Bob Hall echoed her frustration and pursued it further, “There are numerous toll roads that have no debt on them, and they’re still being tolled.”

Camino Columbia in Laredo, Cesar Chavez in El Paso, SH 130 (the state-operated northern 49 miles from Georgetown to Mustang Ridge) and SH 45 in the Austin area, the Katy Freeway managed toll lanes and the entire Metro High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes in Houston, parts of the Grand Parkway around Houston (segments 1-2A), the DFW connector, and the I-30 managed toll lanes (in fact most all of the managed toll lanes) in Dallas all have no debt and should have the tolls come down immediately. Every one of those lanes was built with state and federal funds, no debt is owed, and yet officials charge tolls simply to profit off of congestion and as a means to manipulate people and traffic.

Hall keyed in on Bass’ statement that several of the toll managed lane projects in Dallas-Ft. Worth had no debt and charged tolls to ‘control traffic through pricing.’ That’s a staggering admission for a highway department run by a conservative governor who prides himself on lowering taxes and taking on government overreach.

Hall insisted TxDOT drop such a punitive approach that seeks to control people, punish and discriminate against the poor, and use something that’s cheaper to implement and doesn’t cost the driver anything, like today’s technologically advanced ramp metering.

Senator Don Huffines chimed in with similar sentiments concluding tolls “are segmenting society between those who can afford tolls and those who can’t and it’s bad policy.”

Public testimony brought in the taxpayers’ perspective and gave a glimpse into the rage over tolls being charged on roads that are paid for. The GOP platform has a plank to remove tolls when the debt is repaid as well as a plank opposing the use of any public funds to build, subsidize or otherwise bail out toll projects. The Democratic platform also opposes toll roads. That’s the tip of the iceberg, though. A group of outraged citizens are preparing a class action lawsuit over the abusive toll collection practices that are are imposing fines and fees that financially ruin people and that allows unelected toll authorities to impound vehicles and block vehicle registration.

Many Texans are paying upwards of $300 a month in tolls just to get to work. Since the privatized toll projects opened, one has gone bankrupt, SH 130 (segments 5 & 6), and two in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex use dynamic or ‘congestion pricing’ (where the toll is based on the level of congestion) to soak the traveling public, charging up to $50 a day in tolls.

Perhaps the most surprising concessions of the day came from Nichols’ himself. Known as the most ardent opponent of removing tolls in order to keep paying for road maintenance, Nichols actually advocated removing tolls from the Camino Columbia toll road. Tolls are generating ten times the cost of maintaining it.

Taking tolls off Camino Columbia would “to me, be a no brainer…you could pull the tolls down tomorrow if you wanted to,” suggested Nichols.

Nichols also asked TxDOT to study the effectiveness of HOV lanes. HOV lanes have come under fire as many of them now have a toll element for single occupant vehicles known as High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes, which are highly underutilized and actually make congestion worse on the surrounding general purpose lanes. He suggested the Department look at pre-HOV traffic data and post-HOV traffic data to actually see whether or not HOV lanes have successfully changed behavior and encouraged more carpooling or simply captured those who were already carpooling.

If it hasn’t actually successfully changed behavior, “I have a real problem with it,” expressed Nichols. “Police have more important things to do than count heads in an HOV lane.”

The research is virtually unanimous already. According to Jack Mallinckrodt’s study The Best Evidence of HOV Lane Effectiveness, he determined, “In all the known complete transportation modeling studies that have quantitatively evaluated (overall congestion and/or polluting emissions), optimal performance occurs in the natural, unrestricted Mixed-Flow operational mode. In all these cases, any attempt to preferentially restrict the natural free distribution of traffic, whether by HOV or HOT (High Occupancy Toll) operation, made overall congestion and emissions worse… And the findings are essentially unanimous in saying that under typical conditions, maximum transportation benefit…is afforded by unrestricted, mixed-flow, rather than HOV operation.”

HOV/HOT lanes may very well be on the ropes in Texas. House Transportation Committee Chair Joe Pickett shares Nichols’ distaste for HOV lanes calling them ineffective and a waste of capacity in a growing state. Pickett also argues they make congestion worse, which studies confirm, like the one recently conducted by Inrix that concluded congestion on the general purpose lanes got worse after the HOT lanes opened.

This is good news for congestion weary, toll weary commuters who are tired of being the guinea pigs of urban planners, who delight in imposing road scarcity to manipulate people out of their cars and into a bus or carpool. Conservatives clearly got the message that tolls play into the hands of social engineers who want to control the populace, and that tolls are abusive and double taxing Texans, which threatens the sustainability of the Texas economic miracle.