Abbott, Davis both claim anti-toll positions

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Both gubernatorial candidates stake out anti-toll positions
By Terri Hall
October 2, 2014

Texas gubernatorial candidates Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis claimed to be against more toll roads at last night’s debate. Perhaps the recent research conducted by Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) that shows Texans do not want anymore tolls made the decision to be anti-toll a little easier. What’s shocking however, is that Wendy Davis thinks she can get away with it.

Since Davis entered the Texas senate in 2009, she’s done nothing but vote in favor of toll roads, even for the controversial private, corporate toll roads known as public private partnerships (P3s). Prior to her stint in the senate, she served as a Ft. Worth council member where she was appointed to serve on the Regional Transportation Council. Davis cried crocodile tears when the legislature yanked a P3 contract from Spanish toll giant, Cintra, for Hwy 121 in 2007. The contract would have locked down the expansion of free roads in Collin and Denton counties for the next 52 years. The toll rates Cintra could have charged in those final years would have been more than the cost of an airplane ticket from San Antonio to Dallas.

Davis voted repeatedly to hand more and more Texas roads to these private corporations in 2011 and 2013, among them the North Tarrant Express (7 segments of highway in Ft. Worth including major arteries like I-820, Hwy 121, & I-35) in her own district. Her law firm, Newby Davis, LLP,  does work for the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) which has spawned an investigation by the FBI for conflicts of interest since Davis also sits on the Senate Committee on Transportation that handles NTTA legislation. So for Wendy Davis to try to claim she’s against toll roads after doing everything in her power to foist them upon Texans and even position herself to profit from them, is the height of hypocrisy.

Now, when running for higher office, she glibly uttered, “Tolls have been a poor solution.”

Indeed, and it’s the solution she helped bring to fruition. She touted her bill to end gas tax diversions last session and passage of Prop 1 this November as her transportation plan, however, Senate Joint Resolution 31 only froze the existing diversions and would only reduce them if the state’s revenues grew by more than three times the amount of the reduction. At that rate, the pittance of new money that would kinda, maybe, sort of ever actually get to roads would be so infinitesimally small that the bill is more akin to lip service, than an actual plan to ensure gas taxes only go to roads. By the time there’d be enough money to wean Texas off toll roads, the whole state would already be covered in tolls. Even if Prop 1 passes and all gas tax diversions ceased tomorrow, that would only solve half of the $4 billion problem.

As Attorney General, Abbott has had plenty of encounters with toll roads. In 2005, Abbott sued the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to make public a P3 contract for the Trans Texas Corridor that the Department was suing Abbott to keep secret. He was given the unpleasant task by the legislature with reviewing P3 toll contracts for legal sufficiency. He was not at liberty to negotiate any of the terms – TxDOT has been given a blank check by the legislature to do so. These complicated, lengthy contracts ended up pushing Abbott to ask for $1 million annually just to pay for the enormous legal costs of negotiating these specialized toll contracts. Abbott initially spoke out about the unconstitutionality of TxDOT using the state highway fund to guarantee a loan of up to $4 billion in future gas taxes for the NTTA’s Hwy 161 toll project.

The constitution prohibits using the state highway fund to guarantee debt (outside the debt voters specifically approved with passage of constitutional amendment Prop 14 in 2003) and bind future legislatures. Rather than use his power as the state’s chief law enforcement officer to block the final unconstitutional loan, he looked the other way and allowed it to happen. Since then, TxDOT did another loan guarantee on the Grand Parkway toll project for another $4 billion last year.

Now Abbott declares: “My plan does not involve any toll roads, period. I’m not interested in adding toll roads in my plan,” in an answer to a pointed question posed by Express-News Austin Bureau Chief Peggy Fikac.

The anti-toll sentiment in Texas is now in full bloom, and both candidates know supporting more toll roads is a losing proposition. So while both candidates have some baggage when it comes to toll roads, the more credible candidate is Abbott. His plan actually solves the funding shortfall without new taxes, fees, and tolls. He never directly voted on toll policy as Davis did, and he did sue TxDOT to open up the Trans Texas Corridor contract to the public as well as make waves about TxDOT’s unconstitutional loan guarantees on toll projects.

While Abbott should have stopped those loan guarantees, Texas Governor Rick Perry, the defacto head of the Republican Party in Texas for over a decade, made toll roads one of his chief legacies and made publicly opposing him difficult, especially for members of his own party. With Perry out of the way, Abbott’s instincts are obviously to chart a different course. January, when the new governor gets sworn in, can’t come fast enough.