Auto dealers bolt on Biden mandate for EVs

Link to article here.

Biden’s EV Plan Faces Opposition From Thousands of Car Dealers

An open letter was signed by more than 3,800 dealerships across the country.

By Jack Phillips
Epoch Times
November 28, 2023

Several thousand car dealership owners around the United States have signed an open letter to the Biden administration, saying they oppose the aggressive push for electric vehicles, in another sign of growing concerns about the market for EVs.

Since taking office, President Joe Biden has signed a number of executive orders to boost the sales of EVs amid proposed changes that seek to reduce the number of cars that produce emissions by 2032. In 2021, the president outlined a plan that seeks to have 50 percent of new vehicles be either plug-in hybrids or fully electric by 2030.
But in an open letter published on Nov. 28, more than 3,800 auto dealers wrote that EV demand isn’t sufficient, even as the dealers said they believe that EVs “are ideal for many people” and that “their appeal will grow over time.”

“The reality, however, is that electric vehicle demand today is not keeping up with the large influx of BEVs [battery electric vehicles] arriving at our dealerships prompted by the current regulations,” the dealers said. “BEVs are stacking up on our lots.”

They noted that in 2022, there was considerable “hype” around EVs and that “early adopters formed an initial line and were ready to buy these vehicles” as soon as they were being sold.

“But that enthusiasm has stalled,” the letter continues. “Today, the supply of unsold BEVs is surging, as they are not selling nearly as fast as they are arriving at our dealerships—even with deep price cuts, manufacturer incentives, and generous government incentives.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) goals around emissions and EVs are “unrealistic based on current and forecasted customer demand,” the letter said, further adding that EVs still have serious hurdles to overcome. That includes insufficient EV charging infrastructure, power grid reliability problems, and a lack of reliable supplies needed to make EV batteries.

A number of major dealerships across the United States signed the letter. That includes Longo Toyota in Southern California, considered the largest car dealership in the world.

Other Concerns

A signee of the letter, the owner of New Jersey-based auto group Celebrity Motor Cars, told Fox Business on Nov. 28 that federal officials are “forcing the consumer to buy something that they don’t want” with the “mandates they are putting in place” regarding EVs.

“Consumers are not buying into the electric vehicle market right now because the infrastructure is not there, they’re concerned about the range, and it’s 20 to 30 percent higher [prices] to buy the vehicle,” Tom Maoli, the owner of the dealership group, told the outlet.

Even though the federal government and manufacturers are offering incentives to purchase EVs, consumers just don’t want to buy them, according to Mr. Maoli.

“The president needs to back off on mandates and allow the river to take its course,” he said. “EVs will survive, they’ll be a part of the marketplace. But they have to let the consumer decide which vehicle they want, how they’re going to get their families around, and where they’re going to spend their money.”

The EPA’s proposed target to have 50 percent of all new vehicles sold by 2030 be electric came under criticism from a top U.S. automotive trade group, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which said in July that the proposal isn’t reasonable.

“EPA’s proposed rules effectively assume that everything ‘will go perfectly’ in the transformation to EVs between now and 2032,” the group said. “The agency unrealistically assumes, for example, an over-abundance of battery critical mineral mines, critical mineral processing capacity and battery component, cell and pack production facilities lead to continued battery price reductions.”

It added that a recent report shows that China “dominates those areas.”

That target also came under harsh criticism from the top U.S. automotive trade group, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which criticized the EPA’s proposed rule earlier this year as “neither reasonable nor achievable” in the time frame intended.

The recent criticism comes as several top auto manufacturers recently announced plans to pull back on EV production. For example, Ford said last week that it would rescind some of its planned $3.5 billion investment into an EV battery factory in Michigan.

“We looked at all the factors. Those included demand and the expected growth for EVs, our business plans, our product cycle plans, the affordability and business to make sure we can make a sustainable business out of this plant,” Ford spokesman Mark Truby told reporters. “After assessing all that, we are now good to confirm that we’re moving forward with the plant, albeit in a slightly smaller size and scope than what we originally announced.”

Weeks before that, fellow Detroit-based automaker General Motors announced it was abandoning its plan to build 400,000 electric vehicles by the middle of 2024.

“We are also moderating the acceleration of EV production in North America to protect our pricing, adjust to slower near-term growth in demand, and implement engineering efficiency and other improvements that will make our vehicles less expensive to produce, and more profitable,” GM CEO Mary Barra said in a letter to shareholders in late October.

Deadly toll road: When private companies take over our public infrastructure, everyone loses

TTH Founder and Executive Director, Terri Hall, was interviewed for this article. We sounded the alarm bells before any of this happened. It’s tragic that people have lost their lives over it. We need to steer clear of privatizing our public infrastructure for a host of reasons, but this is the most compelling reason of all. Read on.

Link to article here.

Illustrations by Julius Maxim

The Death Toll: An Expensive Tollway’s High Cost in Human Lives

State Highway 288 was built by a private equity firm, letting TxDOT abdicate its responsibility to both drivers and construction workers.


Texas Observer
December 11, 2023

The sun was sinking toward the horizon when brothers Alejandro and Juan Simental drove their pickup less than 10 minutes from a Motel 6 to their job site: a pricey new toll road they were helping to build alongside busy State Highway 288. A week before, they had left their home in Arlington to work in the flat southern edge of Houston’s suburbs, the bustling intersection of State Highway 288 (SH 288) and Beltway 8. That’s where their employer, Choctaw Erectors, a steel construction company, was subcontracted to help build the Texas Department of Transportation’s latest privately operated tollway.

They shared their no-frills motel room with a coworker, sleeping only a few hours just to get up and work again. Their shifts were punishing—nine to 12 hours, often overnight, seven days a week.  But that evening, as the Houston sky gradually dimmed to a streetlight-stained dark gray, Alejandro, Juan, and five others on their crew established a rhythm. Alternating thumps and whirrs sounded as they laid and bolted corrugated metal decking, piece by piece, onto the tollway’s four bridge girders, 85 feet above the ground.

As the sun began to rise on June 21, 2019, Alejandro, 21, who stood around 5 feet 3 inches tall and was stocky like his brother, was working on a section of the bridge just a few feet away from Juan. There were about 15 minutes left in their shift when Juan reached the end of the first girder. Realizing that the 6-foot double safety lanyard he wore, which was tied to a safety line, did not allow him to reach the second girder more than 7 feet away,  Juan briefly unhooked the lanyard from his safety harness and walked across the steel decking.

Foreman Jorge Carlos was the only one to hear the scream as Juan tripped and fell 85 feet, head first. Seconds later, realizing his brother had fallen, Alejandro let the metal sheet he was holding drop from his hands and clatter to the ground. He rushed to an elevated boom lift that lowered him to his brother’s side.

Blood was already soaking into the soil. To the west of Juan’s feet lay his white hard hat and his right brown slip-on boot. His black plastic headlamp was still glowing. Co-workers gave Juan CPR. Police arrived in four minutes, the medic nine minutes later. That was too late. At 4:58 a.m., just two minutes before their shift was to end, Juan was pronounced dead. He was 22.

Choctaw foreman Jorge Carlos was later questioned about how project managers made sure all employees were properly tied to safety lines since the project had no safety nets. His reply: “It’s their responsibility. I can’t babysit everyone.”

Texas has 698,839 miles of road lanes, the distance of 28 laps around the earth—more miles of roadway than any other state. Highways are a source of state pride. The slogan “Don’t Mess with Texas” originated in 1985 from the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) campaign to keep roads clean of litter. But the state also leads the country in the number of deaths among workers who build its highways, a fact that TxDOT officials don’t openly discuss. TxDOT’s failure to address and hold contractors accountable for accidents on its highways may be part of why Texas’ highway worker fatality numbers are so high.

From the bottom of the contracting chain to the administrative offices of TxDOT, no one took responsibility for Juan’s death, according to public records and court documents reviewed by the Texas Observer. Alejandro says he never saw anyone on site either from TxDOT or from the Spain-based general contractors, Dragados USA, Pulice Construction, and Shikun & Binui America, collectively known as Almeda Genoa Constructors. He had assumed Choctaw, a subcontractor, was in charge. At the time of the accident, no safety managers from Choctaw or from Almeda Genoa were on site.

In response to the Observer’s request for comments on the accident, Choctaw owner Kevin Ball deferred to Almeda Genoa, which did not comment.

Juan’s death raises concerns about who, if anyone, is held responsible when highway workers die in Texas, especially in public-private partnership projects where virtually all control of public infrastructure is handed over to a for-profit entity. In the case of Juan’s death, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) gave Choctaw a slap on the wrist with only a $5,000 penalty, even after finding the company violated federal safety standards by failing to provide proper protective equipment. Kevin Ball, the owner of the Decatur, Texas-based steel erection company, admitted to OSHA investigators that he made workers provide their own safety harnesses and lanyards or took money from their paychecks if they used the company’s protective equipment.

But other players in the massive construction project were assessed no penalties at all, not by OSHA and not by the state agency, even as the number of worker accidents on the 10-mile-long toll road continued to pile up.

The Observer found that the agency had incomplete information on Juan’s death and failed to address accidents that the Observer uncovered. Even though the toll road was built on state-owned land with funds from federal tax revenues, TxDOT passed the buck on highway workers’ and drivers’ safety, indemnifying themselves against liability for any and all accidents based on its contract with the private equity firm that now controls the SH 288 toll road and its revenues for the next five decades.

TxDOT declined the Observer’s request for an interview with the agency’s occupational safety director or with the agency’s designated project director for the SH 288 tollway. When asked to explain specific actions TxDOT took after each serious accident, the agency commented, “TxDOT carefully examines every incident in a work zone.”

However, the agency did not find any records related to other workers’ accidents that resulted in hospitalization during the tollway construction, including one cited by OSHA. Its public information officers told the Observer that TxDOT “does not track injuries and fatalities of prime contractors or their subcontractors as a standard operating procedure” and only records contractor fatalities “if our office was made aware of the occurrence.”

ACS worker deaths

In a list of roadway construction fatalities TxDOT sent to the Observer, the agency listed the contractor in charge when Juan died as “unknown.”

“TxDOT, by using these public-private partnerships, is a way for them to shuffle off responsibility. And sadly, OSHA rarely shows up unless there is a death or serious injury,” said Jeremy Hendricks, political director of the Southwest chapter of the Laborers’ International Union of North America. Hendricks added that compared to states like Illinois, in which 99 percent of roadway workers are represented by the union and represented in the transportation department’s workers committees, zero roadway workers in Texas are unionized.

OSHA never cited general contractors Almeda Genoa Constructors, even though company officials admitted to the investigators that they failed to ensure all workers on the site were properly trained and equipped before they started working. OSHA reasoned that the company’s direct employees were not responsible for the incident, even though the agency has a multi-employer citation policy that holds general contractors, along with subcontractors, responsible. In response to the wrongful death lawsuit later filed by Juan’s family, Almeda Genoa said: “The accident in question and damages were solely caused by third parties over whom this Defendant had no control nor right of control.”

In an interview, former OSHA chief of staff and policy advisor Debbie Berkowtiz told the Observer that OSHA “failed to hold those responsible accountable for this tragic death.” She noted that falls are a leading cause of death in construction, and employers are required by law to provide proper fall protection equipment. “The agency sent the wrong message.”

Statewide, TxDOT has erected traffic safety signs that flash playful messages such as “Gobble, Gobble, Easy on the Throttle” or “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You” as part of its “End the Streak Campaign” to reduce traffic-related deaths. But the eyes of TxDOT seem to be overlooking roadway workers who continue to experience as many deaths as 10 years ago. Studies on the safety conditions for Texas roadway workers are nonexistent.

Apart from an email TxDOT issued about Juan’s death, records and statements the Observer received indicate the agency took no independent action after the fatality. In a public statement, TxDOT referred questions to the private developer. “TxDOT’s contracted developer is responsible for the design, build, finance, operation and maintenance of the Drive 288 Project.”

The avoidable death of Juan Simental raises bigger questions about whether TxDOT is doing anything to monitor private contractors when it comes to worker deaths and accidents during road construction projects—on toll roads or otherwise.

The privately operated SH 288 tollway shows there’s plenty of money to be made from Texas’ roads, but it’s often workers like Juan who pay the biggest price.

“It’s a race to the bottom when it comes to the state of Texas and the way they deal with contractors. They often don’t care how the work gets done. And who gets hurt in the process,” Hendricks said.

Since 2000, when Texas’ population started to boom and its growth started surpassing all other states, the previously semi-rural community of Pearland has transformed into an ever-expanding suburb for families looking for cheaper homes close to the SH 288 corridor that leads to the Texas Medical Center and downtown Houston. Along with the people came more congestion.

During public meetings from 2007 to 2013, community members called for an HOV lane or a public railway to be built on the median of SH 288 to alleviate congestion. Those alternatives, they argued, would encourage commuters to share rides and put fewer cars on the road.

What they got instead was a 10-mile, billion-dollar tollway built on state-owned land at a rate of $106 million per mile. The same citizens who called for HOV lanes or a train are now paying some of the state’s highest toll fees.

During a February 2007 public meeting to discuss alternatives for SH 288, resident and medical librarian Marilyn Goff told TxDOT, “Tolling will only benefit the rich and put money into the pockets of contractors and profit-seekers.” Now retired at 70, Goff told the Observer she can’t afford to pay for the tollway. But as Goff predicted, revenue from the SH 288 toll road has filled the pockets of profit-seekers.

Actividades de Construcción y Servicios, S.A. (ACS Group) is now the sole owner of the Blueridge Transportation Group that owns and operates the toll road, which runs from Beltway 8 to US 59 in downtown Houston, along SH 288. The company reported earning $74 million in revenue from the tollway last year. The fee for the road, as high as $30 for a round trip during rush hour, is already one of the state’s highest. But there is no limit to how much ACS Group can charge or how much it can raise tolls under its agreement with Texas.

Back in 2005,  then-Governor Rick Perry proposed creating a 4,000-mile network of privately operated toll roads called the Trans-Texas Corridor, prompting opposition from environmentalists, property rights advocates, farmers, business owners, and taxpayers’ rights activists. Many Texans were angry that the roads would be owned and the tolls collected by foreign investment firms.

Transportation activist Terri Hall has been organizing Texans against tolled roads since the state lifted its ban on toll roads back in 2001 and then permitted private entities to control roadways in 2003. Prior to this, state roadways were funded exclusively by state and federal gas taxes. Unlike standard TxDOT projects, these private operations, called concession projects, cede control of a roadway’s entire process—the design, construction, operation, and maintenance—for a period of 52 years to private investment firms. It’s why private firms can charge drivers exorbitant toll prices, especially when traffic is at its worst.

“The government pimped out Texas to seek out foreign toll operators from France and Spain. They put out on the front lawn of the Texas Capitol a sign that read ‘Texas is for sale. Name your price,’” Hall said. Around this time, she created the group Texans for Toll-Free Highways and has been fighting since to eliminate toll roads in the state.

While TxDOT has argued that privately operated highways shift the financial burden from taxpayers to the private sector, Hall argues that taxpayers often end up stuck paying for construction costs and decades of tolls until the contracts end.

Hall explains that private investment firms controlling the roads milk money from the public in several ways. The firms often self-deal construction contracts to their own subsidiaries that answer to the private entities rather than going through TxDOT’s normal competitive bidding process. For instance, ACS Group doled out construction contracts to its wholly owned subsidiaries Dragados USA and Pulice Construction to work on the SH 288 tollway. Construction costs are often inflated with various change orders that TxDOT cannot control. Private firms have no cap on how much they can charge drivers for tolls. They use a congestion pricing model to charge drivers more when traffic is at its worst and can levy heavy fines and even criminal penalties for tolls paid late under their contracts with the state.

“They’re literally extracting the highest possible rate from the traveling public and exploiting congestion rather than solving congestion,” Hall said.

Hall organized Texans to push the state Legislature to issue moratoriums on concession projects, starting in 2007 when 21 private concession projects under Perry’s plan came to the table. State Senator Robert Nichols, who had previously served as a Texas transportation commissioner, started to embed more public protections into these public-private partnership contracts. He rid contracts of the noncompete clauses, which had essentially awarded a private entity a monopoly in any road building activity within an area, and applied stricter standards before projects could pass the Legislature.

“My main objection is that when you have a roadway owned by a governmental entity that’s collecting tolls, the decisions that are made are made in the best interest of the people. When you have a toll authority that’s owned and operated by a corporation whose primary motive is to make a profit and benefit the stockholders, then those decisions are made in the best interest of the stockholders,” Nichols said.

The Observer found that over the past five years, there have been at least 119 workers’ compensation accident claims filed against the four primary private road developers—including the ACS Group subsidiaries, Zachry Construction, Webber LLC, and JD Abrams LP—awarded concession contracts by TxDOT, according to data from the Texas Department of Insurance.

Due to widespread opposition, Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor was essentially dead by 2017. Perry managed to grandfather in five concession projects, four of which were awarded to the Spanish company Ferrovial-Cintra: the LBJ-635 Express Corridor, the North Tarrant Express and another segment of North Tarrant Express/ I-35 West completed later (all three in the Dallas-Fort Worth area), and State Highway 130 in Central Texas. The last to be built was the State Highway 288 tollway.

Those concession projects typically received about one-third of their funding from federal loans and another third from tax-exempt private activity bonds. “These private firms get all this other money from the feds, from the state. They make enough money in those early years, even when it’s underutilized, so they cover at least their equity and usually a handsome profit before these things go belly up,” Hall said.

That’s exactly what happened to the private State Highway 130 toll road, 41 miles that run through Travis, Caldwell, and Guadalupe Counties. When the SH 130 Concession Company filed for bankruptcy in 2016, the company’s main player, Ferrovial-Cintra, left SH 130 with millions in debt, pavement defects, and flooding problems. Bankruptcy court filings revealed that the company knew the highway would go broke but managed to siphon $329 million to pay for construction costs to a company Ferrovial created.

Two days after SH 130 filed for bankruptcy, TxDOT signed a contract for the 288 tollway project with the foreign investment firms making up the Blueridge Transportation Group, now solely owned by the Spanish infrastructure firm ACS Group.

After Juan’s death, the accidents continued as the Blueridge Transportation Group assembled the SH 288 toll from 2016 to the end of 2020.

No one from the state nor from the toll road general contractor seemed to consistently force contractors to comply with workers’ safety laws under OSHA and the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which regulates traffic control for highway construction. There were dozens of other injuries during the tollway’s construction, including at least six workers hospitalized with debilitating injuries, OSHA records show.

According to OSHA investigation reports and court filings, workers commonly reported that there was no one monitoring safety conditions, no flagger or spotter, and no safety training.

On December 2, 2017, one worker under the direction of ACS subsidiary Pulice Construction hit an unmarked electrical line on the company’s Houston premises, causing power to surge through and shock him. No report was filed with OSHA.

On July 11, 2018, at the Interstate Highway 610 intersection of the tollway, a highway concrete form without adequate support braces collapsed on two workers, both of whom suffered fractures. OSHA cited Almeda Genoa for failing to train the workers and to provide adequate support structures for the job.

On August 28, 2019, solid concrete blocks crushed a worker and severed his toes while he was emptying out a truck bed under the direction of ACS’s Pulice Construction subsidiary McNeil Brothers.

On October 7, 2020, a little over a year after Juan’s death, another worker was injured when he fell from a wall without fall protection equipment at the tollway’s intersection with Beltway 8.

On February 28, 2020,  a truck struck a worker and drove over his legs as he was spreading concrete near the intersection of Beltway 8 and SH 288. Court filings revealed there were no spotters in place. The worker survived the incident, regaining his ability to walk and work one year later.  No report was filed with OSHA.

Another worker was not so lucky. A similar accident occurred one year later on another Pulice Construction project for TxDOT just 20 miles west of the SH 288 tollway. The company’s foreman, Isidro Matamoros, died when a tractor backed into him and knocked him over. There were no spotters, and the tractor driver later told the police he had heard and noticed the impact, but he still proceeded to roll backward over Matamoros, crushing his body.

In total, the SH 288 tollway construction resulted in dozens of worker accidents, at least 10 motor vehicle accidents, two of which resulted in deaths, a pavement collapse, four class action wage theft claims, and seven lawsuits involving breach of contract claims, the Observer found in an extensive search of federal, state, and county court records.

Juan’s death and other accidents on the SH 288 tollway illustrate a small part of the dangerous conditions faced by  Texas roadway workers.

Texas has the highest rate of highway worker fatalities in the nation. Part of the reason is that

TxDOT’s general standards for ensuring workers’ safety are weak. In its two-page instruction for contractors titled “Standard Specifications for Construction” and its online Construction Manual, TxDOT largely defers to federal OSHA statutes and the state Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which regulates work zone and traffic safety during highway construction, without specifying how TxDOT plans to enforce workers safety. In comparison, Caltrans, California’s state transportation agency, outlines specific requirements extending beyond its state or federal OSHA plans, and gives guidance on how to conduct each aspect of road construction safely in their Code of Safe Practices and their Construction Manual.

California, which has a larger population than Texas, has had at least 57 highway worker fatalities in the last 12 years, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since 2012, the state has reduced the number of fatalities from 10 to two in 2022. Illinois, whose transportation department frequently meets with a committee of unionized workers, has only had 28 highway worker fatalities in the last 10 years. In comparison, Texas has had 116 highway worker fatalities in the same period. In 2022, 12 roadway workers died, the same number as in 2012. Most of these workers were Hispanic immigrants.

Caltrans also establishes a safety plan for all projects, including state private-public partnership projects. In contrast, TxDOT has private contractors develop their own health and safety plan in accordance with general contract requirements.

Alemda Genoa did send TxDOT its safety plan, many provisions of which the company seems to have repeatedly violated, including requirements for safety training, as well as contractor identification and inspection of protective equipment. No course of enforcement from TxDOT was stipulated.

And TxDOT does not seem to have considered ACS Group’s own safety history. The company reported fatality numbers for its subsidiaries’ various projects, exceeding TxDOT’s own number in the years before the start of the tollway’s construction. TxDOT continues to award ACS subsidiaries roadway construction contracts even after two workers died and countless others were injured on its roadway projects.

Worldwide, from 2014 to 2022, 88 workers have died during projects conducted by ACS’ subsidiaries, an average of 11 deaths a year.

In the Chamartín district of Madrid, Spain, where the streets are lined with lush gardens, upscale restaurants, and boutiques, ACS Group’s headquarters tower over neighboring buildings. Swallowing one infrastructure company after another, ACS Group has been continuously ranked as the world’s largest public-private partnership transportation developer by Public Works Financing, an industry periodical. The company has more than 130 concession projects worldwide and investments worth over $60.5 billion. A publicly traded company, it took in a net profit of $727 million last year, a 66 percent increase from the previous year. Its largest market now, more than half of all its upcoming projects, is North America.

ACS alone continues to rake in millions from projects like the SH 288 tollway. And TxDOT is one of its biggest customers.

Here’s how that happened.

TxDOT initially awarded a 52-year contract to design, construct, maintain, and operate the private highway, to be built on a 10-mile median of a state-owned road that runs from Brazoria County to downtown Houston, to the private equity partnership called Blueridge Transportation Group. The partnership included the infrastructure investment groups ACS Group, the Israel-based firms Shikun & Binui and Clal Industries, London-based Infrastructure Fund, Canada-based Northleaf Capital, and an American company, Tikehau Star Infra.

Before construction began, ACS Group had only paid $80 million, or 8 percent of the total project costs. The company then doled out the $800 million construction contract to its own subsidiaries Dragados USA and Pulice Construction, which together with Shikun & Binui American formed the general contractors Almeda Genoa Contractors.

Blueridge still owed two-thirds of the costs in loans at the time construction was completed in 2020: $357 million in federal loans, nearly $300 million in tax-exempt private equity bonds, and $17 million from TxDOT.

But by April of this year, ACS Group had bought out all other equity shareholders and is now the sole owner of the Blueridge Transportation Group.

And despite the slew of accidents on the SH 288 toll, TxDOT continues to award contracts to ACS Group and its subsidiaries, now totaling more than $4.7 billion for at least 22 projects. In just two years between 2019 and 2020, Texas roadway workers filed 20 workers’ compensation claims against ACS subsidiaries.

ACS’ Texas projects include the US 181 Harbor Bridge in Corpus Christi, yet another public-private partnership project that has displaced and made unlivable the surrounding low-income Black community of Hillcrest. The project is at least four years behind schedule after perpetual delays caused by safety issues and design defects.

No one, from the BTG spokesperson to the CEO of ACS Infrastructure to the president of their subsidiaries involved in the project, responded to the Observer’s multiple requests for comments via phone and email.

Alejandro and Juan Simental did everything together. Only a year separated Alejandro from Juan, the middle child of three siblings. Growing up in their hometown of Durango, Mexico, the brothers played endless hours of soccer, battled each other in video games, and planned their futures together. Durango is Mexico’s fourth-largest state but is sparsely populated. Fields producing corn, beans, and chilies and pastures filled with beef cattle make up most of the landscape. Compared to other Mexican states, fewer residents of Durango emigrate. But in 2016 when Alejandro turned 18, he and his brother went north to try their luck in the Texas construction industry.

They thought they’d found stable work with Choctaw Erectors in 2019. For six months, they built university and commercial buildings in North Texas, but never anything as tall as the 85-foot high SH 288-Beltway 8 tollway bridge.

“My brother’s life could’ve been saved if there was more security. There was no one looking. Us workers, we were all alone. Above, there was no one,” said Alejandro.

He never returned to the worksite after his brother’s fatal fall. Or to Choctaw Erectors. A few days later, Alejandro left for Durango to take his brother’s remains to his grieving family. When he returned to Texas a month later, he decided to work for himself. As an independent contractor, his income is not as stable. But he feels safer knowing he can better control his own working conditions.

It’s still difficult for Alejandro to speak about his brother. But he shared his story in the hope that other workers wouldn’t have to lose their lives before the government finally takes notice.

Today, motorists who pay to travel on the SH 288 tollway where the Simental brothers worked can see how the new toll road soars above commercial buildings, electrical poles, and evergreen trees, so high that cars seem surrounded by nothing but sky. Those who look down at the site from a plane can see how eight crisscrossing highway segments form what looks like a knotted cross.

What did taxpayers get from the 88th Legislature on transportation?

No mileage tax, but taxpayers get transportation crumbs and a whole lotta ‘woke’ from 88th Legislature
By Terri Hall
Texans for Toll-free Highways & Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (Texas TURF)
June 6, 2023

While the 88th regular session of the Texas Legislature has come to a close, what did the taxpayers get out of it when it comes to transportation and toll reforms? In short, not much. Let’s break it down.

It’s easier to say what didn’t pass first since none of our filed bills even got a hearing, except one, much less voted out of committee. No bill to stop remote kill switches going into all cars after 2026 (currently mandated by the Biden Infrastructure bill), no bill to stop road diets, no bill to protect drivers’ right to repair, no bill to take tolls down once the road debt is paid for, and no toll collections/billing reform, with the exception of immediately notifying drivers when there’s a problem with your payment card (HB 2170). Get the scoop on all this essential legislation here.

HB 2170 by Bobby Guerra (D-McAllen) was a huge missed opportunity. The grassroots jumped in to ask him to sign onto our broader toll billing reform bill, HB 2991 by Brian Harrison (R-Midlothian), as soon as his bill got filed, but he never did. Then when his bill was heard in committee, we asked if he’d consider substituting our language for his since his bill’s language was already in our bill, and he wouldn’t. Then when his bill came to the House floor for a vote, knowing it was too late to have our bill make it to the floor, he once again refused any amendments to his bill, including a pared-down version just capping the toll fines/fees and removing the criminal penalty. He refused to budge.

Then when it passed the House and went over to the Senate, we once again asked him and the senate sponsor, Senator Carol Alvarado (D-Houston), to amend it to at least give drivers relief from punitive fines and remove the criminal penalty — still no deal despite calls and pleas from ordinary Texans. Not one Republican would bring any of these amendments to the floor for a vote in either chamber. So the toll agencies have more power and sway than the millions of Texas drivers who get put into collections over unpaid tolls. Why do so many of those bills go unpaid? Because of the outrageous fines and fees tacked onto them, making them out of reach for most drivers.

One glimmer of hope came from a bill by Senator Brian Birdwell, SB 1017, to protect our right to own and use a vehicle or any other machine with a fossil fuel powered engine. Basically, it will keep cities and counties from banning gas powered engines.

Two significant wins for taxpayers were the defeat of two of House Transportation Committee Chair Terry Canales’ (D-Edinburg) bills — the mileage tax, HB 3418, and the bill to extend the 50-year private toll contract on SH 130 another 20 years, HB 2795, in order for the state to get a ‘free’ connector to SH 130 from SH 46 in New Braunfels. Both of these bills passed the House but failed in the Senate, thanks to tremendous grassroots opposition and clearer heads in the more conservative chamber. To understand the implications of why HB 2795 is a BAD deal for taxpayers, go here.

HB 3418 by Canales would have studied how to impose a state mileage tax. A tax on every mile you drive is really a toll for every mile you drive. This would be disaster for Texas taxpayers! The original filed bill required TxDOT to “vary pricing based on the time of driving, type of public highway, proximity to transit, vehicle fuel efficiency, participation in car-sharing or pooling, or the income of the operator.”

That’s straight out of the Biden administration’s socialist, anti-car playbook. In a Government Accountability Office report on the expanded use of a mileage tax published just after the infrastructure bill passed, it explains it perfectly, “Another type of equity is the ability-to-pay principle, where users who are more capable of bearing the burden of fees should pay more for the service than those with less ability to pay.”

The version that passed the House removed income (for now). However, it still required TxDOT to “evaluate the enforceability of the vehicle mileage user fee and opportunities for operators to evade or manipulate the fee; and the impact of the vehicle mileage user fee on equity.”

It also required TxDOT to “submit to the legislature a report including: the feasibility of permanently assessing a vehicle mileage user fee; an evaluation of the impacts of a vehicle mileage user fee on the economy, the environment, and traffic congestion; and the department’s recommendations together with suggested legislation necessary to implement the recommendations.”

Plank #63 in the 2022 GOP platform opposes a mileage tax, but that didn’t make a difference to the Democrat Committee Chair nor the majority of House Republicans. Ultimately, a mileage tax is a form of carbon tax, because the government would be able to track and penalize drivers for driving ‘too much,’ at the ‘wrong’ time of day, or for actions they deem environmentally unacceptable, like choosing to drive when you live close to transit. While it received a hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee, it lacked the votes to get out of committee, so it died in the Senate.

But there was plenty of ‘woke’ road policy and climate extremism, as well as bills to benefit special interests, especially the EV industry. Thankfully, very little passed the Senate, too, but not without a fight.

The House passed bills out of the Green New Deal playbook that includes intentional slowing of cars and other ‘traffic-calming’ measures designed to restrict the free flow of auto lanes. Get the backstory with all the bill numbers here. Climate equity plans adopted by most Texas cities also include increasing penalties on speeding and other aspects of driving (for example, prohibiting cars from passing pedestrians and cyclists without a specific distance as a buffer, or anything to put barriers in the way of free-flowing traffic).

Houston’s Climate Action Plan calls for slower speeds and other anti-car measures, with the express intent of getting people out of their cars and into buses or on bikes. Often dubbed Vision Zero, these policies deliberately slow cars to force drivers out of them, under the guise of ‘safety’ to attain the impossible goal of zero fatalities on Texas roads.

Austin’s Climate Action Plan declares, “we created the plan through the lens of racial equity,” confirming climate plans are a vehicle to impose social justice policies as well. They envision a car-free society.

HB 2224 authored by Rep. Ana Hernandez (D–Houston) would give cities unilateral power to lower speed limits on highways down to 20 m.p.h., without a traffic or engineering investigation to justify it. It was one of the first bills backed by environmental groups to pass out of committee, and it passed the full House.

The Senate had already passed the identical version, SB 1663 by Alvarado. But neither bill ended up moving through both chambers until the last two weeks of session when the House Transportation Committee decided to quickly move to pass the senate bill, SB 1663, and got it on the last House calendar on the last day to pass senate bills in the House. Because of delay tactics by Democrats to stop many bills they didn’t like using ‘chubbing’ to run out the clock, SB 1663 died. But it came VERY close to becoming law, effectively turning our highways into school zones. Permanently.

Canales did pass HB 1885, which allows TxDOT to ‘temporarily’ reduce the speed limit 10 m.p.h. below the posted speed for virtually any purpose, and it fails to define ‘temporary’—so, it could last indefinitely. Ever experience inactive work zones for months and even years with lower posted speeds? Imagine that spread like a virus.

Another bill, HB 898, authored by Republican Lynn Stucky of Denton, also passed, which will mandate new criminal penalties and more than double the fine (to a minimum $500 up to $1,250) for drivers who fail to move over when passing police, fire, tow trucks, TxDOT and other road workers on the shoulder. On a second offense resulting in bodily harm, a conviction will land you in jail with a felony and your license suspended for six months. There’s no room for discretion, it’s mandatory sentencing. It won’t matter if the situation was unavoidable when a driver may have been facing other perilous hazards if they slow down too quickly (like causing a pile-up behind them or crash into other vehicles if the driver forces his/her way into the other lane in crowded conditions). HB 898 passed the House 139-9 and passed the Senate 27-4.

One small bright light was passage of HB 4797 by Ramon Romero, Jr. (D-Ft.Worth) to bring some degree of accountability for the deaths of 6 Texas drivers. During ice storm Yuri in 2021, Interstate-35 W in Ft. Worth did not get properly treated to prevent ice build up by the private toll operator, Cintra, causing a 133 car pile-up that left 6 drivers dead. Romero’s bill would require all toll agencies, including private entities, to undergo training by TxDOT on how to properly weatherize roads.

Passage of HB 3297 by Cody Harris (R-Palestine) was another win for taxpayers with the repeal of the vehicle inspection for many vehicle owners. An inspection is still required per federal law in non-attainment areas thanks to the EPA, however, for everyone else, there is no longer a requirement to get your vehicle inspected. Ironically, since the Texas Constitution requires you to pay a $7 vehicle inspection fee to the state, you’ll still pay the fee, but just save the $7 you’d normally pay the vehicle inspection station and save the hassle of getting the inspection. Small victories.

Two key transportation funding bills passed, which shores up a sustainable highway funding stream and prevents the need for more toll roads. HB 2230 by Canales ensures revenue from oil and gas severance taxes (as approved by 80 percent of voters statewide in 2014) will continue. It extends Prop 1 funding from 2034 out to 2042.
SCR 2 by Senator Robert Nichols likewise ensures that annual revenue from Prop 7 sales tax and vehicle sales tax provisions (approved by 83 percent of voters in 2015) will remain in place. It extends Prop 7 until 2039 (vehicle sales tax) and 2042 (sales tax).

Another bill by Nichols finally made it across the finish line to charge Electric Vehicles (EVs) a vehicle registration fee. SB 505 imposes a $200 (renewal) or $400 (new) registration fee on EVs. Since EV users do not pay gasoline tax, EVs have been using Texas roads without paying for that road usage. This will require EVs to contribute to the State Highway Fund to ensure there continues to be sufficient funding for our state roads.

However, the EV industry got two prizes with passage of HB 3014 by Caroline Harris (R-Round Rock), to repeal the vehicle inspection for EVs, and SB 1364 by Alvarado (D-Houston) that grants a weight exemption to EV trucks allowing heavier loads (up to 82,000 pounds compared to their fossil fuel powered counterparts who are limited to 80,000 pounds) on our highways. This enshrines in statute the ability of EV trucks to do more damage to Texas highways without having to pay an additional overweight truck permit fee. Currently the max weight is 80,000 pounds for all other trucks. That’s not likely to be the last giveaway to the EV industry. Some might be asking, ‘But this is Texas! Why are we giving away green subsidies like the blue states do?’ Good question. I don’t have an answer for you, except cronyism and big campaign donations from the special interests who benefit from these corporate handouts.

WIth the first special session underway and more coming, who knows what the other sessions could produce. But rest assured, all eyes are on the Texas legislature, and we’ll stand guard to ensure our travel liberties are not infringed. While no genuine reform bills passed as a deliberate choice of leadership (Governor, Lt Governor, and Speaker and their committee chairs), we’ll turn our focus on preparing for the next regular session and building the grassroots army necessary to get them across the finish line. Texas drivers deserve far better than they’re getting, and it’s incumbent upon all of us to demand it. Hold them accountable at the ballot box. We need more courageous lawmakers to stand up and fight for our freedoms, not play footsie with leadership, be paralyzed with timidity, or go along to get along.  

BIG Fat ‘F’: Majority of state lawmakers earn failing grade

Most legislators receive failing grade on anti-toll Report Card

 Both bills filed and bills that moved meant bad news for taxpayers, drivers Austin, Texas – Anti-toll watchdog group Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) released its Report Card from the 86th Legislature today. In comparison to the prior session in 2017, where 57% of legislators were considered friendly, in 2019, that number fell to just 19% (based on the number of lawmakers who earned ‘A’s & ‘B’s). TURF used 18 different transportation, property rights, and good government bills (that impact those first two issues) to calculate each legislator’s score, all of which are listed at the end of its Report Card. Every lawmaker was informed of TURF’s position on the bill prior to the vote. 

The Texas House went off a cliff in terms of friendly legislators, with 73% earning a failing grade. In the Texas Senate, taxpayers fared much better with 45% of senators earning As & Bs. Just 16 total lawmakers earned an ‘A.’ Compare that to 56 lawmakers in 2017, and anti-toll voters have cause for concern.

“While none of our anti-toll reform bills ever got a vote either in committee or on the floor this session, the bills that did move were a disaster for taxpayers. The House Transportation Committee, including most every Republican, clearly wanted to raise your taxes on driving with six bills to increase fines & fees whether registration fees, local sales tax, or traffic fines in ‘safety corridors,'” points out TURF Founder/Director Terri Hall.

“With four bills that passed the House Transportation Committee to extend or expand public private partnership toll contracts this session, the toll lobby and crony capitalists pushed this corporate welfare with full force, despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s promise of ‘no new taxes, fees, debt or tolls.’ With tolls on such privatized toll roads now exceeding $3/mile in Ft. Worth, voting to gouge Texas commuters to that level is inexcusable!” 

Hall argues the difference is due to the leadership. In 2017, when 9 anti-toll bills were turned into amendments offered on the Texas Department of Transportation sunset bill and came up for a floor vote, 57% of lawmakers knew they had better vote the right way on the toll issue. Seven out of nine anti-toll amendments passed in 2017. In 2019, leadership made sure no anti-toll reforms like removing the toll when the road is paid for and capping toll fines/fees and de-criminalizing an unpaid toll bill, made it out of committee. So taxpayers were left trying to hold their ground, defending themselves from a litany of tax/fee hikes, further criminalizing drivers, and the continued assault on property rights. 

“Under that broader microscope, lawmakers failed the test,” Hall concludes. 

With election season ramping up, TURF anticipates that the 300 grassroots groups that use its Report Card to vet potential candidates on transportation/property rights issues will be seeking accountability at the ballot box in 2020.


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.

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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.

Anti-toll candidates & Proposition win big in primaries


Anti-toll candidates, proposition won in GOP primaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Trump plan to lift ban on tolling existing interstates draws scorn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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