Harris County hatches plan to bypass state law, keep tolls in perpetuity

Link to article here.

This is a deliberate attempt to bypass state law and use toll revenues in any way the county wishes. This is why taxpayers need the protection of Sen. Bob Hall and Rep. Matt Shaheen’s bill to remove the toll once the road is paid for and halt these gimmicks used to keep tolls in place FOREVER and use them as politicians’ personal slush funds.

Harris County Toll Revenues Redirected to County Coffers
A Harris County plan will “sell” toll roads to a newly created government corporation and allow toll road revenues to be spent on unrelated projects.

By Holly Hansen
The Texan
September 18, 2020

Democrats on the Harris County Commissioners Court have successfully pushed through a controversial plan that shifts toll road system funds into county coffers and circumvents original restrictions on how tollway revenues may be used.

Approved by voters in 1983, the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) has managed construction, operation, and maintenance of a network of toll roads facilitating traffic through and around the heavily congested Greater Houston area and beyond for more than 30 years.

HCTRA has managed to accumulate $1.6 billion in cash on hand, with about $2.7 billion in bonds. Under the current structure, bond conditions and state law limit the use of these funds to transportation infrastructure and related facilities.

At last Tuesday’s commissioners court meeting, newly appointed Budget Director David Berry recommended a plan to circumvent restrictions and “provide more efficient funding” for other projects in Harris County.

Under the new plan, Harris County will create a Local Governance Corporation (LGC), to which they will then sell the existing toll road system. Existing HCTRA bonds will be paid off and reissued under lower rates, but also without the previous restrictions on surplus funds.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) asserted that surplus funds could then be used for flood control projects. Voters approved a $2.5 billion bond for flood mitigation in 2018, but last year the court voted to subject such projects to a “Social Vulnerability Index” that only weighs flood risk reduction as 25 percent of the formula for prioritizing new projects, and flood mitigation needs for the region are projected to exceed funds made available through property taxes, bonds, and federal programs.

The terms of the LGC arrangement, however, do not attach a specific purpose for the funds that will be shifted from the toll road system to the county, and the funds can be used for anything the court votes to approve.

Once established, the new Harris County Toll Road Corporation (HCTRC), will make a first year payment to the county of $300 million in franchise fees. Estimated franchise fees each year thereafter will be $90 million, but are subject to change by commissioners’ court.

Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) noted that the transaction, which would involve between $2.7 and $2.8 billion, would be the largest in county history, and expressed concerns to Berry about rushing to create such a program without soliciting public input.

“When we did the bond [for flood control projects] for $2.5 billion…we did 22 public meetings to engage the public on this very large financial transaction that would impact the public,” said Cagle.

When Cagle asked if Berry was aware of any plans or desire to engage the public before moving forward, Berry replied that there were none. Berry suggested the urgency is related to historically low interest rates, but the Federal Reserve this week indicated rates will remain low for several years.

Cagle submitted letters in opposition to the LGC plan from both the Greater Tomball and Cy-Fair Chambers of Commerce, and the North Houston Association.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo called the proposal a “creative” and “smart” plan, to “maximize every resource,” and said she wanted to move forward immediately instead of waiting for public input so they could refinance the bonds at lower interest rates.

Other options analyzed by Berry included refinancing the bonds at the lower rates, but without selling the toll system to a newly created LGC.

Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) also applauded what he said was “innovative” thinking, and joined Ellis in praising Hidalgo for her transparency.

“There is nothing transparent about this…this is a money grab,” Commissioner Steve Radack (R-Pct. 3) responded.

Former Spring Valley Village Mayor Tom Ramsey, who is the Republican nominee to replace retiring Commissioner Radack, told The Texan that for the past 30 years the county had been disciplined in keeping toll revenues dedicated to transportation infrastructure, but that the HCTRC will shift funds to non-related projects of the majority’s choosing.

“There will be fewer dollars spent on infrastructure spent in Harris County as a result of this move,” said Ramsey.

Democrat candidate for Precinct 3 Commissioner Michael Moore did not respond to request for comment by the time of publication and has not publicly commented on the LGC arrangement, but has campaigned on a promise to push for alternative transit as well as infrastructure improvements.

State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) told The Texan that HCTRA surplus funds should be used to reduce tolls for taxpayers “who drive back and forth to work on these roads every day.”

“The allure of billions of dollars in cash and bonds is almost impossible for these big government spenders to ignore,” said Bettencourt. “The result is that taxpayers will end up paying higher tolls when they should be getting a break right now.”

Toll roads, including the HCTRA, have often been advertised to voters as self-sustaining projects that eventually can lead to toll price reductions, or, as in the case of the Texas Turnpike, becoming a toll-free highway once initial costs are covered.

Last year the court also voted to abandon formulas that allocated road funds by mileage in favor of dividing METRO funds equally among the four county precincts.

The initial governing board for the newly formed HCTRC will be the five members of the Harris County Commissioners Court until a new board can be appointed.

TURF’s 87th Session Report Card is In

While we shared with you the good, the bad and ugly from the 87th regular session here, TURF analyzed 15 bills that received record votes (both good and bad bills) to determine its Report Card, and the results may shock you.

In 2017, 57% of lawmakers earned As & Bs, and in 2019, 19% of lawmakers hit that mark. So imagine our disappointment that in 2021 that number dropped to just 8%.

In the Texas House, 69 of the 150 members earned an ‘F,’ and 19 of 31 members of the Texas Senate got a failing grade. This is the first time since Lt Gov Dan Patrick took office that the senate scored worse than the House. Put another way, 46% of the House earned an ‘F’ while 61% of senators earned an ‘F.’

Every member was forewarned before any record vote took place. So check out what grade your lawmakers earned and hold them accountable. With redistricting set to go into full swing September 20 as lawmakers are called back for a 3rd special session, make sure they hear from you. If necessary, start looking for quality candidates to replace poor performing lawmakers.

See how your legislators voted – TURF 2021 Legislative Report Card

Abbott, state leaders increase fees, road debt & fail to restrain toll fines

Abbott, state leadership fail to protect drivers from fees increases, more road debt

By Terri Hall
June 20, 2021

Ouch! That’s likely the reaction of taxpayers now that the session is over and the damage to your pocketbook is emerging from the chaos. The 87th Legislature in Texas came to a clunky close a few weeks ago, and the results for taxpayers, particularly drivers, is a mixed bag. Both during his campaign in 2014 and again during his state of the state address in 2015, Governor Greg Abbott promised to fix our roads without more taxes, fees, tolls, or debt. It was the centerpiece of his Texas Clear Lanes Initiative — to pass Prop 7 that year in order to get more funding directed to the state’s most congested roads without adding to the tax burden and without more tolls.

However, this session, he broke three of the four promises. The legislature put a vehicle registration fee hike, a bill to issue new debt from the Texas Mobility Fund (TMF), and another to allow private toll entities to increase toll fines and fees above the $48/year cap placed on the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) on his desk. Abbott allowed all to become law without his signature, but he allowed them to become law nonetheless. Shame on the legislature for passing them in the first place.

The $10 vehicle registration fee hike, HB 1698 (Raney), applies to a Regional Mobility Authority (RMA), which is primarily a toll authority, in Brazos County. That means every car owner will pay more in order to subsidize a toll project they may never drive. It also triple taxes the drivers who do take the toll road since they pay a toll, an extra vehicle registration fee in addition to paying gasoline taxes to use that stretch of road. The excuse they used was that it will come before the voters first. Naturally, big government can always find a way to put lipstick on a pig and sell it to the voters as ‘give us more money or else none of your roads will get fixed.’ Hardly an argument for limited government, lower taxes, or freedom of mobility. Instead, they’re essentially saying give us more while we squander, misuse, or waste the money we already take from you. When RMA executive directors garner higher salaries to run these little toll fiefdoms compared to the Executive Director of TxDOT with 11,000 employees, there’s a problem with bloat and overspending. It’s certainly not because taxpayers aren’t paying enough.

HB 2219 authored by House Transportation Committee Chair Terry Canales will open up the Texas Mobility Fund once again to issuing more road debt. The state debt combined with its local toll entities (which are a subdivision of the state) and private toll entities exceeds $85 billion. The excuse we heard for issuing new TMF debt was because I-35 through Austin will be done non-toll and cost $9 billion, there’s not enough money to go around to fix other congested corridors without tolls (which Abbott has taken off the table). So leadership says it needs access to new road debt in order to avoid using tolls, particularly private toll projects like the exorbitantly expensive ones (as in over $3/mile or $24/day expensive) outside Austin, in DFW, and a stretch in Brazoria County.

HB 1116 by Ed Thompson is one of the most egregious of the session giving a blank check to these private toll entities to slap enormous toll fines and fees onto drivers’ toll bills, bypassing existing state law that caps those fees at $48/year on TxDOT-operated projects. Why on earth would lawmakers allow unlimited fines and fees by private, foreign corporations to be slapped on Texas drivers that it doesn’t tolerate from TxDOT? Fines that can result in a criminal charge and cause drivers to have their vehicle registration blocked and cars impounded?

Watch Out for November Ballot
One piece of legislation, HJR 99 (Canales), that bypasses the governor is a constitutional amendment that gives counties the ability to issue new road debt using an unpopular method backed by property tax increases called Transportation Reinvestment Zones (TRZs). Lawmakers already tried getting this past the voters in 2011 (then known as Prop 4), but voters rejected it. Now they think they can get it slipped past you this November by deceptively changing the ballot language to remove the phrase ‘ad valorem tax increases’ and throw in the word ‘transportation’ (ballot initiatives for transportation tend to pass with over 90% of the vote – nearly 100% of citizens need and use roads on a daily basis, it’s one of the few core functions of government). Even more frightening is the broad language used for the land to do it. It changes the constitution to give counties authority to issue bonds to finance ‘undeveloped, underdeveloped, or blighted areas.’ That could mean virtually anything! One man’s blight is another man’s treasure. The word transportation wasn’t even in the bill until Senator Bob Hall amended it.

Here’s what the ballot language was in 2011:

“The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to permit a county to issue bonds or notes to finance the development or redevelopment of an unproductive, underdeveloped, or blighted area and to pledge for repayment of the bonds or notes increases in ad valorem taxes imposed by the county on property in the area.  The amendment does not provide authority for increasing ad valorem tax rates.”

Here’s what it says now:

“The constitutional amendment authorizing a county to finance the development or redevelopment of transportation or infrastructure in unproductive, underdeveloped, or blighted areas in the county.”

Senator Hall jumped into action to help us try to amend the bill and restore the original ballot language. He did manage to amend it in the senate to ensure it can’t be used on toll projects. Whew! But the senate expressly voted to keep the deceptive ballot language. Be forewarned, this bill involves increases to your property taxes to pay off long-term debt for 40+ years for state transportation projects (or anything they can call ‘infrastructure,’ which if you look at the current Biden administration infrastructure bill, that could be student loan forgiveness, Obamacare subsidies, Medicaid expansion or universal preschool). We don’t know the number for this proposition yet or what order it will appear on the ballot, so stay tuned and stay engaged so you know to vote ‘no’ on this proposition in November. Also, remember to hold your lawmakers who voted for it accountable. No fewer than 112 house members co-authored the bill, including Freedom Caucus members Briscoe Cain, Matt Krause, Valoree Swanson, Steve Toth, and Cody Vasut.

So What’s the Mixed Bag?
The grassroots victories come from what you don’t see rather than what you do. Stopping the fire hose of bad toll road, anti-car, anti-driver bills was our biggest accomplishment.

We stopped bills that would have:
-Authorized unlimited private toll roads.
-Reduce speed limit citywide to 25 MPH in urban areas.
-Doubled fines in any corridor labeled a ‘highway safety corridor’ (another form of a speed trap).
-Made cars have to stop not just yield for pedestrians.
-Made TxDOT consider social justice and transportation equity (ie – bike lanes, transit, sidewalks) in all of its funding decisions despite the fact none of these users pay road taxes.
-Eliminate competitive bidding on certain contracts.
-Expanded public-private partnership land deals for the transit agency in Ft Worth (threat to property rights).
-Expand use of RMA toll revenues to green spaces, transit, and economic development unrelated to the toll road.
and more.

While Transportation Committee Chairs, Canales and Senator Robert Nichols, deliberately held up our good reform bills to remove tolls once the debt is paid off and to de-criminalize an unpaid toll bill, and to cap the toll fines and fees imposed by agencies other than TxDOT, Nichols did keep many bad bills from going anywhere in the senate. Cain also played a major role in stalling our toll collection reform bill, HB 3314, in Canales’ committee. Canales presided over an onslaught of horrible bills not only getting hearings, but also moving them out of his committee, forcing the grassroots to mount continuous battles to stop the litany of bad bills in the House. The worst among them was HB 3467 (Canales) to extend the disastrous SH 130 private toll contract another 20 years. It went bankrupt in less than 3 years, and rather than give it back to Texas taxpayers free and clear of any debt (as was promised under oath by former Transportation Commission Chair Ric Williamson in 2007), the court allowed a new set of foreign corporations to come in and take over the contract.

They already get to collect tolls until 2042 (for a road that had its debt wiped out), now they want another 20 years? It’s an outrageous betrayal of the promise given to taxpayers and represents the graft associated with such private toll contracts known as Comprehensive Development Agreements (CDAs) or public-private partnerships. The non-compete clause forbids expansion of free roads in Guadalupe and Caldwell counties, forces Texans to pay for any uncollectible tolls for out of state or international drivers, and these private entities use the state as its toll collector blocking vehicle registrations and impounding Texans cars if they don’t pay up.

Rep. Trent Ashby amended HB 3467 on the floor kicking the ball to the unelected Transportation Commission to decide if extending the contract was a good deal for the state (an easy bar to meet when they offer a revenue-sharing scheme with TxDOT), and it would have barred any future extensions. Thankfully, it died in the senate, but it did pass the House. A day of reckoning should be coming at the ballot box for all who voted for such a horrible special interest bill as well as the four fee hike and road debt bills (with the fate of the one constitutional amendment to be determined in November at the ballot box).

A Few Good Ones Made It
Nichols authored two good bills. One relates to toll road abuse. SB 1727 will prevent local governments from forming their own government corporations to sell their toll systems to in order to use toll revenues as their personal slush funds for non-road purposes. Harris County did this to deliberately bypass state law that prevents raiding toll revenues for non-road uses.

SB 15 prevents the disclosure and sale of drivers’ personal data to private entities who then use it to market to you without your consent. TxDOT and the Dept. of Motor Vehicles have been particularly guilty of doing this, but as the session wore on, lawmakers kept discovering more and more government agencies selling personal data and added them to the bill. like Parks & Wildlife. SB 858 (Johnson/Paxton) also protects transit riders’ personal data. So personal data privacy gets a big win here, although none of this extends to toll agencies guilty of the same thing. Toll agencies and their lobbyists get a free pass for another two years as lawmakers turned a blind eye to the mountain of toll road and toll billing abuses.

Property rights reform
One bright spot was the series of eminent domain reform bills that FINALLY passed after many sessions of repeated road blocks by special interests. Senator Charles Schwertner along with many senate joint authors, including long-time property rights (and anti-toll) champion Senator Lois Kolkhorst, finally got these across the finish line. SB 721SB 725, and SB 726 will allow any appraisals used by condemning entities to be disclosed to landowners in time for their hearings, would remove condemned land from a landowner’s property tax bill, and force condemners to make actual progress on the public project within 10 years or the landowner can buy it back.

So like most sessions, taxpayers got very little meaningful toll road reform, as lawmakers chose to keep biting around the edges by avoiding tackling the most pressing issues facing drivers.

Now’s Our Chance…

…To Get Relief from Excessive Toll Fines!

Our toll collection reform bill, HB 3314, will be up for a hearing next Tuesday, April 20 in the House Transportation Committee. It meets Tuesday, April 20 at 2 PM (or upon the House adjourning from their floor session).

Submit online comments

SUPPORT HB 3314 and OPPOSE HB 554, HB 3159, HB 3160, HB 3467, HB 3823, HB 4515, HB 4520, HJR 109 by 2 PM – Tuesday, April 20: https://comments.house.texas.gov/home?c=c470
More info about the bad bills, including 3 foreign-owned toll road bills at: https://www.texasturf.org/2021-Action

Attend the Transportation Hearing In Person:

Tuesday, April 20 @ 2 PM – House Transportation Committee – in the John Reagan Building (at 15th St & Congress), Room 120 (JHR 120)

You can register for HB 3314 and against the 8 BAD bills (as well as register to testify) at the iPad kiosks outside the meeting room.

Parking is available
in the Capitol Visitors Garage between 12th & 13th Streets off San Jacinto or at the Texas History Museum parking garage at 18th & Congress (access it from Colorado St since Congress is closed for several blocks north of the capitol).

Our contact at the hearing

will be Terri Hall, Director of Texans for Toll-free Highways. Call or text her at (210) 275-0640 (texting is preferred since cell service inside the capitol is poor). Please let her know if you plan to attend and if you’d like to testify. Even if you do not wish to testify, we need people to register in favor and bodies in seats to show support! Parking available at capitol visitor parking garage on San Jacinto between 12th and 13th Streets or at Texas History Museum at 18th and Congress.

TELL US YOUR NIGHTMARE TOLL BILL STORIES

Now’s the time to share every nightmare toll bill story. Had a $2.00 toll bill mushroom into $200? Had your vehicle impounded or registration blocked? Been overbilled or had fines tacked on due a payment card expiring or not working and they failed to notify you and instead tacked on thousands in fines and fees?

Come share your stories with the committee. We may never get another chance. We need this voted out of committee ASAP for it to have the time needed to head to the senate and become law.

Spread the word!

Grassroots Coalition asks state leaders for pro-taxpayer toll road reforms

A broad coalition of conservative grassroots leaders across Texas joined together to ask Governor Greg Abbott, Lt Gov Dan Patrick, Speaker Dade Phelan, and Senate and House Transportation Committee members to support their top two pro-taxpayer toll road reforms this session. Removing tolls from the road once the debt is retired and toll collection/billing reform to cap outrageous toll fines and fees and decriminalize an unpaid toll bill, top the list for the session. Nearly 170 different grassroots leaders/influencers joined Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) and Texans for Toll-free Highways (TTH) in calling for these priorities to pass this session.

When TxDOT has put over two million Texas drivers into collections over unpaid toll bills, it’s way past time to cap fines and fees and stop impounding cars, blocking vehicle registration and making ordinary citizens criminals over toll unpaid bills that often accumulate in error or through gimmicks used by toll agencies to rack up fines that far exceed the toll actually owed. Also, with drivers reaching toll fatigue more than 5 years ago and facing the realities of a pandemic-induced down economy, now more than ever Texas drivers deserve to know the end date on paying tolls on the state’s 28 different toll systems and have insurance against these systems expanding forever into perpetuity (which actually violates the Texas Constitution Art. I, Sec. 26). Just as the Cesar Chavez (El Paso) and Camino Colombia (Laredo) toll roads had the tolls removed, so should the state’s other toll roads. This hidden runaway tax scheme must end!

TURF and TTH’s complete legislative agenda for the session can be found here.

Read the coalition letter here.

Rather than remove the tolls, TxDOT and toll agencies obligate surplus revenues from a road (or road segment) that is actually paid off in order to secure bonds on another road or segment. These agencies employ multi-leveraging schemes and accounting gimmicks to tie into one big toll “system.”When governmental entities have the power to keep adding more and more toll lanes to their “system,” they deceptively construct a scheme whereby the public is told the original road or segment is never truly paid off. System financing ensures tolls will stay in place longer than necessary because toll agencies are allowed to continue to obligate toll revenues for other projects in perpetuity – a blatantly unconstitutional act forced upon Texans by governmental entities.

Vision Zero: Houston’s anti-car policies to force you out of your car and into transit

Link to article here.

This is the new frontier in road policy — putting drivers on a ‘road diet’ as they do in leftist states like California and New York, to force people out of their cars and into mass transit. It must be stopped in every form. Tolls are just one way they use to restrict travel and try to change drivers’ behavior to fit their social justice agenda. Currently, tolls aren’t an available option, but that doesn’t stop them from implementing other forms of driver misery to enact their anti-car agenda.

Houston to Unveil Vision Zero Plan for Zero Traffic Fatalities by 2030
Mayor Turner says the city is close to releasing specifics of transportation planning that may include narrowing streets to slow traffic and increasing sidewalks, bike lanes, and access to public transit.

By Holly Hansen
The Texan
November 9, 2020

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that Texas’ largest city would soon be unveiling specifics of an initiative to attain zero roadway deaths by the year 2030.

Joined in a Friday afternoon press conference by Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan, Turner said that the city had been collecting information and would soon be publicizing new plans crafted in collaboration with city departments, Harris County, METRO, and social justice advocates.

Turner and Ryan noted that as of November 7, Texas had not gone a day without at least one traffic death in 20 years, and both expressed support for instituting changes that would eventually eliminate all traffic deaths.

“No loss of life is acceptable,” said Turner. “That’s why Houston joined the Vision Zero network, an international movement for safe streets and our commitment to end traffic deaths and serious injuries on Houston streets by 2030.”

Developed in the 1990s by Swedish activists, “Vision Zero” refers to efforts to craft transportation policies based on the socio-political ethic: “Life and health can never be exchanged for other benefits within the society.”

Since then, Vision Zero concepts have been adopted by the United Nations (UN) and are promoted under the organization’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and a special resolution to improve global road safety.

Although specifics of Houston’s plans are not yet available and the mayor invited residents to continue to provide comment at the city’s  Vision Zero website, Turner explained that the goal would be to shift the way the public views mobility, transform road and sidewalk design, and communicate the value of “life over speed.”

“This initiative will serve as the umbrella for the actions we are taking to improve our streets’ safety,” said Turner.

Houston Director of Public Works and Engineering Carol Haddock explained that the city had identified 12 highly dangerous intersections that would be prioritized. Some solutions mentioned by Turner and Haddock include expanding sidewalks by 50 miles per year, adding bike lanes of 25 miles per year, and including curb ramps and increased access to transit.

Haddock also said that the city would move away from widening streets in favor of more narrow streets that would slow down vehicle traffic.
“We may scale back six-lane plans to four-lane plans with improved transit and better pedestrian areas.”

Turner said narrowing streets for slower traffic would push more people to use public transportation.

“When the buses and the trains are going faster than the cars and the trucks, people will exit the cars and the trucks and use the buses and the trains.”
Earlier this year, Harris County also adopted a Vision Zero resolution, and the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) has also launched an “End the Streak” initiative, although with slightly less ambitious goals to cut state highway fatalities in half by 2035 and reach zero fatalities by 2050.

Ryan said that 2020 fatalities as of November 7 had already surpassed those of 2018 and 2019.

“During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, we had hoped that we were on our way to avoiding that anniversary and ending that pain. Traffic levels on Texas highways dropped nearly 44 percent in some parts of the state, and it looked as if we were finally, finally on the road to zero. But while traffic was down, fatalities did not follow. In fact, Texans keep dying in traffic crashes every day.”

Commissioner Ryan said leading causes of traffic injury and death were speeding, driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol or drugs, driving while distracted, and not wearing a seatbelt.

TXDOT is spending $600 million under the state’s initiative, which includes measures such as widening roads, and adding rumble strips, lighting, and additional turn lanes.

Ryan noted that driving under the influence is related to one in four traffic fatalities and Houston Regional TXDOT Director Eliza Paul said that in her region DUI is the highest leading cause of traffic fatalities.

Possible remedies listed on the city’s website include “moving away from punitive actions for minor traffic violations and towards enhanced penalties for serious offenses,” including driving under the influence, running red lights, and speeding. Other remedies include instituting a hands-free ordinance and lobbying the state to reduce the default speed limit on city residential streets to 25 miles per hour and on all other city streets to 30 miles per hour.
Houston also echoes priorities listed at the national Vision Zero Network website which ties traffic planning to “Acting for Racial Justice and Justice Mobility,” and states the city will seek guidance from grassroots organizations “to provide guidance on equitable justice” in transportation planning.
Other Texas cities adopting Vision Zero include Austin and Fort Worth.

Proponents of Vision Zero are lobbying local, state, and national leaders to treat transportation as a public health issue since motor vehicles contribute to carbon emissions and associated health issues.  As such, the group says all future funding increases to the transportation budget should “be allocated for transit, walking and micro-mobility in line with UN Sustainable Development Goals.”

Abbott waives tolls for hurricane but not health disaster

See the press statement here.

While we welcome this waiving of tolls during a natural disaster state of emergency, where was this same grace during the coronavirus lockdown? We asked Governor Greg Abbott to waive toll collection for two reasons: 1) to allow trucks to get vital medical supplies to our hospitals and frontline workers as well as get food and supplies to our grocery stores with empty shelves using the quickest route possible, and 2) to allow drivers relief from toll payments just like were given from rent and utilities (the courts even blocked people from being evicted or having utilities cut off) since the Governor prohibited people from going to work and earning income to pay their bills. It took some people months to get unemployment checks due to the overload on the system, and by then, drivers would be delinquent and have their cars impounded and/or registration blocked over unpaid toll bills.

Governor Abbott Waives Houston-Area Tolls Ahead of Hurricane Laura

Governor Greg Abbott has directed the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to waive all tolls along the agency’s portion of SH 99/Grand Parkway beginning this evening at 7:00 PM. With this action, all tolls on Houston-area toll roads will be temporarily waived to help those evacuating as a result of Hurricane Laura.

“As Hurricane Laura approaches Texas, this waiver will ensure that Texans are able to evacuate efficiently ahead of the storm,” said Governor Abbott. “I urge Texans in the area to continue to take all necessary precautions as Hurricane Laura nears the coast and heed the guidance of local officials.”

For more information on state road closures and alternate routes, visit drivetexas.org.

Grassroots groups hail Abbott’s non-toll plan for I-35 expansion through Austin

IMMEDIATE RELEASE

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

JoAnn Fleming, Executive Director
Grassroots America – We the People PAC
(903) 360-2858

Grassroots Coalition praises Abbott’s I-35 Non-toll Expansion
Special interests will try to toll everything else due to tight budget post-coronavirus & oil bust

(April 30, 2020 — Austin, Texas) Today, Texas Conservative Grassroots Coalition leaders from Grassroots America – We the People PAC, Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), and Texans for Toll-free Highways are praising Governor Greg Abbott and his Texas Transportation Commission’s vote to fund the first critical segment of the Interstate-35 expansion through downtown Austin without tolls. The Coalition noted the Commission has prioritized existing funding to get this major project underway without adding to the tax burden of working families.

Background: JoAnn Fleming, Executive Director of Grassroots America stated, “During his first gubernatorial campaign and throughout his administration, Governor Abbott consistently promised to fix state transportation woes without raising taxes, fees, debt, or tolls, and that’s precisely why 164 grassroots conservative political opinion leaders – influencers – representing 133 unique groups and districts across Texas– sent a letter of support in favor of Abbott’s non-toll I-35 Expansion, which includes 12 segments on the state’s 100 Most Congested Roads List for 2019. For Governor Abbott, it is simply a matter of ‘Promises Made – Promises Kept.’ With our state leaders facing a dreadfully painful 87th legislative session budget process with unfolding economic hits from the coronavirus shutdown and oil price collapse, we are stepping forward now to have Governor Abbott’s back.”

Special Interests Working to Convince Abbott to Break His Promise: At least one group, Keep Texas Moving, funded by Texas Association of Business, criticized Abbott for putting all of TxDOT’s discretionary money into one basket, supposedly depriving other areas of the state, but the Coalition notes that all TxDOT districts will still receive their dedicated percentage of formula funding as programmed.

Grassroots Transportation Policy Expert Pushes Back: Terri Hall, Founder/Director of Texas TURF and Texans for Toll-free Highways asserts that Keep Texas Moving will use this as an excuse to toll everything else, given the tight budget — “Since the I-35 project will consume all of TxDOT’s discretionary funds for a number of years, their backers will claim no other projects can move forward without making it a toll project, specifically a public private partnership (P3) or Comprehensive Development Agreement (CDA). Cintra, one of the primary private toll operators in Texas just happens to sit on the board of Texas Association of Business. Cozy, right?

“It’s obvious what’s going on here. A Spain-based global firm, Cintra, muscles its way onto the board of what used to be the premiere voice for Texas businesses – TAB – and forms a lobby group to sideline the Governor’s non-toll plan to selfishly try, once again, to pass a bill authorizing crony private toll road contracts, which create a de facto tax hike on driving when Texans can least afford it.”

Hall adds, “Keep Texas Moving even brought on big name lobbyists with close ties to the Governor – John Colyandro, Mike Toomey, and Ray Sullivan to stall this absolutely critical project and lobby the Governor and Texas Legislature to bypass Abbott’s no-toll pledge to get authority to do more super-expensive private toll roads next session.

“Texans have a visceral reaction to foreign corporations taking over our public highways and getting a 50-year right to gouge Texas drivers like they’re already doing in DFW with tolls that exceed $3/mile in peak hours. Fed-up Texans cannot afford this! We plan to help Gov. Abbott keep his promise.” Hall concludes.

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