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.

Grassroots groups sue state of Texas over Prop 2 illegal ballot


Three grassroots groups file lawsuit to challenge Prop 2
Deceptive & illegal ballot language removed ‘ad valorem tax increases’ from ballot

(November 8, 2021 — Austin, Texas) Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), Grassroots America – We the People, and True Texas Project (TTP) filed a lawsuit against the Texas Secretary of State, John B. Scott, challenging the constitutional amendment known as Proposition 2. The suit contends the ballot language presented to Texas voters on November 2, 2021, failed to comply with common law requirements and asserts the ballot language was substantially misleading due to the removal of the phrase ‘ad valorem tax increases.’ State law requires that a proposition be described “with such definiteness and certainty that the voters are not misled.” Blum v. Lanier, 997 S.W.2d 259 (Tex. 1999). The lawsuit seeks the remedy of Governor Greg Abbott declaring the election on Prop 2 void.

Prop 2 would authorize counties to create Transportation Reinvestment Zones (TRZs) that give them the authority to issue bonds and use property tax increases for repayment of those bonds. A virtually identical proposition was put before Texas voters in 2011 known as Proposition 4 and voters rejected it when the phrase ‘ad valorem tax increases’ was included.

TURF, Grassroots America, and TTP believe this was intentional since the legislation, HJR 99 authored by Rep. Terry Canales (D – Edinburg), and its stated purpose and intent includes the phrase, but the ballot language expressly does not. Senator Bob Hall tried to amend HJR 99 in the senate to restore the original ballot language for the identical legislation from 2011, but the amendment failed.

“The legislature intentionally chose to mislead voters in order to get it passed this time around. Former House Transportation Committee Chair Joe Pickett even stated as much when Prop 4 failed in 2011. He cited the phrase ‘ad valorem tax increases’ as the problem for voters. So instead of abiding by what the voters decided, they chose to deceive voters, keeping them in the dark as to the tax impact,” observed Terri Hall, Founder/Director of TURF.

“It’s this sort of deceptive ballot language that angers voters and makes them think twice about participating in these off-year elections out of fear they’re going to be tricked into voting for things they didn’t intend to had the plain meaning been obvious.”

The Republican Party of Texas and the House Freedom Caucus also opposed Prop 2. Additionally the Republican Party of Texas 2020 Platform includes several planks opposing virtually every aspect of TRZs. Planks #178 & 179 favor limiting and even abolishing property tax. Plank #176 opposes special taxing districts like TRZs.  Three more planks (#s 50, 159 & 206) also address the issues of higher taxes and more bonds.

The suit points out that “Texas has some of the highest property tax burdens in the nation. Among the 10 most populous states, Texas’ local debt per capita ranks as the 2nd highest total, behind only New York. In light of these circumstances, Proposition 2’s omission of any mention of its relationship with local debt and property tax burdens misled voters about its chief features.”

Ballot language comparison:

Prop 4 in 2011 said: “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 (emphasis ours) imposed by the county on property in the area. The amendment does not provide authority for increasing ad valorem tax rates.”

Prop 2 in 2021 said: “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.”

Further information:
TURF, Grassroots America – We the People, and True Texas Project sent this letter to the Secretary of State prior to the election requesting a change in the ballot language… and stating they’d file a lawsuit to contest the election otherwise.

‘No’ on Prop 2 campaign flyer
Article on lawsuit in The Texan


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.  

Remote kill switches really about taking your car

Biden’s Move to Put Kill Switches in Cars Tied to Global Agenda

Crossroads, January 10, 2023


All new cars in the United States will be required to install “kill switches” by 2026. These were mandated in a recent infrastructure bill, allegedly to stop drunk drivers. But concerns are going around that it may lead to government abuse, especially as organizations including the World Economic Forum are trying to advance an agenda against cars overall.

In this Q&A with Crossroads host Joshua Philipp, we’ll discuss these stories and others, and answer questions from the audience. Watch it here.

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.

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.