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.

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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Stop tolls, criminal penalties during coronavirus

IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Anti-toll groups ask Abbott to suspend tolls, penalties during crisis

(March 30, 2020 — Austin, Texas) Today, Texans for Toll-free Highways and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) call on Governor Greg Abbott to suspend the collection of tolls during the state of emergency due to the COVID-19 crisis. Abbott has already suspended penalties for late vehicle registrations and drivers license renewals during the COVID-19 state of emergency, and the Texas Supreme Court has blocked residents from being evicted from their homes. In addition, power companies and public utilities have been blocked from shutting off power and water to homes during the crisis. So the anti-toll groups contend the same should be granted to drivers with unpaid toll bills so people don’t have their vehicles impounded and lose their ability to get to work.

The groups are asking the Governor to:
1) Suspend tolls during the state of emergency.
2) Suspend the imposition of fines and criminal penalties for unpaid toll bills (which includes fines, blocking one’s vehicle registration, and impounding vehicles).

Suspending tolls, fines, and criminal penalties will expedite the ability of trucks and essential workers to get goods and people to where they need to be using the fastest possible route. Many healthcare workers cannot work if they have a criminal record. Since an unpaid toll bill is considered a criminal misdemeanor (Section 372.110(b), 372.111, 372.112, see here) in Texas, this imperils healthcare workers’ ability to stay on the job in some health systems.

“This is not the time for state or local toll authorities to impose criminal misdemeanor charges against people with unpaid toll bills. A misdemeanor can prevent healthcare workers from keeping their jobs and possibly other essential workers like truckers and emergency responders. We cannot afford to lose any of our essential workers during a public health crisis,” advocates Terri Hall, Founder/Director of TURF and Texans for Toll-free Highways.

“With the financial stress of many workers losing their jobs and families facing uncertain financial situations, having an unpaid toll bill that piles on penalties and late fees during this state of emergency and public health crisis is unreasonable, especially when work restrictions are in place,” Hall points out.

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

IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Most legislators receive failing grade on anti-toll Report Card

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Legislature fails to deliver for toll-weary drivers

Lawmakers leave without giving drivers toll tax relief

Sometimes a win isn’t gauged by what you pass, but by what you stopped. The results of the 86th legislative session are definitely the later. In short, the taxpayers got very little as far as toll tax relief. With 28 different toll systems and 55 toll projects in place today, without passing toll cessation Texas drivers will never see an end to paying toll taxes nor an end to toll agencies expanding their existing systems out further and further — forever. However, the grassroots opposition to five bad toll road bills that would have handed Texas’ public highways to private, foreign entities in 50-year sweetheart deals along with other giveaways to private toll companies, managed to kill all of them — the worst being HB 1951 by Matt Krause, a member of the Freedom Caucus.The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) alone (not to mention the other 12 local toll agencies across the state) has put more than two million Texas drivers into collections for unpaid tolls. Just TxDOT has imposed over $1 billion in fines and fees in addition to the actual tolls owed. The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (Austin area) testified before the Senate Transportation Committee last August that of the $100 million its collected in tolls, $85 million was fines and fees. Toll fines and fees are out of control and making Texas drivers virtually an unlimited ATM machine to feed relentless unelected toll bureaucracies — in short, tolling has become a license to steal.Many toll billing problems are unintentional on the part of the driver with malfunctioning toll tags, expired payment cards, and changes in address creating a massive roadblock for millions of Texas drivers. Yet, the grassroots toll collection reform bills (SB 382 and its House companion HB 4580) never got a hearing in either chamber’s Transportation Committee, despite promises to expand the toll collection reform that passed last session that capped administrative fees at $48/year and other penalties at $250/year. Reforms from the 85th session only applied to TxDOT and a handful of other projects, leaving millions of Texas drivers still facing unpayable fines and fees and being deemed criminals for non-payment, resulting in a block on vehicle registration or having one’s car impounded.

When the legislature finally repealed the Driver Responsibility Program (HB 2048 by Zerwas that traps drivers with unplayable surcharges that prevent them from driving legally) and banned red light camera tickets, HB 1631 (Stickland), this session, which includes prohibiting cities from blocking vehicle registration over an unpaid red light camera ticket, it defies logic that they failed to address this problem that criminalizes millions of Texas drivers over unpaid toll bills. SB 198 (Schwertner) and SB 1311 (Bettencourt) allow drivers to be billed electronically. Schwertner’s bill requires toll entities to check for an electronic toll tag account before sending a paper bill by mail (eliminating the longstanding double billing schemes), to notify drivers of a malfunctioning toll tag if problems occur more than 10 times in a 30 day period, and requiring toll entities to share information to prevent double billing for the same transaction, but both bills barely make a dent in the massive toll collection scam. Lawmakers also decided to make parents criminals if they don’t face their two-years olds in their car seat the right direction by passing HB 448 (Turner).

Tolls in place forever

The bill known as ‘toll cessation’ (SB 374 by Hall and HB 436 by Shaheen) — to force tolls to come off the road when the debt is paid — was given a token hearing in the House, but was left to die in a tolling subcommittee. Senate Transportation Committee Chair Robert Nichols once again blocked the bill from even getting a hearing this session. Keeping tolls in place after the debt is paid violates the Texas Constitution Article 1, Sec. 26 that prohibits perpetuities, a fact lawmakers have been made aware of since 2011, but no action has been taken to force toll agencies to comply. Vast numbers of lobbyists have been hired by 13 different toll agencies across Texas to ensure this unconstitutional practice continues. Both SB 29 (Hall) and HB 281 (Middleton) to ban the practice of taxpayer-funded lobbying failed to pass — thanks to taxpayer-funded lobbyists crawling the capitol to kill any restrictions on their ability to lobby against taxpayers.

Foreign-owned toll road frenzy

But what did the leadership choose to advance instead? A massive bill to re-authorize foreign-owned toll roads forever with no expiration, HB 1951 (Krause), along with several other bills that were giveaways to the private toll industry. Krause flip flopped his position opposing foreign-owned toll roads (voting to kill it) last session, only to author a bill authorizing such toll contracts into perpetuity this session. Doing so directly contradicted Governor Greg Abbott’s campaign pledge of ‘No more tolls.’

New House Transportation Committee Chair Rep. Terry Canales flip flopped on his position against toll roads. He promised voters in writing that he was opposed to all forms of tolling when he was seeking the endorsement of anti-toll groups when he was first elected in 2012.

Canales promised, “I do not support any form of tolling. First and foremost, I do not like the concept nor practice of building toll roads. Furthermore, I am adamantly opposed to investing in toll roads that cannot pull their own weight so to speak. What good does it do us as taxpayers to have to subsidize and/or pay to build a toll road then pay to use it? This appears to me as a public fraud, and a gross injustice.

“As a legislator I would strongly oppose toll roads in general. I think it is highly unfair to the taxpayers to be burdened by toll roads which have already been built and paid for by their tax dollars.

“Use existing funds to finance our roads (including ending diversions of road taxes to non-road uses). TxDOT should regularly be audited from top to bottom. I believe many of the funding problems we have with respect to our infrastructure are directly related to the mismanagement of funds, and poor accounting practices. Without fiscal transparency and accountability, we will continue to face budget problems, which in turn lead to the demise of our infrastructure.”

Yet, Canales not only heard and voted five bad foreign-owned toll road bills out of his committee (which require massive public subsidies and taxpayers guarantee the private operator’s profits that he said he was opposed to), he authored two of them. Thankfully, the grassroots opposition organized behind Texans for Toll-Free Highways and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (Texas TURF) killed all five bills.

When Ft. Worth drivers have recently faced paying $15 to drive just 5 miles on Spain-based Cintra’s toll system, the North Tarrant Express, it’s going to anger a whole lot of Texans that these problems continue unabated. These toll entities, whether public or private, have been given a license to steal from Texas drivers, well beyond the actual cost of building the road. Drivers need tax relief, too, and they need to hold their legislators accountable for their inaction.

Property rights & Transparency

There is some good news to report with regards to transparency and property rights. SB 943 (Watson) passed, cleaning up several loopholes the Texas Supreme Court warned lawmakers existed that allowed private companies that do business with the state to keep significant aspects of their contracts secret from the public.

SB 1648 (Bettencourt) would make it a criminal offense for elected officials to violate quorum. Something known as a ‘walking quorum’ is a practice that’s become rampant, particularly with the Austin City Council, where public officials discuss upcoming agenda items behind closed doors amongst themselves outside of a formal posted public meeting, a deliberate violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act. Putting criminal penalties on officials who violate the law will put teeth into the act and make any violation more enforceable.

HB 803 (Patterson) would require toll agencies to produce better financial reports so that elected officials as well as the public can more easily discern where the toll revenues are going — is the toll going directly to retire bond debt, expanding or constructing new toll projects, or other ‘mobility’ initiatives? The bill will expose a longstanding cancer known as ‘system financing,’ which is the practice of obligating surplus revenue from one project to build or expand other toll projects, co-mingling funds together to ensure no toll project is ever paid off. Following the money trail is the first step to getting toll cessation finally passed.

In the final days of the session, pipeline companies were successful in hijacking a strong property rights bill, SB 421 (Kolkhorst) using the iron fist of Rep. Tom Craddick, who took the bill away from its House sponsor, gutted it, then placed it on the local calendar so it couldn’t be amended. This move effectively killed it for the session despite Senator Lois Kolkhorst’s attempts to restore the previously agreed to language by both property rights groups and pipeline companies in a conference committee. SB 421 would have given landowners basic protections from eminent domain abuse, like defined minimum easement terms, a public hearing requirement, and protection from low-ball offers.

While SB 572 (Kolkhorst) is good news for micro home foods businesses, granting small cottage food vendors (home-based food businesses) more freedom to sell their products without onerous governmental red tape, HB 2755 (Price) would impose unlimited permit fees on food trucks by local governments.

In all, there’s very little to write home about for the 86th legislative session when it comes to relieving the toll tax burden, toll collection abuses, and protecting property rights. Now it’s time to hold the state’s leadership, their committee chairs, and every member of the legislature who failed to act accountable. Election season is just around the corner. Ask yourself, who’s interest did your Texas legislators and leaders represent? Yours, the lowly taxpayer, or the special interests — or even worse, their own self-interest. Time to send the majority of them packing.

D.C. tolls hit $46 for one-way commute

Toll price of express lane in Washington D.C. spikes to $46 for Tuesday morning commute

Link to article here.

How much does it cost to get to D.C. from I-66?

On Tuesday, a commuter posted a photo on Twitter showing the toll road nearly reaching $50!

The amount has hit the wallets hard for solo drivers traveling the nine-mile stretch between Interstate 495 and Route 29 in Rosslyn. Those who carpool are able to use the Express Lanes for free. Single drivers have to pay the toll Monday through Friday from 5:30 to 9:30 a.m. in the eastbound direction, and from 3 to 7 p.m. in the westbound direction.

In the past, the Virginia Department of Transported has said the toll prices go up and down based on how many people are using the I-66 Express Lanes, and it has kept traffic down and moving by cutting travel time by several minutes.

Most recently, the D.C. Council proposed spending nearly $500,000 to studythe idea of charging tolls and a congestion fee to drive in certain parts of the District.

Maryland’s plan to expand I-270 and the Beltway has growing public support. Governor Larry Hogan plans to add express lanes with adjustable tolls to the Beltway and I-270, while keeping the existing lanes free.

 

Commuters charged $3/mile on North Tarrant Express

GOUGING: Cintra soaks commuters, charges $3/mile to drive privatized toll lanes on North Tarrant Express

Link to article here.

On this Texas toll road, drivers want to know why they’re paying $15 for just 5 miles
Why some Fort Worth toll roads are charging up to $15
By Gordon Dickson
April 23, 2019
Ft. Worth Star Telegram

Some North Texas drivers say they’re alarmed that tolls on some of the Dallas-Fort Worth region’s TEXPress lanes are skyrocketing to as much as $15, up from just $1 during less heavily-traveled periods.

Susan Forbes could hardly believe her eyes when she saw the price posted on the electronic sign, which pointed the way to an entrance for the TEXPress toll lanes on Texas 183 in Bedford.

She was about to enter a toll road that would charge her $15 for a distance of less than six miles.

“I paid it because I had already passed the exit,” explained the resident of Fort Worth’s Meadowbrook neighborhood. She commutes each day to an internet technology job in North Dallas.

“I knew I had been paying a lot more since the TEXPress opened,” she said, “but Holy Cow!”

Some North Texas drivers are alarmed at how high the toll rates are going up on the region’s TEXPress lanes, which have been open in the Dallas-Fort Worth area for about five years now. The idea of the TEXPress lanes is to give motorists on heavily-traveled freeways a choice — stay in traffic on the main lanes toll-free, or pay extra to get on the express lanes and get around the congestion.

Toll prices can be raised as often as every five minutes, theoretically to limit the number of drivers willing to get on the TEXPress lanes.

But, as the operators of the TEXPress lanes are finding out, raising the prices on the TEXPress lanes doesn’t always have the intended effect of thinning out the traffic. In some cases, it seems the higher the toll rates go, the more motorists want to use the TEXPress lanes.

Perhaps to those motorists, the higher toll prices are a signal that gridlock ahead on the toll-free main lanes is really bad, and paying a higher toll is better than being stuck in traffic for an hour or more.

Forbes says the same stretch of Texas 183 where she paid $15 has also charged her $13.05 on a different occasion. She provided a copy of her North Texas Tollway Authority monthly bill to show the $13.05 charge.

Some North Texas motorists have noticed a tremendous spike in the cost of driving TEXPress toll lanes in the Fort Worth area. Among them is Susan Lynch Forbes of Fort Worth, who recently paid $13.05 to travel on just five miles of Texas 183 in Bedford and Hurst. Photo Courtesy of Susan Lynch Forbes
The tollway authority operates the popular TollTag payment system, in which drivers pay tolls automatically with a sticker on their windshield. However, the tollway authority does not own the TEXPress lanes.

The tollway authority does operate its own toll road system, with roads such as Chisholm Trail Parkway in Fort Worth and the President George Bush Turnpike in Dallas. Those toll roads have much lower maximums of only 20 cents per mile, and the price doesn’t change based on traffic.

The TEXPress lanes, although they accept TollTags as a payment, are operated by a private-sector group of companies who have far greater flexibility to jack up the prices in response to traffic conditions.

“I’m on track to spend $5,000 or $6,000 this year, if I keep it up,” Forbes said in an email. “That’s compared to 2k a few years ago.”

Fort Worth-area commuters are wondering just how high the tolls can possibly go.

Michael Hustedde, an east Fort Worth resident, recently avoided getting on the TEXPress lanes on the same stretch of Texas 183 when he saw the toll price was $11.45. He was more accustomed to seeing prices in the $4 to $5 range for that stretch during rush hour.

“Traffic was its usual awful, but there wasn’t a wreck or anything to justify such a high price,” Hustedde said in an email. “Was this a computer error, or did a contract limiting the maximum rate expire?”

Hustedde provided a link to a list of frequently asked questions on the TEXPress lanes website, which indicates that the private companies managing the toll lanes, North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners, should only charge up to 75 cents per mile. Using that rate, the 5.7 mile stretch of Texas 183 from the Texas 121 split in Bedford to near North East Mall in Hurst should cost no more than about $4.28 — not $15, $13.05 or $11.45.

But it turns out that the 75-cent ceiling, which was created by the North Central Texas Council of Governments years ago as a regional policy for Dallas-Fort Worth based on 2010 dollar calculations, has actually increased because of inflation adjustments and now stands at 90 cents per mile, according to one official.

And, according to the council of governments, the company operating the TEXPress lanes has authority to temporarily exceed the 90-cent limit as necessary to reduce the number of cars on the toll lanes and keep traffic moving.

In other words, the 90-cent-per-mile is only a soft cap that can be exceeded when traffic warrants it.

“The cap on tolls may be temporarily exceeded during times of deteriorating performance to ensure speeds of 50 mph or above and adequate levels of service,” Michael Morris, transportation director for the council of governments, said in an email. “The situation you describe is a result of drivers continuing to take tolled managed lanes despite the high price. We are exploring the reason for this behavior as well as the capacity of the non-tolled lanes.”

Officials from North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners say they’ll meet with counterparts from the council of governments as well as the Texas Department of Transportation during the next few weeks to discuss how the tolling technology determine its prices and how the traveling public responds.
Despite the allegations by some motorists that they are being gouged by high toll prices, North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners stands by its technology, a spokesman said.

“The dynamic tolling system for the North Texas managed lane corridors, that is designed to keep a certain level of traffic moving at a minimum of 50 mph at all times, is working as expected and according to the regionally approved policy providing drivers in North Texas a reliable alternative for their daily trips and commutes,” spokesman Robert Hinkle said in a statement. “As the managed and express lanes network expands, traffic volumes on those corridors continue to grow and driver behavior is evolving. As a result, tolls during peak travel times have periodically spiked due to high demand in the managed lanes, and have impacted a small percentage of overall drivers.”

Some drivers have learned how to avoid the TEXPress lanes during the busiest time of day.

Chris Bellomy, who as recently as late 2017 was paying $180 to $200 a month in tolls while commuting to his information technology job in Plano, says he is now paying far less.

Mainly, he spends more time working at home.

“I haven’t seen the worst of it,” he said, “because I generally avoid rush hour commutes.”