Houston tolls a bait & switch: tolls promised to cease have become an infinity tax

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Toll road profits used on streets
$120 million to be spent on ‘connectivity’ projects next year
Houston Chronicle
November 8, 2007
Harris County will spend an unprecedented amount of its toll road profits next year to build and upgrade roads and streets, some of them miles from any toll booth.

Call it the third stage of evolution for the Harris County Toll Road Authority, an evolution driven by the struggle to survive.

When voters and County Judge Jon Lindsay began the toll road system in 1983, the idea was simple: We’ll build this road, and when it has paid for itself, we’ll make it a freeway.

As other toll roads followed, the tempting revenue stream begat another idea: When these are paid off, we’ll keep on tolling them and pool the money to build more toll roads.

Starting in 2001, Commissioners Court set aside $20 million paid by toll road users each year to build and improve roads and streets that connect to the tollway system. These annual allocations have helped build more than 80 such “connectivity” projects.

On Sept. 20, the court quietly boosted the annual connectivity allotment to $120 million — double the previous high of $60 million in 2004, and one-fourth of the tollway system’s net revenue.

The increase signals that toll road funds likely will be a major tool for general road building for the foreseeable future.

Despite their name, the funds increasingly have been spent on projects with no connections to toll roads and even on roads that provide an alternative to congested tollways.

A map of connectivity projects to date includes, for instance, improvements to a trucking route between Texas 146 and the Port of Houston docks at Barbour’s Cut, about seven miles from the East Sam Houston Tollway.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said a toll road connectivity project on Clay Road will help get people from fast-growing Katy prairie subdivisions to north-south arteries such as Fry Road. These connect to the Katy Freeway, and from there one can reach the tollways.

The county road system as a whole “feeds the toll roads,” Emmett said. “This will help complete the grid.”

As county Infrastructure Director Art Storey put it, “Today’s remote project is right in the middle of things tomorrow.”

Architect Christof Spieler of the grass-roots Citizens Transportation Coalition said he has no problem with using money paid by toll road users to build free roads.

But if government is providing new roads to access new subdivisions in the Katy Prairie, he said, it is making that housing artificially cheap.

Seed money

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said the money is greatly needed, as is more road capacity near fast-growing subdivisions on the prairie. Clay Road is one of the most congested in his precinct, he said.Radack noted that connectivity funds also can be used as seed money to attract private investment, as other county dollars were used in an $8 million project to extend Kingsland from the Grand Parkway (Texas 99) to Katy-Fort Bend Road at Katy Mills Mall.

The county is contributing $1.3 million of the Kingsland funding, Radack said. “The rest is private sector.”

Spieler said that, although he opposes suburban sprawl, he likes Radack’s idea of having developers — and ultimately the homebuyers — take on that cost.

Still, he said he would like to see more of the connectivity money used for “infill” projects in Houston and other municipalities. These retard sprawl, and often are more cost-efficient, he said, since the street, drainage and utility infrastructure already may be in place.

“The county spends hardly any of its road budget inside the city limit, although we in Houston pay the same county taxes,” Spieler said.

Emmett and Storey said the big increase in the connectivity budget stems in part from the county’s wrangling earlier in the year with the Texas Department of Transportation.

For the first time, TxDOT sought payment from the county for use of state rights of way for toll roads. TxDOT also put the entire state on notice that it lacks money to expand local roads — a situation unlikely to change soon.

“Some of these road projects would have been funded through the state in the past, but the state has told us they’re not going to spend any money,” Emmett said. “So, rather than us wait around and wring our hands, we said ‘nope, we’re going to get started.’ ”

Another reason for the increase, Storey said, was the decision county officials faced in 2005 over whether to sell, lease or hang onto the toll road system. Financial consultants had said it might bring $20 billion if sold.

Fateful decision

Commissioners decided to keep the asset and ensure that its revenues continue to be spent in Harris County. Even with the connectivity budget increase, Storey said, there will be enough revenue left to maintain the existing tollways and fund at least some of the six projects authorized by the Legislature this summer.These include extending the Sam Houston Tollway from the Eastex Freeway to U.S. 90, extending the Hardy Toll Road from Loop 610 to downtown, building high-occupancy toll lanes along Hempstead Highway and adding toll lanes to Texas 288.

A list of connectivity projects proposed for FY 2008-09, which begins March 1, was not available as Commissioners Court has not decided which will be built or how much each precinct will get.