Senator Nichols takes on tolls! The good, the bad and the ugly!

Link to article here.

Hooray for Senator Robert Nichols! He not only gets it, he’s advocating for the TAXPAYERS! How refreshing…someone who is finally looking out for who pays the bills in Austin! Note how the Transportation Commission flat out lied about there being non-compete clauses in these contracts. Thankfully, WE THE PEOPLE beat that issue into the ground and our elected officials looked into it to discover what we already knew…TXDOT LIED! Now they’re doing their jobs and preventing this from happening.

Texas toll roads — the good, bad and ugly
Special to the Star-Telegram
March 15, 2007

Few issues have become as emotionally or politically charged over the past few years as toll roads. As a Texas Transportation Commissioner for eight years and current state senator, I have a well-documented history of supporting toll roads to ensure our transportation infrastructure meets the demands of our growing population.

However, supporting toll roads does not equate to supporting a plan that prohibits competition or agreeing to policies that enrich a few shareholders at the expense of the taxpayer.

The good: Gov. Rick Perry, the Texas Transportation Commission and the Legislature exhibited bold leadership by embracing the toll road concept. Toll roads enable the state to build more roads faster without raising fuel or other taxes. Few Texans realize that state fuel taxes do not cover the cost of maintaining current roads, much less building new roads.

The bad: As is usually the case, the devil is in the details. As Transportation Commission members began negotiating contracts with private companies to build and operate new toll roads, they hit several bumps. Most companies require at least a 50-year contract to operate and collect tolls. So the decisions we make today affect taxpayers for the next half-century. In the event the state needs to “buy back” the road during the 50-year period, it is imperative for us to have a clear buy-back provision to protect taxpayers.The private companies prefer to put off addressing the buy-back issue until another day. This means they would be free to hire experts to determine what they think the road is worth. It does not take a genius to figure out the companies will calculate the price in a way that enriches shareholders and leaves taxpayers holding the bag. Therefore, before any contract is signed, the state should negotiate an agreed-upon formula.

The ugly: Imagine if you could make a deal with the state to build a store in your hometown, use the state’s power of eminent domain to take the land needed for your store and then get the state to agree to refrain from building another store in your hometown for 50 years. Now imagine your hometown was projected to have double-digit population growth. While it may be hard to fault any business for pursuing such a deal, the taxpayers would hold elected officials accountable.

When the Transportation Commission announced the proposed corridor along Interstate 35 in 2004, both Cintra-Zachary, the company chosen to build the system, and the Transportation Commission publicly stated there would be no “non-compete” clause in the contract.

Fast-forward a few years later and reality is like a cold glass of water in the face.

With few exceptions, the Cintra contract contains a non-compete clause stating that no alternative roads can be built within miles of either side of the toll road for 50 years without paying penalties. It has been indicated that many similar contracts are currently being negotiated giving private companies exclusive rights to many-mile-wide areas of land in Texas’ highest growth areas.

Put simply, the state is enacting a policy that forces Texans to drive on a toll road with very few alternatives. In high-growth areas, the private toll operator will be free to increase tolls as demand for the road increases. New road construction by the state would be penalized, thereby setting up a classic monopoly, agreed to by the state, forcing Texans to pay ever-increasing tolls. There should be incentives to relieve congestion, not penalties.

The solution: Texas’ transportation policy is too important to determine without open debate. Moving fast to meet today’s demand does not merit shortsighted decisions.

I filed Senate Bill 1267 to place a two-year moratorium on private equity toll projects.

Toll roads can be built in the interim by the local authority or by the Texas Department of Transportation; however, the government may not contract with a private company to operate toll roads until the Legislature ensures adequate protections are in place.

Surely we can agree that signing away our ability to expand our transportation system for 50 years in the name of expediency is not a wise decision.

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, represents Texas Senate District 3. He is a retired engineer and former Texas transportation commissioner.