End to exorbitant toll fines in sight? AG may decide

RELIEF COMING? Ending exorbitant toll fines and fees may be decided by Texas Attorney General

It’s been a long time coming, but Texas commuters may finally cut a break when it comes to relief from exorbitant toll fines and fees. Texas State Rep. Joe Pickett, former House Transportation Committee Chair, fired off a request for an official legal opinion from Attorney General Ken Paxton this week to see if the caps on toll fines and fees in Senate Bill 312 apply to other toll entities besides the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). Pickett’s House colleagues Rep. Ina Minjarez, Rep. Tom Oliverson, and Rep. Tony Dale joined him in signing the letter.

The Texas legislature passed SB 312 in May during the 85th legislative session, and it contains a strong toll collection reform capping the administrative fees imposed on drivers to just $48/year and $250/year in criminal penalties. But one section of the bill references another section of the transportation code that says an entity operating a toll lane has the same powers and duties regarding toll collection as TxDOT. That’s the hook anti-toll advocates are hoping will force the law to apply to all toll agencies, not just TxDOT when it comes to taming the out of control, excessive fines and fees being tacked onto toll bills across the state.

Texans have been financially raked over the coals, usually incurred by simple mistakes like a payment card expiring and toll entities failing to notify drivers of problems with their automatic payments before fines and fees start adding up. The stories are horrific. One Texas driver reports being fined $5,600 over $300 in unpaid tolls.

Another driver says they received a bill for $7,600 from a collections agency four years after the supposed violations, when they hadn’t received the original toll bill without any fines or fees. One commuter received a bill for $1,000 and when he called about it, they told him he now owed $13,600. Some bills can be as little as $22, and yet Texans have received bills for as much as $900 in fines and fees with no opportunity to work out payment plans or reduce the fines. One driver was charged $75 in fees for not paying a $1.26 toll (a single trip through Houston). This is while he had $40 in his TxTag account with the Harris County Toll Authority.

In Texas, a driver’s vehicle registration gets blocked for failure to pay toll bills. If you fail to show up in court over the disputed fines or unpaid bill, you could eventually face jail. The Texas House voted overwhelmingly to de-criminalize the failure to a pay a toll bill 136-3, but a handful of conference committee members put criminalization back into the final bill. Many lawmakers are still fuming over it and vow to address it the next time the legislature convenes in 2019.

An Austin resident literally moved out of state after she could no longer pay her monthly toll bills in excess of $300. She turned to high interest, short-term loans to bail her out for a time, and when she got buried under those bills, moved a family into her house to help out with rent so she could try to cover the toll expense. When that ended, she stayed off the toll roads but faced a 4-hour daily commute on the perpetually congested freeways in Austin. Buried under mounting bills, an ever longer commute, and with fines increasing $4,000 every four months, this native Texan sold her home and was forced to leave the state altogether.  She now owes over $32,000.

She’s terrified to find out Texas law penalizes you under the criminal code for failure to pay toll bills, jeopardizing her job in healthcare where she has to keep a clean record or face losing her career (and her ability to make a living). Every time she’s called the state to work out a payment plan, they deny her request and the fines just keep compounding. For this former Austin resident, she sees no way out. At 56 years old, she doesn’t see how she can possibly repay $32,000 with less than a decade left before retirement.

Her story isn’t unique, thousands of Texans have swarmed to a Facebook community under the moniker of Texas Toll Road Class Action Lawsuit to tell their stories of exorbitant and unfair toll fines and fees that are ruining their lives. With few options to get out from under the brutal toll bills, toll collection abuses jeopardize the Texas economic miracle and appeal to living here.

Relief may be on the horizon as Paxton considers issuing a legal opinion that could change course. The Attorney General has six months to render his opinion. SB 312’s cap on fines and fees officially take effect on state operated toll projects in March 2018, but it won’t help the thousands who are already in a hopeless cycle of an inability to pay their toll bills. Expect lawmakers to face that conundrum in 2019.

Note: The names of the drivers in this story have been kept anonymous due to fear of reprisals for speaking out.

Victory! Tolls come off several Texas highways

Tolls come down: Precedent set as toll comes off two Texas highways

The bureaucrats couldn’t fight the momentum. Texans have been calling for tolls to come off roads once they’re paid for and thanks to passage of Senate Bill 312, the Texas Transportation Commission voted to do just that on Camino Colombia SH 255 in Laredo and on Cesar Chavez Border Highway in El Paso. To add icing on the cake, the Dallas City Council also voted to deep six the controversial Trinity Toll Road after a 20 year battle, and the Commission is also mulling changing plans on US 183 North in Austin to expand it as non-toll instead of tolled. All that in a matter of weeks.

The last time tolls were removed from a road in Texas was in 1977 — forty years ago. But it’s not without some wailing and gnashing of teeth by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Commission that governs it.

TxDOT never thinks it has enough money, despite Texans voting to swell its coffers by nearly $5 billion more a year by passing Proposition 1 (in 2014) and Proposition 7 (in 2015). So the department cannot stand the idea of losing its own personal revenue stream that’s not accountable to taxpayers, and it fought tooth and nail to prevent it. But thanks to quick work by State Representatives Joe Pickett (D – El Paso) and Richard Raymond (D – Laredo), they attached their amendments to take the tolls off highways in their districts to must-pass sunset legislation, and both amendments managed to survive a pro-toll conference committee.

Commissioner Jeff Austin said he hates to see the revenue removed from Camino Colombia though he also stated he was in support of taking the toll off as an isolated incident. Austin tried to limit support for removing tolls strictly to roads that would never need to be expanded. So all these toll ‘managed lanes’ (that are not financially viable projects to begin with) that are plunked down the middle of existing highways in urban areas are roads that will need future expansion. So it’s safe to conclude Austin is arguing for tolls to remain in perpetuity as long as they can find another use for your money (ie – extending the toll road at some future time).

Make no mistake. TxDOT does not want tolls to stop because it sets a precedent and expectation that tolls should come off roads once the debt is retired. The only reason these tolls are coming down is because lawmakers had to force it through legislation. TxDOT argues no road is ever paid for because of maintenance. But Pickett, former House Transportation Committee Chair for many years, rejects that argument saying that the department could absorb the cost of maintaining the small network of toll roads currently open to traffic once the debt for those highways is paid off.

It’s like a drop in the bucket according to Pickett. “I’d like to think a state that maintains 80,000 miles could absorb 400-500 miles of lanes if it took the tolls off certain projects,” Pickett argued at an interim committee hearing last year.

Pickett said that only 6 percent of the traffic on the Border Highway uses the toll lanes and they’re only used roughly two to three hours a day. He argues the toll ‘managed lanes’ cause more traffic than they alleviate.

“We have a road that goes unused 21 hours a day, seven days a week,” Pickett said. “That’s ridiculous.” He later told the Commission that “not all toll projects are bad, just most of them.”

Pickett told the Washington Post that ‘tolls are designed to be in perpetuity now,” allowing unelected bureaucrats to grow their toll systems into ‘bureaucratic behemoths.’

Raymond echoed Pickett’s sentiment during a House Transportation Committee hearing on his stand alone bill in April, “You don’t want a toll on this road. It’s paid for. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Most Texans wholeheartedly agree with his assessment. No one should be charged a toll to use a road that’s paid for, otherwise it’s double taxation. The move to remove tolls once a road’s debt is retired is one of several recommendations that came out of the interim legislative study by the House Transportation Committee when it was led by Pickett in 2016. It’s also in keeping with the 2016 Texas GOP platform that calls for the same.

History of double taxation
In 2000, Camino Colombia started as Texas’ first privately built and operated tollway, hoping to capture border traffic and attract trucks from nearby congested Interstate-35. But just like SH 130, Texas’ first public-private partnership (P3) that opened twelve years later in 2012, it went bankrupt shortly thereafter. TxDOT bought the $85 million Camino Colombia tollway for $20 million from an insurance company that snatched it up at a fire sale price on the courthouse steps for $12 million. No debt was owed on SH 255 from that point on, yet TxDOT continued to charge tolls and traffic remains anemic. Local officials are hopeful now that tolls are coming down that trucks will finally move off I-35 in Laredo and take SH 255, which was designed as a bypass to avoid downtown congestion in the first place.

The Border Highway toll managed lane project was also paid for with state funds, yet Texans have to pay a toll to use it. Even more egregious is the Loop 375 Border West Expressway, also in El Paso, that’s not even open yet.

First, the entire project is paid for state funds. Not one penny of debt is owed, yet drivers will be be charged tolls to use it (it’s currently under construction). The project is jointly owned by the state and the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority (or RMA), even though the RMA put no funds into the project. The state gave them $500 million in Texas Mobility Funds, granting the RMA ownership in proportion to that dollar amount, and the state paid the $130 million balance of the $630 million project with gasoline taxes.

So the state gave away more than eighty percent ownership to an unelected toll authority who will gain over eighty percent of the toll revenues in perpetuity for a highway that’s already paid for by taxpayers. Pickett warned the Commission this project would likely spark another fight to remove the toll designation when it comes online.

More Texas highways share the same genesis as Camino Colombia and Cesar Chavez — projects that are 100% paid for with gas taxes and other public funds (like the Katy managed toll lanes in Houston and MoPac, SH 71, SH 45 SW, and SH 45 SE in Austin), yet tolls are being charged simply as a new tax for bureaucrats to spend (and raise in perpetuity) without accountability.

End run around toll removal
The drumbeat to remove tolls once a road is paid for has prompted toll bureaucracies and TxDOT to refinance their toll systems in order to co-mingle the projects financially into a single system so that they can claim nothing is paid off for at least a generation. But such moves by unelected boards triggers greater anti-toll fervor, and the call to remove tolls only gets louder as other parts of the state ask why they are being charged tolls when others get the benefit of having tolls removed. It’s going to get harder and harder for elected officials to answer those questions and survive politically.

While President Donald Trump seems bent on pushing tolls and more P3s at the federal level, Texas continues to experience toll fatigue and gets Texas-sized pushback to more tolling, especially in the hands of private companies that get bailed out by taxpayers.

SH 130’s recent bankruptcy sent a grassroots coalition over the edge prompting them to fire off a letter to Attorney General Ken Paxton asking where was the state in representing the public interest in bankruptcy court when it wiped out nearly all of the $1.4 billion of the private entity’s debt (it now owes a mere $250 million), giving the highway that’s virtually paid for to the previous bond holders to continue to soak Texas taxpayers with tolls for the next 45 years? The new owner-operators stand to make millions, if not billions, in profit for the next two generations thanks to the generosity of the courts.

Expect the demand for tolls to come down to get fierce by the time the legislature comes back into session in 2019. Senator Lois Kolkhorst and State Rep. Matt Shaheen have consistently authored the bill to do just that. Neither bill got a hearing in the last two sessions, but Shaheen offered it as an amendment to SB 312 and it failed 74-53. Those numbers will likely reverse by 2019. Anti-toll advocates are working furiously to ensure that’s the case.

TxDOT bill hijacked by toll lobby, loopholes diminish anti-toll progress

Hastily approved TxDOT sunset bill offers some toll relief, but riddled with new loopholes

As the Texas legislature comes to a close tomorrow, the antics of some lawmakers warrants scrutiny when it comes to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) sunset bill, SB 312, that passed yesterday evening. The House passed a strong anti-toll bill May 17, adding several good anti-toll measures pushed by grassroots pro-taxpayer groups for over a decade. SB 312 must pass or the highway department goes away. Rather than concur with the House version, the Senate chose to reject the House version (which signaled trouble ahead), forcing both the House and Senate to appoint a conference committee to work out the differences in the bill.

This is where the chicanery usually happens, and it did.

The Texas Legislature web site did not have SB 312’s conference committee report available to be viewed by the public until after 2 PM Saturday. It was not eligible to be voted on until 2:10 PM Sunday, yet the House suspended the rules and rushed a vote to concur with the conference committee’s changes at 6:30 PM. The Senate did the same before it adjourned Saturday evening as well — pushing passage of a 100-page bill before anyone could read what was in it.

The rules governing conference committees are very limited. Conferees cannot add anything into a bill that isn’t already in either version the House or Senate passed. They essentially decide what amendments stay in or get removed. On rare occasions, they could go to their colleagues and ask them to vote to go ‘outside the bounds’ of what a conference committee can do in order to add in new language under strict limits if lawmakers agree. However, loopholes and exceptions were added to SB 312, and the House and Senate authors did not fully notice their colleagues of the loopholes and completely new language they added.

For example, at the very end of this lengthy bill in Section 78 pertaining to the prohibition on an HOV lane being converted into a toll lane, it grants a new exception for all projects that are contained in the state’s air quality implementation plan prior to September 1, 2017. This means virtually every managed toll lane project in Houston and Dallas-Ft. Worth, the Texas cities that are in non-attainment for federal air quality standards, can still convert an existing HOV lane into a toll lane, despite both chambers voting to prohibit it.

This exception was not deemed a significant problem in committee nor did it prevent passage by the full Senate when Sen. Bob Hall’s SB 1143 (which is the same language of the amendment tacked onto SB 312 in the House) passed, 29-2. Yet new language was suddenly required at the eleventh hour and was added into the bill without adequately notifying lawmakers of the change that impacts several projects, including one important to Hall’s constituents, where an HOV lane on I-635 East is slated to be converted to a toll lane.

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst and Rep. Joe Pickett’s amendment, which was a bill that had already passed the Senate, SB 812, also had completely new language inserted. Their amendment requires toll project entities to repay any funds they receive from the state. The public resents having their ‘free’ road funds going into toll roads then having to pay again to use them. The state currently grants most toll entities road taxes to the tune of $10 billion and has rarely required any of those funds to be repaid to the state. In fact, the local toll agencies get to keep most, if not all, of the toll revenues locally.

Both the House and Senate voted to stop this unrestricted gravy train and require funds to be repaid, yet a handful of conferees overruled them to allow toll projects as far back as January 1, 2014, to move forward without requiring repayment of those funds if the environmental review on those projects had commenced by that date. The whole purpose of this legislation is to require funds to be repaid on any project that isn’t already operating as a toll road. Lawmakers should, at a minimum, demand TxDOT produce a list of just how many toll projects this exception allows to move forward without repaying the taxpayers.

For whom the bill tolls
An amendment by Rep. Ina Minjarez sought to remove criminal penalties for toll violations and drastically reduce the administrative fees and fines that could be levied against motorists. It passed by an overwhelming majority in the House by a vote of 136-3. Yet, this same handful of conferees put criminal penalties back into the bill. The House debated the criminal penalties and overwhelmingly decided to remove them. They felt strongly that no Texan should be made a criminal or have their ability to drive taken away for failure to pay a fine/fee. It’s a throw back to debtors prisons.

The new language actually captures more people as ‘violators’ by making them a criminal if they simply haven’t paid a single toll after supposedly receiving two bills. The toll could be for one trip for $.20 or $2.00 and they’ll now be punished under what used to be a habitual toll violator with 100 or more unpaid toll transactions.

Many Texans complain they never receive the first bill from the toll entity and then later get a late payment notice after being put into collections, erroneously, and after penalties are already imposed. This happened to Rep. Tom Oliverson who described his outrage at the experience during the House debate on SB 312 leading up to the overwhelming adoption of the Minjarez amendment to de-criminalize. The House never even made a whimper, nor did it express any outrage at the conferees trampling on the intent of their amendment and hence thousands of Texans who fall victim to this toll violation nightmare when they voted to adopt SB 312’s conference committee report in haste last night.

With the public trust in government at an all time low, the Texas legislature delivered more fodder to get voters angry. The flagrant violation of the legislature’s own rules and lack of transparency alone, much less the content of what was passed, provides enough angst to warrant accountability for those who perpetrated it. The way conference committees roll in Texas is taxpayers take a back seat to government lobbyists who undo the intent of what they see as hostile legislation to their existence and add or remove language, at will, outside the public purview. Conferees are not supposed to rewrite legislation on the fly behind closed doors and fail to fully inform or get permission from their colleagues.

The ten conferees — Senators Robert Nichols, Kirk Watson, Chuy Hinojosa, Kelly Hancock, and Van Taylor, and Representatives Larry Gonzales, Geanie Morrison, Richard Raymond, Cindy Burkett, and Senfronia Thompson — hijacked the House amendments in order to allow toll entities to continue as usual under the status quo when both the Senate and House decidedly voted to restrain tolling and bring greater protection to the driving public from runaway toll taxation, fines, and fees that are financially straining many Texans.

There are some shiny spots in this otherwise gloomy picture, however. Perhaps the biggest victory of all was killing the bill to re-authorize public private partnership toll roads, HB 2861. Nineteen Texas highways would have been handed over in government-sanctioned monopolies giving private, foreign corporations the exclusive right to extract the highest possible toll in 50-year sweetheart deals. That era is now over. There is still plenty to celebrate in SB 312 as well.

Anti-toll reforms in SB 312:
1) Texans will now be protected from having their free lanes converted to toll lanes or having their free lanes downgraded to frontage roads.
2) Despite the exceptions added, HOV lanes cannot be converted into toll lanes.
3) Toll administrative fees will be capped at $48/year, and any criminal fines are capped at $250/year (versus the current system where thousands can be tacked on).
4) Tolls will be removed from Camino Columbia toll road in Laredo and the Cesar Chavez toll project in El Paso (after a vote by local El Paso officials who have indicated they support removing the tolls). This sets an important precedent to get tolls removed from other projects.
5) Any state funds for toll projects that had environmental review commence by January 1, 2014, must be repaid. The grant/subsidy, double tax gravy train is now over.

Taxpayers pushed for over a decade to get these reforms in place and finally got them in SB 312. However, the temptation to do a victory lap is tainted by the conference committee’s actions that left the bill riddled with exceptions and loopholes that must be addressed in a future session. Now it’s time to hold key players accountable for what they did.