Toll Party takes on SAMCo, TxDOT and the pro-tollers on the MPO

August 27, 2007

In response to SAMCO Statements –

While the picture SAMCO paints is quite grim, I believe many seem to be suffering from short term memory loss…the A&M Study released not even a year ago, flat out, unequivocally states WE DO NOT NEED A SINGLE TOLL ROAD IN TX to meet our future transportation needs! Let’s remember how we got into this mess. Mr. Boyer rightly points to the Legislature who has perpetually raided gas tax revenues for more than 20 years…to the tune of more than $10 billion! On the federal level, a highway bill with 6,000 earmarks and the bridge to nowhere benefiting 55 people versus properly funding the building and maintenance of our Nation’s major arteries represents more egregious malfeasance. It’s not the taxpayers responsibility to bail out their leaky boat.

Let’s talk about why the Legislature hasn’t addressed transportation funding issues. First, there are many who wish to keep starving the gas tax to push a toll agenda. Second, TxDOT has put out at least 6 different figures of how much of a gas tax increase is needed. The Legislature, nor anyone else, can get straight, honest answers from TxDOT. They change their numbers more often than they change their underwear. Given this total breech in trust, Legislators were not about to put their toe in the water to raise gas taxes when the target kept moving. Third, TxDOT is up for sunset review in 2009. Once the Legislature gets a top to bottom look at TxDOT’s books, they’ll have a much better idea of what the true shortfall is, what the true gas tax figure is and will be able to have a true transportation debate since Mike Krusee will no longer Chair the House Transportation Committee. Trust me, Mike Krusee will not be returning to the Legislature! Then, let’s not forget the second State Audit Report that confirmed what the A&M Study also found, that TxDOT’s supposed funding gap is nearly half what they claim it is.

All that to say, we’re NOT going to keep pumping money into your coffers only to watch it get diverted time and again feeding this perpetual cycle of failing to fund the necessities so government can use it as an excuse to keep raising taxes.

Now, SAMCo’s comments were misleading and in some cases completely false. Let’s take them one by one.

• The MPOs funding gap figure is based on a wish list and would amount to $10,500 per person in San Antonio (based on population figure of 1.8 million people). Considering most of those people are children and that children don’t drive, that dollar amount is even greater per motorist. So what you’re proposing is outlandish and unsustainable. Let’s not forget that by the Governor’s own admission, those figures are based on sky’s the limit, money is no object wish lists, not “needs.” So let’s inject some sanity back into the process by using realistic figures and determine the true needs before we continue this sky is falling if we don’t increase every tax to fund roads mantra.

• SAMCo on one hand says we’re getting so maxed out on bonding that our category 2 funds will be diminished by more than $100 million a year using the vast majority of money for congestion relief to retire the debt we’re already in. Then on the other hand, SAMCo supports even more bonds. Pay as you go is looking better every day!

• The state gas tax has outpaced population growth and inflation by 178% (from 1984-2004). There has been a steady increase in gas tax revenues…it has not remained flat as SAMCO states.

• Who’s to blame for delays on 281? It was the FHWA not the lawsuit that required TxDOT to redo its environmental study for 281. Why was a lawsuit filed? Because TXDOT refused to install and refused to consider the gas tax funded plan as a viable option. Were it not for TxDOT and this MPO converting that freeway into a toll road, there would not be this battle over 281. It is totally disingenuous to blame concerned citizens for some erroneous $230 million in delays on 281. That is not an apples to apples figure. The toll road footprint is twice the size, takes twice as long to build, and will now cost 4 times more than the original gas tax plan. If anyone is costing the taxpayer more money, it’s TxDOT. Tolling it will cost the taxpayers $400 million PLUS a lifetime in new toll taxes. It’s the toll plan and TxDOT that is responsible for cost increases, not citizens asking for the vastly cheaper, less invasive gas tax plan that not only takes half the time to build, but would have been done already. The citizens have said from DAY ONE, install the gas tax plan and stop defrauding the public about your intentions to toll an existing freeway. The blame for any delays on 281 rest squarely with TxDOT and the politicians who enable them.

• Population growth doesn’t necessarily necessitate the need for more highways if we grow up and not out. Let’s also remember that population increases mean gas tax revenues increase. Population growth alone versus actually looking at congestion is a false argument.

• SAMCo says the Legislature did not give any new funding for highways…well, what’s doubling TxDOT’s bonding capacity and returning $50 million per year (in HB 2093) to transportation that were previously diverted?

• Mr. Boyer either didn’t read or doesn’t understand the implications of SB 792, though Jaime Castillo’s article on July 22, 2007 does. He seems to think the RMA is pursuing a traditional toll project like Houston and Dallas. That’s not true. Former Transportation Commissioner now Senator Robert Nichols has confirmed that all traditional turnpikes have been replaced by market-based tolling in SB 792. That means now even the public tolling entities will not simply base the toll rate on the actual cost of building the road, but on how much profit they think they can make for the road. The RMA will have to come up with that pre-determined profit and put it in an up front account just like the private equity concession model. It translates into the highest possible tolls and taxing one corridor to death to fund roads elsewhere in the region.

• SAMCO would use the taxpayers money that helps fund them far better if it would study the impacts of increasing the cost of transportation on the economy. Even Alan Greenspan acknowledged how high gas prices are hurting the economy and market-based tolls will only hasten that effect, not help it. Yes, there’s a cost to sitting in traffic, but the cost of tolling and the debt to finance the fix costs far more.

• SAMCO wants to define our congestion challenges and find additional ways to manage congestion. Here’s some that cost next to nothing. The Federal Highway Administration lists the top 3 reasons for congestion/road delay have nothing to do with road capacity. They’re accidents, weather, and road construction itself. TxDOT needs to immediately implement an incident management program to help clear accidents quickly like Houston and other metro cities. Also, as columnist Ken Allard recently suggested, much of our current congestion is TxDOT-induced due to tearing up every major artery all over the City all at once, bottling up traffic everywhere with no alternate routes. Smarter planning and basic consideration of motorists’ needs when considering construction schedules would go a long way to solving man-made congestion! TxDOT should also immediately better synchronize the stop lights on US 281 and use the right of way already acquired to add additional left and right turn lanes at those lights.

Excerpts from Lone Star Report
Today’s Lone Star Report has an Op/Ed that nails what’s wrong with transportation in this country –

Maybe if TxDOT pursued rational transportation policies, the public support would follow, and it could spend that $9 million (being spent on an ad campaign pushing tolls) building and maintaining roads.

Borrowing money and deficit spending are called “innovative financing< ;/span> techniques.” The term “public-private partnerships” is used to describe mortgaging public property. Tax hikes are called “market-based” or “value-based” tolling or “market valuations.” Government-sanctioned monopolies are referred to as “introducing competition to transportation financing.”

Here’s why Texans ought to be concerned.

Borrowing carries a price tag. The Texas Constitution has traditionally eschewed deficit spending and required existing revenue to pay for existing spending. Now, the state wants to build most of its roads by borrowing, either publicly or by getting a private firm to agree to borrow money, build a road, and collect tolls.

Funding gap wish list not needs- It also shows a lack of priorities at the agency. Most Americans would love a longer vacation, a fancier home, and a nicer car. But their wallets get in the way. Every day, Texans take their limited resources and differentiate between wants and needs. The government should do so also.

In the 2007 transportation compromise, Perry insisted on “market-based tolling,” whereby the tolls for new highways are set above the cost to build and maintain the road. Perhaps one could call a toll a “user fee” if the amount of the toll reflected the cost of building and maintaining the road (though even that’s debatable). But when money is taken from a government-sanctioned toll road monopoly and used to build other free roads, that’s a tax.

Simply stated, Perry is raising taxes.

These bad transportation policies are being promoted not only here but also by the U.S. Department of Transportation and in other states like Indiana, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. But just because George W. Bush likes something doesn’t make it right or conservative.

There is a better alternative. It starts with the recognition that building roads is a legitimate function for government, as recognized by the U.S. and Texas constitutions.

Once the state has gone through the process (of properly evaluating the costs vs benefits), then and only then should discussion of tolling begin.

It’s time to stop pushing public policies that primarily benefit a select few highway contractors and investment bankers at the expense of the motoring public.

Instead, let’s put a spirit of public service back into TxDOT and enact transportation policies that provide accountability and frugality.

In response to attitudes survey going to a pro-toll contractor –
We object to the fact that no elected officials were on the oversight committee for the attitudes survey. Also, 4 of the 7 appointees consistently vote pro-toll. The RMA is not even a voting member and yet it’s on this committee. Who’s representing the opposite point of view on this committee? Once again, the make-up of this committee fails to give proper representation of the citizens’ repeated concerns and overtly leans pro-toll by its very make-up. How are to trust that the results will be fair and impartial?

The President of the ETC Research firm has a background working for the very people pushing toll roads like speaking to the transportation industry at two Transportation Management Summits sponsored by the TMA Council of the Association of Commuter Transportation (made-up of a host of both public and private highway interests, and actively advocates tolling) with the support of the Federal Highway Administration, Federal Transit Administration, and U. S. Department of Energy. HOV/HOT Council Chair is with the Texas Transportation Institute. Using this and most of the companies under consideration will no doubt mean a skewed result.

TxDOT’s first choice was Thompson Marketing whose clients also include highway engineering firms. It seems this body pathologically goes to EVERY extent conceivable to push a pre-determined agenda, toll roads, versus find some market research firm that isn’t tied to the highway lobby and apply unbiased, scientific principles to truly gauge effects of high gas prices on people’s attitudes about toll roads and transportation. Frankly when you have appointees and no elected officials sit on this survey committee, stacked with those who are toll proponents, the agenda is obvious.

Will the questions inform citizens that TxDOT already has a gas tax funded plan for improvements to 281 that is half the footprint of the toll road, one-quarter the cost, and half the construction time? Will they be told that it should have been completed in 2004 but people languish in traffic today because they chose to convert an existing freeway already paid for into a toll road and DOUBLE TAX 281 users to fund other road projects elsewhere? Will they be told their ONLY non-toll option will be access roads? Will respondents be pooled from the northside where all the toll roads are currently planned? Will the citizens be told that the TX Transportation Institute study says we don’t need a single toll road to meet out future transportation needs? Will they be told that toll roads cost more to build and maintain than freeways and that a HEAP of gas taxes (like $363 million on 1604 alone) will go into building the toll roads but you can’t drive on them without paying a DOUBLE TAX, a toll tax? Will they be told these multi-billion dollar tax decisions are being made by unelected bureaucrats resulting in taxation without representation?

Will they be informed as to the cost escalations from $1.4 billion to $2.2 billion for just the first 47 miles on 2 highways (compared to the entire Phase II toll roads proposed in Austin being $2.2 billion for 7 or more projects)? Will they be told of the waste and misuse of gas taxes by the highway department like $7-9 million dollar ad campaigns, and millions to restore historic courthouses while we languish in traffic? Will they be told that market-based tolls have replaced traditional turnpikes like the ones in Houston and Dallas and they can expect tolls to start at 29 cents a mile up to $1.50 a mile like in Austin which means $2,000-$4,000 a year in new toll taxes versus 1-3 cents a mile in gas tax? Bottom line: will they be properly informed of the truth or be treated to a dose of pro-toll, TxDOT/RMA spin?