Toll roads front and center in gubernatorial debate

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The debate over toll roads took a front row seat in last night’s final Republican gubernatorial debate. The lead question to start the debate, posed by reporter Wayne Slater, asked candidates Kay Bailey Hutchison, Debra Medina, and Rick Perry what they feel is the best way to fund roads: more debt, raise the gas tax, or more toll roads.

While no candidate came out and said they’d raise the gas tax, both Hutchison and Medina said an audit and total house cleaning at TxDOT was in order before any new money would be considered. Both challengers rejected Perry’s version of reliance on strictly toll roads to build infrastructure. Hutchison emphasized no tolls on existing freeways (touting her amendment to two appropriations bills that forbids tolling existing interstates, though it has a loophole for “managed” toll lanes added to the middle of existing paid-for right of way), and no gas tax increases without a public election (which seems to indicate support for the local option gas tax being pushed by officials in urban areas).

Medina stated the need for greater transparency at TxDOT to identify the waste, and she emphasized state sovereignty, saying no gas tax should leave the state to get pilfered in Washington. Perry stubbornly clung to his failed policy of privatized, foreign-owned toll roads using sweetheart deals that grant monopolies to the private operators (which result in toll rates of 75 cents PER MILE to access public roads).

Perry’s “YOU LIE!” moment

Perry’s greatest fib of the day was his insistence that the Texas legislature passed a bill in 2005 prohibiting the conversion of free lanes to toll lanes. However, the truth is, the bill, HB 2702, tells precisely how TxDOT can LEGALLY convert existing highway lanes into toll lanes by simply downgrading the free lanes to access roads. The bill also contains other gaping loopholes that allow the Transportation Commission (all appointed by Perry) to override the “prohibition” if it determines the toll lanes “improve mobility in the region” as well as grandfather clause that exempts virtually all the toll projects currently on the table. Perry’s elitist “you can eat cake” attitude is: if you can’t afford the toll lanes, you can sit in congestion on the stop-light ridden access roads. The fight to stop the conversion of all existing FREEway lanes on US 281 (and 16 miles of Loop 1604) into a tollway has languished precisely because of the loopholes in HB 2702.

Challengers: Perry’s sweetheart deals must go

Later, Hutchison emphasized Perry’s approach to building roads grants sweetheart deals designed to protect the interests of the private operators, not of the traveling public, by limiting the potential “competition” of surrounding free roads. In her closing, Hutchison decried Perry’s cronyism relating to the toll deals, where lobbyists, not Texans, get their interests represented. Medina closed by lumping Hutchison into the mix saying “both want to sell Texas to the highest bidder” (an illusion to Hutchison’s support of private toll roads, though Hutchison stops short of foreign ownership and wants certain public protections in the contracts).

It’s interesting to note, only Medina actually asked for Texans’ vote on March 2. She also noted the career politicians tout big name endorsements, but Medina emphasized, as she looked right into the camera at the millions of viewers, “the only endorsement I care about is yours.”

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