BOMBSHELL: Senators find out tolls charged on roads that are paid for

Sparks fly as senators discover numerous toll roads with no debt on them, prompts call to remove tolls
By Terri Hall
September 15, 2016

It’s not often that the very sleepy subject of transportation offers a fiery discussion, but yesterday’s Senate Transportation Committee meeting did not disappoint. In a rare olive branch extended to grassroots anti-toll advocacy groups, Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom and Texans for Toll-free Highways, Chairman Senator Robert Nichols invited them to address the committee about one of its interim studies - a study on the elimination of toll roads.

Just the title evokes strong emotions on both sides of the issue, and those emotions were in plain view Wednesday. Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Executive Director James Bass laid out the numbers of how much it would cost to retire tolls on roads built with state funds. Let me say that again, toll roads that were built with state money. That means gasoline taxes and other state funds were used to build the road, but Texas drivers are being charged again, through tolls, to use it — a double tax scheme.

An early pay-off would cost $24.2 billion, while the existing debt as of January 1, 2016, was $21.6 billion. That’s what building roads with debt begets. It costs far more than paying cash, anywhere from 40% more to 100% more. TxDOT now spends over $1 billion a year in payments to cover its debt. If the toll bonds stay on course to the final pay-off dates, the cost mushrooms to $39.9 billion. 

The use of public funds to, in essence, bail out toll projects that cannot pay for themselves with the toll revenues only, was the subject of much consternation by the conservatives on the committee. Senator Lois Kolkhorst has twice authored the bill to make tolls come off the road when the debt is repaid. She was quick to jump in and grill Bass on the Loop 375 Border West Highway toll project in El Paso.

Bass called it a unique financial arrangement, and Kolkhorst, visibly irritated, responded, ’Well, explain that ‘unique' arrangement.”

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. In fact, the state gave them $500 million in Texas Mobility Funds which granted 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 over 80% ownership to an unelected toll authority who will reap over 80% of the toll revenues for a 100% paid for highway.

It’s no wonder the senators suffered from shock.

“So we paid the RMA for their ownership. That’s a pretty good deal,” Kolkhorst quipped sarcastically.
“Let me get this straight. The state of Texas put money into a project and then gave half of the ownership to an RMA where they will forever in perpetuity get half of the revenue?”

Bass corrected her and said it was actually more than half the ownership and revenue.

“So this is what I don’t understand and this is the problem. The road is paid for. Now we’re going to create a toll road for the people of El Paso, and I’m just going to say this okay, because all of that is tax money, and that’s worse than I’ve ever seen…this is not right,” Kolkhorst expressed with frustration.

“At what point do you say, we shouldn’t toll this because it’s paid for? At what point do we say there’s no debt on this road, it’s paid for, and, by the way, you get to pay for it again, AND to add insult to injury, the people that paid for it never get the money back? Does that make sense to anybody in this room? This is what frustrates lawmakers like me when we try to give TxDOT money… It’s more expensive to build a toll road, so we paid more for it than we would have it had been non-tolled,…so enough!”

Senator Bob Hall echoed her frustration and pursued it further, “There are numerous toll roads that have no debt on them, and they’re still being tolled.”

Camino Columbia in Laredo, Cesar Chavez in El Paso, SH 130 (the state-operated northern 49 miles from Georgetown to Mustang Ridge) and SH 45 in the Austin area, the Katy Freeway managed toll lanes and the entire Metro High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes in Houston, parts of the Grand Parkway around Houston (segments 1-2A), the DFW connector, and the I-30 managed toll lanes (in fact most all of the managed toll lanes) in Dallas all have no debt and should have the tolls come down immediately. Every one of those lanes was built with state and federal funds, no debt is owed, and yet officials charge tolls simply to profit off of congestion and as a means to manipulate people and traffic.

Hall keyed in on Bass’ statement that several of the toll managed lane projects in Dallas-Ft. Worth had no debt and charged tolls to ‘control traffic through pricing.’ That’s a staggering admission for a highway department run by a conservative governor who prides himself on lowering taxes and taking on government overreach.

Hall insisted TxDOT drop such a punitive approach that seeks to control people, punish and discriminate against the poor, and use something that’s cheaper to implement and doesn’t cost the driver anything, like today’s technologically advanced ramp metering.

Senator Don Huffines chimed in with similar sentiments concluding tolls “are segmenting society between those who can afford tolls and those who can’t and it’s bad policy.”

Public testimony brought in the taxpayers’ perspective and gave a glimpse into the rage over tolls being charged on roads that are paid for. The GOP platform has a plank to remove tolls when the debt is repaid as well as a plank opposing the use of any public funds to build, subsidize or otherwise bail out toll projects. The Democratic platform also opposes toll roads. That’s the tip of the iceberg, though. A group of outraged citizens are preparing a class action lawsuit over the abusive toll collection practices that are are imposing fines and fees that financially ruin people and that allows unelected toll authorities to impound vehicles and block vehicle registration.

Many Texans are paying upwards of $300 a month in tolls just to get to work. Since the privatized toll projects opened, one has gone bankrupt, SH 130 (segments 5 & 6), and two in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex use dynamic or ‘congestion pricing’ (where the toll is based on the level of congestion) to soak the traveling public, charging up to $50 a day in tolls.

Perhaps the most surprising concessions of the day came from Nichols’ himself. Known as the most ardent opponent of removing tolls in order to keep paying for road maintenance, Nichols actually advocated removing tolls from the Camino Columbia toll road. Tolls are generating ten times the cost of maintaining it.

Taking tolls off Camino Columbia would “to me, be a no brainer…you could pull the tolls down tomorrow if you wanted to,” suggested Nichols.

Nichols also asked TxDOT to study the effectiveness of HOV lanes. HOV lanes have come under fire as many of them now have a toll element for single occupant vehicles known as High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes, which are highly underutilized and actually make congestion worse on the surrounding general purpose lanes. He suggested the Department look at pre-HOV traffic data and post-HOV traffic data to actually see whether or not HOV lanes have successfully changed behavior and encouraged more carpooling or simply captured those who were already carpooling.

If it hasn’t actually successfully changed behavior, “I have a real problem with it,” expressed Nichols. “Police have more important things to do than count heads in an HOV lane.”

The research is virtually unanimous already. According to Jack Mallinckrodt’s study The Best Evidence of HOV Lane Effectiveness, he determined, “In all the known complete transportation modeling studies that have quantitatively evaluated (overall congestion and/or polluting emissions), optimal performance occurs in the natural, unrestricted Mixed-Flow operational mode. In all these cases, any attempt to preferentially restrict the natural free distribution of traffic, whether by HOV or HOT (High Occupancy Toll) operation, made overall congestion and emissions worse… And the findings are essentially unanimous in saying that under typical conditions, maximum transportation benefit…is afforded by unrestricted, mixed-flow, rather than HOV operation.”

HOV/HOT lanes may very well be on the ropes in Texas. House Transportation Committee Chair Joe Pickett shares Nichols’ distaste for HOV lanes calling them ineffective and a waste of capacity in a growing state. Pickett also argues they make congestion worse, which studies confirm, like the one recently conducted by Inrix that concluded congestion on the general purpose lanes got worse after the HOT lanes opened.

This is good news for congestion weary, toll weary commuters who are tired of being the guinea pigs of urban planners, who delight in imposing road scarcity to manipulate people out of their cars and into a bus or carpool. Conservatives clearly got the message that tolls play into the hands of social engineers who want to control the populace, and that tolls are abusive and double taxing Texans, which threatens the sustainability of the Texas economic miracle.