By JoAnn Fleming and Terri Hall
January 25, 2018
A showdown was expected at today’s Texas Transportation Commission meeting over Interstate-635 E as elected officials seeking to make good on their campaign promises to end tolls were butting heads with transportation interests seeking to lobby for more tolls. Thanks to the tireless work of Senator Bob Hall who had brought the various factions together, all the players from across the spectrum had agreed to advance a non-toll expansion of Interstate-635 E (from US-75 to Interstate 30) without tolls, sidelining tolled express lanes in accordance with the policy of Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, who recently pulled the plug on future toll roads in response to grassroots pressure. The non-toll plan is what appeared on today’s agenda.
However, to everyone’s surprise, Chairman Bruce Bugg announced that he would delay action on the project. He referred to a $1 billion funding gap between the old toll plan and the newly brokered non-toll version, but Transportation Director of the Regional Transportation Council Michael Morris very articulately begged to differ.
Morris laid out several scenarios of how the non-toll freeway expansion was fully funded and how it could move forward today without further delay. Even the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Deputy Executive Director Marc Williams testified the non-toll project was, in fact, ‘fiscally constrained,’ which means fully funded.
Morris believes there are at least five areas where the project costs should be reduced under the new plan, and both he and Hall strongly encouraged the commission to take action in today’s meeting and not delay this project another day.
This and 14 other toll projects were put on hold after Abbott and Patrick issued strong statements in November directing the highway commission to pull toll roads from the state’s plan and go back to the drawing board to get them done non-toll with existing taxes.
Hall, Morris, and the area’s Transportation Commissioner Victor Vandergriff were all blind-sided by the commission’s delay. Approval of the deal at today’s meeting would have been a win-win for all parties, especially Texas commuters and taxpayers. However, now it’s unclear as to how quickly the commission will act, whether it will be at its next meeting in February or indefinitely. Morris said any delay costs the taxpayers $5 million a month.
Hall stands with Abbott who promised to fix Texas roads without more taxes, fees, debt, or tolls.
“For an executive who can afford to take the toll lanes, he gets to race home and make himself a martini, but for the poor working guy, he has to decide whether to get home faster or whether he can buy the baby some milk,” Hall articulated.
“Tolls are a cruel form of taxation without representation. They’re punitive,” Hall noted.
He’s pointed out recently that toll taxes create a long-term penalty for the working class. At today's average cost of $5.00 each direction, it will cost the family of a worker - over the course of their lifetimes - in excess of $135,000 for the 'privilege' of using the toll lane!.
“That’s like taking a home or a couple of college educations away from that family, while they face a daily fee that could well be the equivalent of a $25.00 per-gallon gasoline tax. This is an outrageously unacceptable tax burden,” Hall argues.
Tolls were once pushed as necessary to get projects funded, but with the advent of Prop 1 and Prop 7 as sources of new non-toll funding, officials have a way to get projects moving without the additional toll tax. Now the argument has become, tolls are necessary as a way to ‘manage’ traffic. It’s an attempt by government bureaucracies to ‘manage’ congestion through variable pricing, also known as congestion tolling. The more cars that use the managed lanes, the higher the toll in order to knock cars out of the lanes to maintain a certain speed in the toll lane. Meanwhile, the adjacent ‘free’ lanes remain congested for the foreseeable future.
Managed lanes signal the end of freeway expansion. When frustrated commuters demand more capacity, the bureaucrats’ answer will be carpool, get on a bus, pay the toll, or stay stuck in traffic. Some local politicians have bought into the thinking that the only way to address congestion is through tolls, which the majority of Texas voters reject (take a look at the Texas GOP platform).
When tolls under a managed lane scenario are already exceeding $1/mile on MoPac in Austin and over $4/mile to get into Washington D.C. today on I-66, this unsustainable, untenable situation must come to an end. Thanks to taxpayer heroes like Senator Bob Hall, congestion weary commuters on I-635 E have help on the way and the conservative grassroots has his back.