Accountability, reform, and transparency: Texas legislature delivers mixed bag

Source: Article

NOTE: This is the last in a three-part series on the transportation wrap-up to the 84th legislative session of the Texas Legislature.

For taxpayers, how toll roads are done are just as important as making progress in stopping them. In the 84th legislative session of the Texas Legislature that came to a close yesterday, concerned citizens are left stunned by the lack of action in holding toll entities accountable, despite a laundry list of scandal, waste, and abuse. The North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) is currently under investigation by the FBI for concerns about undisclosed conflicts of interest with some board members. A class action lawsuit was filed against the NTTA for excessive fines and fees, and the unpopularity of toll roads is reflected in the unpopularity of the unelected toll agencies that implement them. Yet, no action was taken to subject these agencies to sunset review, or even a forensic state audit.

Senator Don Huffines' bill, SB 1184, to audit toll agencies known as Regional Mobility Authorities (RMAs) passed the Senate, but failed to pass the House, which is breath-taking given the scathing expose' of the waste and abuse inside RMAs by the Dallas Morning News. RMAs have directed contracts to former board members, engaged in no-bid contracts, charged taxpayers $20 million in ‘management fees’ to supervise TxDOT doing the work, and spent millions on lobbyists to kill pro-taxpayer reforms. Senator Bob Hall filed a bill, SB 1150, to outright abolish these duplicative agencies, and Senator Konni Burton and Rep. Lyle Larson filed companion bills (SB 721/HB 528) to subject the RMAs to sunset review. But Huffines' audit bill (Rep. Tony Dale filed a companion bill in the House) was the only one that moved and it ultimately died in the House. Failure to hold these wasteful toll agencies accountable is a dereliction of duty by the legislature.

SB 1237 by Senator Van Taylor requires local transportation policy boards known as Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPOs) to broadcast and archive their meetings over the internet. Most MPOs meet during the work day. This will give Texans who have day jobs the ability to watch the meetings and hear the deliberations of these powerful boards that approve toll projects in their jurisdictions. Most MPOs are tone deaf to citizens who do show up to protest toll projects. Now their actions will be broadcast for all to see, making MPOs more accountable to the taxpayers they serve.

HB 1394 authored by Rep. Dewayne Burns (Senator Brian Birdwell filed the companion bill) will give counties outside the NTTA's jurisdiction a say in toll roads that come through their counties. Another bill by Rep. Yvonne Davis, HB 2549, will allow courts to reduce or waive the fines imposed by NTTA that many drivers feel are excessive to the point of usury. HB 790 also authored by Rep. Cindy Burkett allows property owners along tollways to seek noise abatement measures if its determined the noise exceeds federal standards.

HB 20 by Rep. Ron Simmons is a reform bill to take the politics out of project selection at TxDOT. The aim is to put objective criteria in place and a subsequent scoring system to prioritize projects. Senator Lois Kolkhorst saved the day in committee when she stripped the language requiring local funding and/or local leveraging in order to get priority for state highway funds. Most local governments don’t have millions laying around to use as matching funds for state highways, so tolls have been consistently used to fulfill the local match requirements TxDOT has self-imposed during the Rick Perry years. If this language had not been removed, toll projects would likely have scored higher than non-toll projects and thus gotten priority for funding.

SB 1467 by Senator Kirk Watson expands locations of where commuters can pay their toll bills in person by allowing TxDOT to contract with third parties (like convenience stores), but bill payers will have to a pay an extra surcharge for the convenience. Big government just keeps expanding and, of course, they make us pay for it.

Burkett picked up where former legislators like former Rep. Ken Paxton now Attorney General left off in carrying the bill to subject the scandal-ridden NTTA to sunset review, HB 572. It never got out of committee, so she attempted to tack it onto another sunset bill, but it, too, failed.

Another bill filed by Burkett, HB 2620, would have made traffic and revenue studies or toll viability studies subject to open records laws and available to the public. Currently, such vital financial information is kept secret from the public and even elected officials. The NTTA testified against the bill and toll agencies vehemently fought the disclosure. It eventually passed the House Transportation Committee right before the deadline, but ran out of time to pass the full House. The senate version filed by Kolkhorst and Hall never got a hearing.

HB 13 by House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Joe Pickett was initially designed to be the enabling legislation to his own version of the big road funding bill SJR 5 (HJR 13), but when the Senate added Hall’s bill to curb red light cameras and another amendment by Sen. Van Taylor to prevent the last remaining freeway in Collin County, US-75, from having its HOV lanes converted into toll lanes, Pickett called a point of order and killed his own bill.

Several bills were filed to prevent the conversion of freeway lanes into toll lanes (another form of double taxation) and were a top priority for taxpayer groups, but none of them made it out of the House Committee, and they never even got a hearing in the Senate.

So there were many missed opportunities to restrain toll roads and protects taxpayers from this unaccountable new tax on driving. While the primary blame lies with the leadership, there were several floor votes by the members that could have enacted needed reforms to toll road abuses.

The Texas economy, called the ‘Texas miracle’ by politicians’ PR machine, cannot continue when many commuters are now facing $200-$400 monthly toll bills. The cost is so punitive, most Texans are being priced off the toll roads, which means they’re stuck in gridlock with longer and longer commutes, diminishing quality of life, and inhibiting the freedom of travel and the efficient movement of people and goods. Now it’s time for taxpayers to hold the leadership and the legislature accountable for their actions - both good and bad.