Michael Morris: The man behind the toll network California-izing Texas
By Terri Hall
August 31, 2015
Many North Texans struggle to get around the Dallas-Ft.Worth metroplex without having to pay tolls and now they’re asking, just who’s responsible for this punitive new tax? The answer is Michael Morris. Morris is the Executive Director of the Regional Transportation Council (RTC) and its parent bureaucracy, the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG).
Back in 2005, when former Governor Rick Perry had already begun his steady march to impose tolls in earnest across Texas, Morris was on board even before Perry took office. In a Texas Transportation Commission meeting that December, Morris gave a lengthy diatribe to the commission in support of the possibility of presiding over the largest toll managed lane network in America.
There is no question that Morris is the man behind the mask. He’s an unelected federal employee who’s become an institutionalized bureaucrat that outlasts elected officials — local, state and federal — and many DFW residents. He even admitted to being an emissary of the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) toll agenda when he stated, “I'm often in front of you promoting some of the statewide initiatives you have me working on.”
Morris was an early supporter of Perry’s controversial Trans Texas Corridor, too: “…you know our region has come before you that says that we think the best way to develop the Trans-Texas Corridor near Dallas-Fort Worth is to integrate it into the regional transportation system.”
“We have gotten the message, we have the tools. Dallas-Fort Worth region has been working on toll roads since 1993,” bragged Morris.
Indeed, he mentioned 20 toll projects were in the works and referred to toll roads as an ‘institutional mechanism,’ even calling the full implementation of his toll managed lane dream a ‘luxury.’
“We are at the luxury now to be at the last step which is the institutional mechanism.”
Morris also copped to the fact most of the 20 toll projects already had environmental clearance as freeways, but several had to be re-evaluated (at great cost to the taxpayers) once the projects were turned into toll roads. Plus, he readily acknowledged that the DFW region was using gas taxes to build them - clearly double taxation.
In Morris’ statement, he explained both Highway 121 in Denton County and Highway 161 in Dallas County had been funded by TxDOT with gas taxes. Then Morris dropped the boom that TxDOT’s minute order “gave us permission as a staff, through your districts, to knock on their (Denton and Dallas county officials) door and try to convince those two communities a toll road would be a better option.”
You read that right. Morris actually lobbied to take two freeway projects and turn them into double tax toll roads all on the taxpayers’ dime.
Multi-leveraging tolls with tax dollars
One of the aspects of implementing the toll institutional mechanism was the use of multiple sources of public money to subsidize toll projects that can’t pay for themselves — institutionalized by Morris personally.
“What you've got to make sure you do in this business is don't cherry pick the best toll road projects and have them as stand-alone toll projects and then you don't have enough revenue to be able to systematize the toll revenue to build all the transportation projects in the whole corridor,” Morris opined.
Indeed, ‘system financing,’ meaning the use of toll revenues from one corridor to pay for another, was already at the disposal of the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA), and thanks to Morris, became the standard for tolling around the state. So the toll user is no longer paying for the road they’re driving on. That revenue is used for myriad other toll and non-toll projects elsewhere.
Managing your daily commute
Even the term ‘managed lanes’ has confused the average commuter. Managed lanes are typically new lanes added to an existing freeway where transit and HOV users ride for free or at a discount, but single occupancy cars pay a toll for the privilege of access to mobility.
It’s an attempt by government bureaucracies to ‘manage’ your commute through dynamic 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, supposedly 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 non-toll capacity, the bureaucrats’ answer will be: carpool, get on a bus, pay the toll, or stay stuck in traffic. It’s a method of social engineering to try and change your behavior.
Morris, TxDOT, and toll authorities have bought into the thinking that the only way to address congestion is through tolls/pricing. They admit the goal is to change behavior and force people out of their cars and into a bus — in other words social engineering, Smart Growth, and sustainable development policies that the majority of Texas voters reject (take a look at the GOP platform).
Managed lanes California-ize Texas
The new thinking is guided by the assumption you can’t possibly build enough lanes to relieve the congestion, so now the only option is to ‘manage’ it by manipulating people through pricing.
Tolls as a traffic management tool is California-izing Texas. California bought into the same philosophy, only sooner. They added HOV lanes and then stopped expanding highways.
As a result, California has some of the most congested highways in the world. They’re now ‘selling’ the excess capacity in their failed HOV lane system to single occupancy vehicles (SOV) if drivers pay a toll for the privilege of using lanes their gas taxes already paid for.
Restricted lanes don’t relieve congestion
A 2004 study done by Pravin Varaiya, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, is considered the standard academic study of managed lanes and highway congestion.
“An HOV lane suffers a 20% capacity loss compared with multi-lane freeways,” the report concluded. “HOV lanes are either under utilized or suffer degraded operations. HOV lanes do not measurably increase car pooling. HOV lanes do not reduce overall highway congestion.”
The same is true of managed toll lanes. Increasing the toll simply displaces cars onto the already congested free lanes. Managed toll lanes do little to actually relieve congestion, rather they manipulate behavior for profit. If ever you could manipulate someone out of their car and into a bus or carpool it would be in gridlocked California, but it didn’t work. With tolls adding to the tax burden and stagnant wages, people are now fleeing California.
Texas elected officials have been enticing California residents to come to the cradle of liberty - Texas. Why? Only to face the exact same social engineering tactics that will price them off their public freeways? Like California, they’re not going to get Texans out of their cars, no matter how much pain they try to inflict.
The individual auto is the very symbol of freedom. Just watch a car commercial. When you follow the history of highways, car ownership created the middle class in America. No longer were people trapped in cities. They were now mobile and could see the country and gain freedom - both economic freedom and freedom of movement. It marked the rise of the suburbs, too. Americans could now drive into the cities for work, but enjoy home ownership in the suburbs (versus high density housing in cities). Now Texas is buying into the Smart Growth policies of the past and again trying to herd everyone into high density housing in the inner core and make them dependent on mass transit to gain mobility.
The interstate highway system generated the greatest economic expansion in American history. Now that’s under threat with tolls and managed lanes, creating road scarcity, which will contract economic expansion.
Governor Greg Abbott has made policy speeches that indicate his disdain for big government local policies that try to control people’s behavior, whether texting bans or grocery bag bans. How much more will congestion tolling destroy the very fabric of travel freedom? The original excuse to toll all these freeways was that it was the only way to get them funded. Now the real reason is starting to surface. It’s been about big government social engineering all along.
A Washington Post article pointed out this philosophy when a $10 toll hike was being proposed in Houston last spring, “…tolling is a modern tool for managing traffic. Pouring more concrete just hasn’t done the trick…”
A Houston Chronicle piece exposed that the goal of the toll hike was to change behavior:
“'This is the only tool we have to manage the congestion on the lanes,’ said Lisa Castaneda, deputy director of the Harris County Toll Road Authority. By raising rates, she said, officials hope more people will choose alternatives such as public transportation or a carpool. Officials acknowledge some toll users will be upset, but they stress that the congestion pricing strategy - also used in other major metro areas - is intended to change behavior. ‘We have gained nothing if everyone gets angry and pays the $10,’ Castaneda said.”
Another way Morris and other bureaucrats controlling local transportation boards impose their will is by diverting hundreds of millions in road taxes to transit projects few commuters ever use, creating more road scarcity by drying up road funds. Morris’ long-range plan submitted to TxDOT and the feds shows the goal is to induce auto users to switch to transit.
Transit not seen as viable
In the DFW area, its light rail system operated by the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), has expanded the system 100%, and yet ridership only went up 50%. Officials have only expanded the system and still, ridership has seen no appreciable increase. DART oversees the largest light rail system in North America at one of the highest costs per rider/taxpayer.
Why would any commuter in his/her right mind use rail to get to the airport when a trip by car takes 15 minutes and by rail it takes 58 minutes? Plus, DART posts annual losses in the hundreds of millions despite billions in tax subsidies. Now even TxDOT and gas taxes have been tapped to subsidize the failing rail projects in DFW. Morris’ agency plans to blow another $16.5 billion expanding DART in the next 20 years.
The taxpayer money wasted on rail could buy 75,000 poor residents a used car at a cost of $10,000 each (using the city of Plano as an example which will spend $750 million to subsidize DART over the next ten years) and move more people more efficiently and at a lower cost to taxpayers than continuing to divert tax money that could be used on streets to failed rail systems.
Transit, walking, and biking are not considered viable, convenient, or practical options for the vast majority of commuters, particularly when you factor in the difficulty of transporting a family, buying groceries, or exposure to the Texas heat. In a Texas Transportation Institute study from September 2014, toll roads and bike lanes ranked dead last when Texans were asked to weigh transportation options. Transit also ranked far lower than travel by car on non-toll freeways.
Who’s really in charge?
The billion dollar question remains: who’s really making the call that Texas is not going to expand anymore highways once toll managed lanes are added to every freeway? Certainly not Texas voters and taxpayers. This decision is coming down from unelected bureaucrats and forcibly being imposed upon Texans without their consent, and largely without their knowledge.
Abbott can change the tide very quickly with his new chairman and commissioner at the Texas Transportation Commission. Frankly, short of the RTC firing Morris, DFW residents have few options to stop his march to impose the largest managed lane network in the country. State lawmakers continue to be ignored by Morris. In fact, he works against elected officials’ efforts to represent their constituents’ opposition to new toll taxes. Residents do not get to choose who represents them on the RTC, and the board is so big, 44 members, it’s hard for residents in one corridor to sway the votes of the other 43 members to stop tolls.
It will require a Texas-sized tax revolt to ensure Texans are freed from this oppressive new taxation and threat to their freedom to travel. Tolls are not pro-liberty nor pro-taxpayer. If Morris and bureaucrats like him across Texas have their way unchecked, Texans won’t be able to avoid paying the extra toll tax if they hope to get anywhere quickly.