Transportation chair signals end may be near for toll managed lanes
By Terri Hall
November 17, 2015
The death-knell to toll managed lanes may be imminent in Texas. House Transportation Committee Chair Joe Pickett signaled he’s on a war path to end toll managed lanes at a hearing of the Select Committee on Transportation Planning last week.
The chairman declared war on managed lanes, “I’m on a binge about managed lanes. I’ve decided I don’t like managed lanes.”
Pickett cited a managed toll lane project in his home district of El Paso that carries a mere six percent of traffic. Ninety-four percent of drivers stay on the free lanes. Of those that use the toll managed lane, they only use it for three hours a day.
“So for 21 hours of a 24 hour day, the state of Texas has a road that goes unused. That’s ridiculous, and there’s more of those out there,” Pickett opined.
Many drivers are confused about the term ‘managed lane.’ It can mean a high occupancy vehicle (HOV) component, a bus or transit lane element, restricted access during certain hours, and most often, a toll required in order for single occupancy vehicles to access the lane. Bottom line, managed lanes are designed to restrict access to the lanes based on some arbitrary criteria of government planners attempting to ‘manage’ your commute.
But Pickett’s declaration against managed lanes is right on point. Restricting access only diverts the traffic to non-restricted lanes and leaves the managed lanes empty for the vast majority of the day. Rather than relieving or effectively ‘managing’ congestion, managed lanes actually create congestion on the highway as a whole. That’s why many have dubbed managed lanes ‘Lexus lanes,’ because only those who can afford to access the fast lanes get congestion relief. It’s an inefficient, unfair, and ineffective solution for the vast majority of drivers.
Taxpayers subsidies a mainstay
The funding of toll managed lanes is even more scurrilous. According to Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) planning documents, not a single managed lane project in the state can pay for itself with the just the anticipated toll revenues. Every single project requires massive state subsidies, usually gas taxes, in order to keep them afloat. That means all Texans are paying for the toll lanes whether or not they actually use them. Of course, those that pay the toll, are getting slammed twice by double taxation.
Pickett inserted managed lanes into the broader discussion about transportation priorities and how the planning process and allocation of funding should be addressed in light of the backlash to tolling in Texas. Over 75 anti-toll bills were filed in the 84th legislative session that ended June 1. So leadership took the hint and made an effort to dial back tolling. The anti-toll movement gained a major ally when the Chair of the House Transportation Committee joined the ranks opposed to managed toll lanes last week. Others on the committee asked how much more road funding is needed if tolls were no longer part of the picture.
“The Speaker and the bills that were filed said we needed to turn them (tolls) down. The question is, do we want to turn them off?” Pickett asked. “Nobody has done the exercise to see what the number is without tolls, and TxDOT is doing that now.”
Pickett authored HB 2612 that requires TxDOT to study the elimination of toll roads funded with state money. While this wouldn’t eliminate all toll projects, it would sink the vast majority of toll managed lanes, in particular, since all managed lane projects now require some sort of state or federal subsidy. Ironically, while Texas leadership is rebelling against managed toll lanes and restricted lane models, the Federal Highway Administration under the Obama administration is pushing them in earnest.
Transportation Commissioner Victor Vandergriff signaled TxDOT has gotten the message about toll roads: “We certainly do not want to re-live where we get into funding cycles like we did in San Antonio with that project (referring to the 281 toll project)…we’re trying to make sure that those kinds of decisions that went against a lot of the local wishes there don’t happen again.”
Pickett wasn’t the only lawmaker to make waves about tolls. Rep. Armando Walle focused on the unfairness of tolls, “The perception of the people in my district is we’re not going to build Grand Parkway out there and build toll roads while my roads are crumbling. You’re raising the revenue on the backs of working people in my district.”
The Grand Parkway tollway got dubbed the ‘Grand Porkway’ by the grassroots for its political roots and billions in state subsidies. The road is a greenfield project where there’s no traffic congestion that got rushed ahead of other worthy projects by special interests, in this case Exxon Mobil, who wanted to move its headquarters to the suburbs of Harris County.
It got priority funding when many congestion relief projects inside the core of Houston and in other metro areas languished due to lack of funding. At the behest of TxDOT, Texas taxpayers ultimately guaranteed the loan on the bonds for Grand Parkway, up to $9.6 billion, if the toll revenues don’t materialize. Such loan guarantees that violate the Texas Constitution have largely gone unchecked under the former administration. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has helped turn the tide in the opposite direction.
So as lawmakers prepare for the next session in 2017, taxpayers can expect strong recommendations from Pickett and his committee to eliminate the wasteful, underutilized toll managed lanes from the state’s transportation plans.