By Terri Hall
December 26, 2018
Retiring Texas State Representative Joseph Pickett (D - HD 79) is one in a million. Truly there is no one in the Texas House who undertook transportation as a matter of personal study with the aim of improving every step of the process for both the government agencies in charge of delivering projects and also for the forgotten taxpayer like Joe Pickett. He announced his retirement right before Christmas citing his battle with cancer and the need to fully recover without the rigors of a legislative session. It’s truly a devastating loss for the people of Texas. Here’s why.
No one knows Texas transportation like Pickett, and there is no one currently in the Texas House who can come close to replacing his depth of knowledge and expertise anytime soon. He’s been in the Texas House since 1995, serving first on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation then on the Transportation Committee itself, eventually chairing the committee for two sessions.
Pickett not only served on his local Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) in El Paso as a councilman, but also during most of his tenure in the Texas House. He also served as Chair of the El Paso MPO for several terms. Local MPOs are where the nitty gritty of transportation projects take place. These boards, comprised of local elected officials and transportation agency officials, decide which local projects get priority over others and where gas tax dollars and transportation funds get allocated. Ever since the Rick Perry ‘toll everything so we can generate new revenue and not call it a tax’ began, the MPOs often decide whether or not a road project is tolled. Those are fighting words for many Texans faced with high monthly toll bills that approach the level of a property tax bill for many families in urban areas. Pickett had the savvy and finesse to challenge TxDOT, toll agencies, and MPOs about various toll project decisions and discern whether or not it was truly warranted or just a potential cash cow for an unaccountable agency.
In recent years, Pickett declared war on toll ‘managed lanes.’ Managed lanes can mean a lot of different things, but they primarily involve a restricted express lane inside the general purpose lanes of an existing freeway where access is given based on paying a toll, being a registered carpool, or using some form of mass transit. The toll rates on these lanes change in real time throughout the day — going up based on the level of congestion on the adjacent free lanes. Toll rates skyrocket past $1.00 a mile during peak hours in many cases, like the managed lanes inside MoPac in Austin or the privatized managed lanes on I-635 in Dallas and I-820 in Ft. Worth. It’s become an unaccountable new tax on driving knocking the majority of Texas drivers out of lanes their tax money paid for (in part or in some cases the lanes are 100% tax-funded). This is why today’s version of tolling is called a double tax — you’re paying a toll to use a lane you’ve already paid for.
Pickett was largely responsible for two of the largest infusions of new highway funding in state history — Proposition 1 in 2014 and Proposition 7 in 2015. He was also an advocate of ending the 25% diversion of state gasoline tax to public education as a matter of principle. He believes it violates truth in taxation and betrays the public trust when politicians collect a tax for one purpose then spend it for another. Pickett was also one of the first legislators to sound the alarm that the state was in over its head with road debt, and he cut off at least one major source of debt, the Texas Mobility Fund, of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) in 2015.
But his legislative accomplishments barely scratch the surface of what his transportation legacy will be. Ultimately, Pickett was best known for drilling down into the numbers, doing his research, understanding every category of funding and every nuance of state transportation and used it to hold TxDOT and the many toll agencies now online (over 13) accountable to lawmakers and the public who funds them. Last session alone, he authored bills later turned into amendments to remove tolls from a highway in El Paso that was already paid for, to ensure gas taxes and other public funds weren’t handed out like candy to toll agencies as subsidies requiring any public money to be repaid to taxpayers, and to prevent the conversion of free lanes into toll lanes.
No House member tried to hold the transportation agencies accountable like Pickett. He used his depth of knowledge and expertise to fight for taxpayers and a more efficient and nimble process rather than give them a free pass or use one's leadership on the committee to benefit their district or personal agenda as many do.
Pickett leaves behind a legacy unrivaled by anyone in the Texas House, and he will be dearly missed. The people of Texas not only owe him a debt of gratitude, they’ve lost one of their greatest advocates and allies in the Texas legislature. Without his wealth of knowledge to keep the agencies and their narrative to lawmakers in check, special interests and taxpayer-taxpayer-funded lobbyists of the agencies themselves will become the new ‘experts’ for lawmakers, allowing cronyism and self-interest to creep into Texas transportation absent a robust taxpayer watchdog.
Thankfully, Texas has Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) and Texans for Toll-free Highways as volunteer citizen watchdogs on transportation and toll road issues. Their role will be more vital than ever without Pickett in the House, who has been their reliable voice in committee and on the floor of the House during the throes of heated debate defending the truth and ensuring the agency’s talking points don’t cow lawmakers into a corner. Pickett knew when the agencies were bluffing and when they truly needed a new infusion of cash. Without his knack for sniffing out deception, taxpayers will be hard pressed to find a floor debater to defend them. So while we honor his legacy and wish him a fond farewell, we grieve the retirement of one of Texas’ best. He’s left his mark, and we’re forever grateful for his 24 years of service in the Texas House.