Toll and MPO woes

The trouble with tolls and MPOs

By Terri Hall
Express-News Blog / Houston Examiner
Aug 31, 2010

Last week, lawmakers got an earful about federally-mandated transportation planning boards called Metropolitan Planning Organizations (or MPOs). It seems neither the citizenry nor the boards themselves are happy with their past interactions with TxDOT. Though MPO Directors in both Dallas and Houston said their working relationship has improved since TxDOT's been on the hot seat (several scathing audits and sunset review), the taxpayers can't exactly say the same.

The major complaint: the use of bullying, threats, and intimidation to push toll roads despite massive public opposition.

Who's really in charge?
TxDOT rules dictate that "funding levels are estimated in cooperation with TxDOT." That's a real problem when many MPOs want to resist tolling, but have to rely on TxDOT's numbers and its heavy reliance on tolling and forecasts that have been consistently unreliable. If an MPO would prefer to use gas tax or sources of funds other than tolling to project future funding scenarios, it should have the flexibility to do so, but it doesn't under current rules.

Examples of threats and intimidation to push unwanted toll roads:
- Members of the Capitol Area MPO board admitted TxDOT strong-armed them into voting for toll roads their own constituents didn't want or funding for other projects would be pulled.
- TxDOT also threatened to withhold funding for a road project as well as joint rail relocation study with New Mexico when the El Paso MPO voted to reject toll roads by electing NOT to create an RMA.
- TxDOT saw to it local transit board members were removed from their positions on the Bexar County-San Antonio MPO for voting against toll roads (a perceived offense to TxDOT for not being team players and advancing TxDOT's toll agenda).
-The Governor himself threatened to call repeated special session unless lawmakers gave him the pro-toll transportation bill he wanted (when lawmakers attempted to put the brakes on the sale of Texas' public roads to private entities).

This behavior MUST stop before any progress can be made with restoring the public trust.

Taxation without representation

There are plenty of concerns with how MPOs govern as well. They're just as tone-deaf to the public as TxDOT. Only elected officials should have voting powers on MPOs. Since MPOs have the power to allocate billions in tax money, to allow un-elected bureaucrats voting powers is tantamount to taxation without representation. The San Antonio-Bexar County MPO, in particular, egregiously lacks representation of taxpayers' interests in this way with nearly half of its members being un-elected bureaucrats. Though the federal law creating MPOs allows TxDOT and transit officials to be a part of MPOs, it should be limited to an advisory capacity only.

Not only is there a conflict of interest in voting for its own projects and to vote itself more money (through tolls, etc.), it already possesses the power to approve all projects through the Texas Transportation Commission, which already results in most MPOs deferring to TxDOT in formulating and voting on MPO plans. For all the talk of "local control," TxDOT steers and often controls MPOs, not the local officials who sit on these local transportation planning boards.

Ignoring the public outcry
All of the above notwithstanding, MPOs consistently vote against the public input when making transportation decisions. When hundreds of concerned citizens show-up on their own dime and take the time to wade through hundreds of pages of MPO plans and do their due diligence to be heard on multi-billion dollar tax decisions, and when federal law requires MPOs to take into account the public input, and an MPO STILL votes to toll roads when the overwhelming public input begs them to do otherwise, it demonstrates the total disregard for the public interest if not the corruption of these boards.

MPOs, like TxDOT, view public comment as a box to check, then proceed to completely ignore the public feedback, especially regarding toll projects. This MUST be remedied in order to fix the completely dysfunctional state of transportation funding and decision-making in Texas. It's forced the citizens to turn to the courts and use other means to seek remedies (causing more delays).

It's the Legislature's duty to reform these entities and restore the public interest. The public cannot continue to be kicked to the curb if the goal is to move transportation forward. Failure to recognize this will only continue the gridlock.

Money and the toll regime
Something must be changed in regards to how projects are marked in an MPO Transportation Improvement Program (or TIP) and other plans. TxDOT and tolling entities rig the planning process by exploiting the federal requirements that plans be "financially-constrained." Since they endlessly claim there's no money to build roads, these entities almost exclusively mark projects "toll" (instead of using other funding scenarios to keep the plan financially-constrained) to get a project into the plan. The Federal Highway Administration has said that as long as a project is marked "toll" in an MPO plan, it will only be considered for tolling, not as a non-toll project. So this locks in a toll scenario for nearly all new capacity to Texas roads for the next 25 years.

This practice not only violates the National Environmental Policy Act (or NEPA), which requires that all alternatives be considered, but neither the public nor the Department can wrest the project away from a tolled scenario once the toll entity becomes the project "sponsor." A state law passed in 2007 gives toll agencies the right of first refusal on toll projects; therefore, reverting a project back to a non-toll road after its been marked toll is near impossible. The bureaucrats want access to your wallets and they'll stop at nothing to do it.

Considering many toll entities are conducting their own environmental studies, the control remains in the hands of those who stand to benefit directly from a toll alternative emerging as the "preferred alternative" under NEPA. This is the fox guarding the henhouse and takes virtually all decision-making on toll tax decisions out of the hands of the public and their elected representatives.

The crystal ball syndrome
While MPO long-range plans ought not to have wildly overoptimistic plans that are way outside the realm of reasonable funding sources, requiring MPOs to show anticipated funding for projects 20 years from now is completely flawed. The Texas Legislature funds all state programs in two-year budget cycles. Local governments often operate using a single budget year. Yet, MPOs have to show funding for projects 20 years out in order to even start ANY level of work on a future road project? It makes no sense. Just think of the changes in how we live, work, and play have impacted the way we travel in the last 20 years, how can anyone accurately predict the future of transportation funding so far into the future?

An entity ought to be allowed to conduct environmental work and preliminary engineering for a project without having to show funding for construction which could be years, even decades away. Both engineering and environmental review need to be underway if not completed in order to even have realistic project cost estimates for which an MPO can properly program funding.

Federal rules and how TxDOT and toll agencies exert control over MPOs are just a few of the many areas that plague our broken transportation system. Citizens need to stay engaged to ensure reforms are FINALLY enacted in next year's legislative session or we'll hopelessly remain in gridlock.