So-called 'conservative' highway bill pushes toll taxes, privatization

Link to column here.

Conservatives introduce “TEA” highway bill that scraps federal program, but pushes tolls, P3s, & transit boondoggles
While Graves, Lee and Rubio may believe they’re offloading their federal gas tax revenue problem to the states, in reality, they’re seeking to compound the problem 50-fold; the states aren’t any better than the feds on transportation funding. We should not be encouraging more tolling of any kind, whether at the federal or state level. Tolls are a tax. The principle of “pay-as-you-go” must be applied at both the federal and state levels. Indeed, it must be legislated.
By Terri Hall | August 13, 2014
SFPPR News & Analysis

A group of conservative congressmen filed a bill to scrap the federal highway program and devolve the task of building and maintaining America’s highway system to the states. U.S. Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA), Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced the bill dubbed the Transportation Empowerment Act or the TEA Act – H.R. 3486 in the House and S. 1702 in the Senate. The TEA acronym harkens back to the Agenda 21-inspired Transportation Equity Act (TEA) series of highway bills that opened the door to a multi-national highway system, so-called ‘innovative financing’ schemes, and widespread tolling – even imposing tolls on existing interstates.

TxDOT hearings a sham

Link to article here.

Houghton knows better. MPO staff and TxDOT staff run everything. The MPO boards have no idea what they’re voting on. Plenty of elected officials complain they can’t get their projects into the MPO plans and they have no idea how the process works. The Alamo Area MPO meets during the day in a transit center downtown (not near any of the neighborhoods where toll roads will be) with NO public parking. We’ve had people get their cars towed and get parking tickets just to attend an MPO meeting. Then they gripe the public doesn’t show up. Really?  When we have showed up by the hundreds, they NEVER once vote in favor of what the public says they want (which is no tolls). Not once in 10 years. 

Pittsburg-Gazette 4-part series on P3s

Link to article here.

The 'P3' dilemma: How effective are public-private partnerships?
By Len Boselovic / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
August 10, 2014
The first of a four-part series.

Cash-strapped governments around the country that are reluctant to raise taxes are increasingly plunging forward with bold experiments: enlisting investment banks, pension funds and other eager investors to fund billions of dollars of highway, bridge and other infrastructure projects.

In Chicago, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley plugged a short-term budget gap in 2009 by turning over 36,000 metered parking spaces for 75 years to a private venture organized by Morgan Stanley. With little information and little time to analyze the transaction, Chicago’‍s city council overwhelmingly embraced the deal and its upfront payment of $1.2 billion.

At about the same time, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl had considered a $452 million plan to rehabilitate his city’‍s woefully underfunded pension plans by privatizing parking. City council members rejected it.

Rick Perry's three ways for road-building: Tax, toll or asphalt fairy

Link to article here.

Rick Perry's three ways for road-building: Tax, toll or asphalt fairy
By Kathie Obradovich
August 11, 2014
Des Moines Register

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, winding up a business roundtable appearance in Des Moines today, was asked how he managed to pay for roads in Texas without raising taxes.

There are three ways to pay for transportation infrastructure: "Tax roads, toll roads, or the asphalt fairy," Perry said. "There is no other way, and roads are expensive."

He forgot to mention a fourth way, which is all the rage in Texas: Borrow the money. According to Perry's website, the 81st Texas Legislature authorized and appropriated $2 billion in bonding for road building. "While bonding can be an effective short-term solution for funding projects, Gov. Perry continues to pursue innovative, long-term transportation funding solutions for our state's perpetually growing transportation needs," his website goes on to say.

Perry, speaking at the Association for Business and Industry office in Des Moines, added he recommends avoiding tax increases. The business growth that results will raise the revenue needed to pay for road construction, he said. But in Texas, local communities are having trouble keeping up.

Bloomberg News reported in June that Texas local governments are piling up debt for infrastructure and local services as Texas grows. The state's debt increased about 170 percent to $41 billion from 2000 to 2012, and local borrowings grew by 145 percent to almost $196 billion, Bloomberg reported.

Gov. Terry Branstad has said we don't want toll roads in Iowa, and he ousted the previous governor in part by blasting borrowing for infrastructure. He hasn't ruled out an increase in the gas tax, but has held off pushing for the change. This year, an exploration of alternative revenue sources went nowhere.

Guess that leaves the asphalt fairy. Hope she's not too tired to fly up here when she gets finished in Texas.

Roads and bridges won't pay for themselves

Link to article here.

How many times have we heard this false choice? It's either gas tax hike or more toll taxes (always the expectation is more money out of our pockets), not spend our existing taxes wisely and stop diverting our road taxes to transit and rail and projects drivers don't benefit from. Taxpayers aren't stupid, they aren't going to give irrepsonsible politcians permission to raid our wallets even more.

Roads and bridges won't pay for themselves
August 10, 2014
Wisconsin State Journal editorial

Americans want good roads and bridges but don’t want to pay for them, according to the latest Associated Press-GfK poll on transportation.

No surprise there.

Of course smooth roads and sturdy bridges are popular. Of course taxes and toll roads are not.

That’s why we need leaders in Washington, D.C. and Wisconsin to make tough yet necessary decisions.

Congress just failed — again — to show leadership on America’s transportation demands. It slapped a $10.8 billion patch on the nation’s Highway Trust Fund, which is teetering on insolvency and will need more money by May.

Congress’ stopgap measure did little more than tweak the rules for private-sector pensions, pretending that saves money.

In reality, it just pushes more cost and risk into the future and doesn’t come close to fixing a gaping hole in the highway fund that, in recent years, has climbed to more than $50 billion.

Congress pushing the problem to next spring is like a road crew filling a pot hole on a crumbling road — for the umpteenth time — that long ago needed rebuilding and expansion.

Our leaders at the statehouse in Madison aren’t doing much better. Gov. Scott Walker and Co. borrowed more than $1 billion in the state budget to Band-Aid the problem and try to survive another election.

At both the state and national levels, the solution is pretty simple: Raise more revenue to pay for more expensive roads, bridges, rail and transit. Where should that money come from?

Only 14 percent of respondents in the AP-GfK poll supported raising the gas tax. Yet the federal government’s 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993. Wisconsin’s 32.9 cents-per-gallon gas tax hasn’t been raised since 2006.

Surely our politicians and the most of the public grasp that costs have risen over the last two decades, along with traffic. If we want good roads, bridges and public transportation, we need to pay for it, rather than passing the cost on to our kids.

If the public doesn’t want a higher gas tax, then it needs to accept tolls or some other source of increased revenue. Or it needs to stop driving so much. But as of this spring, total traffic volume is up, compared to a year ago.

Unfortunately, the AP-GfK poll suggests the public is opposed to more than just the gas tax. Only 17 percent of respondents said they support tolling. That’s a little better than support for the gas tax, but not by much. And only 20 percent support replacing the gas tax with a miles-driven tax. Only 30 percent favor pushing the problem to state and local governments.

So what does the public support? Apparently, a free ride. But that’s not realistic, even with more interest in public transportation options.

At the same time, more fuel-efficient cars are paying less gas tax while still using public roads.

Most of the public, we suspect, if given a detailed accounting of the highway fund deficit and stale gas tax, would be OK with a higher tax and other measures to raise more revenue. Regardless of whether that’s true, our leaders should have the courage to do what’s needed to balance the books.

The only good news in the latest poll is that a lot of people aren’t sure what to think. For example, while only 17 percent favor private toll roads, 37 percent aren’t sure about their position, and 46 percent (fewer than half) are opposed.

It’s going to take leaders in Washington and Wisconsin to do the right thing and balance transportation cost with revenue.

Tyler toll road bailout an outrage

Link to article here.

The Texas Transportation Commission just authorized a $55 million bailout of the Loop 49 toll project, but you sure wouldn't know it by this so-called news article. More like a puff piece to prop-up a loser toll road. If you carefully read between the lines, they claim traffic is up, and so are revenues, but both are still insufficient to cover the debt payments, so that's not exactly being honest with the public about the tollway's financial health. The reason for the Commission bailout is so that the RMA can look credit-worthy to issue it's next round of toll bonds to extend the failing toll road even further.

Shortcuts: Usage of Toll 49 is up; revenue rises as rates increase
Saturday, 9 August 2014
Written by Adam Russell This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Tyler Morning Telegraph

Jimmy Boyd uses Toll 49 every workday. He hops on at Farm-to-Market Road 2493 and makes the 9-mile connection to Texas Highway 31 as he commutes from Gresham to Athens.

Boyd had his doubts that anyone would use the toll road when it was under construction. He believed drivers would continue using other routes to avoid paying tolls.

But then Boyd began using Toll 49. He used it when he was running late or in a hurry at first. Then he noted the time he saved.

Boyd cut 20 minutes off his round-trip commute, which had required him to go up Old Jacksonville Highway to Loop 323 and over to Texas Highway 31. It cut an hour off round-trip visits to Children’s Medical Center in Dallas when his son was undergoing cancer treatment, he said.

Despite a rate increase in April, which bumped the per mile rate from a base rate of 10 cents to 13.5 cents, Boyd said the benefit outweighs the cost.

“The time benefit outweighs the cost,” he said.

Boyd’s typical $60 monthly bill had been recently cut in half when he opted for a toll tag rather than paying bills by mail, which means paying higher rates and a processing fee.

But another rate increase is planned for Jan. 1, 2015, according to the North East Texas Regional Mobility Authority.

The rate increases are part of an agreement made with the Texas Department of Transportation before the mobility authority took management control of Toll 49. It required per-mile base rates be increased to 15 cents from 12 cents to meet an “Understanding Regarding Market Valuation For Toll 49.”

Regional Mobility Interim Director Everett Owen said rates would continue to increase 3 percent to 4 percent annually.

Toll 49 is a 25.4-mile, two-lane, outer loop around the south and west side of Tyler, connecting Texas Highway 110 near Whitehouse to Interstate 20. The road has seven toll stations that charge drivers with toll tags between 30 cents and $1.18 (the same stations charge drivers without toll tags 40 cents and $1.57, respectively) for passage.

Driving from I-20 to Texas Highway 110 would cost the driver of a passenger car $3.33 with a toll tag and $7.01, including a $1 processing fee, when paying by mail without a toll tag.

Cars with a trailer pay twice the base rate per mile.

Tractor trailers pay four times the base rate if they are hauling one trailer and five times the rate when hauling two trailers.

The North Texas Tolling Authority, which manages toll roads in and around Dallas/Fort Worth, including Dallas North Tollway and President George Bush Turnpike, charge 16.2 cents per mile on average, said NTTA Media Relations Manager Michael Rey.

The initial toll rate for the segment between U.S. Highway 69 and Texas Highway 155 was 50 cents when tolling began in 2006. The rate is now 69 cents but still below the 75 cents TxDOT expected to charge before residents spoke up at public hearings for a lower rate.

The first segment opened in 2006 connected Texas Highway 155 with U.S. Highway 69.

The connection to I-20 in March 2013 was a major milestone for the project. Officials anticipated daily transactions to escalate significantly with the connection. Owens said daily transactions on Toll 49 reached more than 29,000, well above early projections.

Revenue projections for 2015 are expected to be up more than $2 million, Owen said.

Proceeds from the toll road go toward the operation, maintenance and expansion of the road, Owen said. Future expansion of the Toll 49/East Texas Hourglass, which includes connecting existing segments to I-20 east of Tyler and segments in Gregg and Harrison counties, will depend on traffic.

The next leg, the Lindale Relief Route, will extend north from I-20 and connect with U.S. 69 north of Lindale. A recent $55 million state grant, which effectively would forgive NETRMA debt, could mean construction of the relief route might begin as early as next summer.

The argument for making the project a toll road has been that tolling would expedite construction by decades. State transportation funding is based on priority and booming metropolitan areas, such as Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Houston, have the highest priority and receive about 75 percent of Texas highway dollars. The other 25 percent is divided between more rural areas around the state.

In officials view, competition for transportation dollars made tolls the most viable alternative to get the project moving. With traffic along Loop 323 and main arterial roads swelling, officials pushed for construction to begin sooner than later.

Opposing voices viewed Toll 49 as a poor option to relieve traffic. They also felt it was a ploy to enrich developers with land holdings along the route.

There was doubt among much of the opposition that Toll 49 would draw traffic away from “free” roads. They dubbed the first segments “a road to nowhere” because it lacked connectivity.

But as each segment opened, value to drivers increased.

Owen said the NETRMA knows there is value to drivers like Boyd. The authority performs “sensitivity studies” based on interviews with local residents to determine how they value their time.

There is a bell curve when it comes to tolls, Owen said. Low toll rates don’t generate much revenue but increasing toll rates beyond a certain point discourages use, which means revenues decrease.

“There definitely is a theoretical point where if you go over that amount, you’ll actually collect less money,” he said.

Boyd said what he pays for time saved driving could change his route back to free roads at some point if the rate continues to rise.

“At some point I might take the back roads when I’m not in a hurry,” Boyd said. “If the cost gets too expensive, I could see going that route.”

Charlie George, of Tyler, said she avoids Toll 49 at all costs. Ms. George didn’t like the project once it transitioned from a state funded loop to a tolled road.

“I just see it as wrong for tax dollars to go toward a toll road,” she said. “The people who don’t use it pay for it and the people who do use it pay twice.”

Ms. George is suspicious of the reliability of toll cameras that log vehicle license plates and the billing process. She and other area disabled veterans have been wading through a “huge stink for two years” regarding tolls wrongly charged to drivers with disabled veteran license plates.

NETRMA began charging disabled veterans tolls when it took over management from TxDOT in March 2013, but the board approved action to waive fees to qualifying veterans in August after veterans lodged complaints.

The tolling apparatus are “99.99 percent” accurate, Owen said. Some tolls are lost, due to power outages and vehicles with no license plates. Some are double-billed, but there are few problems overall, Owen said.

Owen said he understands some people are philosophically opposed to Toll 49. But as long as people value time over money, they will continue to drive it, he said.

“It’s a user fee. People have to decide whether they get value from using it,” he said. “Evidently a lot of people see value in it.”

Biden talks about gas tax hike again

Link to article here.

Biden again goes off-message in talking about raising the gasoline tax
By Al Kamen and Colby Itkowitz
August 7, 2014
Washington Post

Okay, so maybe it’s not a huge shocker when Vice President Biden goes off-script. We’ll never forget his honest answer about legalizing same-sex marriage in 2012 that caused an epic White House scramble to get President Obama on the same message.

So on Wednesday, when Biden — well known for his deep affinity for transportation issues, particularly his beloved Amtrak — criticized Congress over transportation spending, he again veered off the administration rails.

“Hell, Congress can’t even decide on a gas tax to keep the highway system going,” Biden said during remarks about the border crisis.

But wait! The Obama White House, since its earliest days, has been adamant about one thing: It would not seek to raise the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal tax on gasoline to pay for highway investments. Tax increases don’t make for good politics. The White House proposed this year instead using revenue from corporate tax reforms to pay for infrastructure investments.

As the Loop wrote last month, we have a sneaking suspicion that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx may not be as opposed as his bosses are. Note how former DOT secretary Ray LaHood changed his tune as soon as he was unshackled from the Cabinet. And it appears Biden would like to see Congress raise the tax, too. (The vice president’s office has not responded to our request for further clarity.)

The federal gasoline tax was last raised in 1993 during the Bill Clinton administration, and before that by President “Read my lips: No new taxes” George H.W. Bush in 1990, and by President Ronald Reagan, who also promised no tax increases, in 1982.

Business groups and many members of Congress want to raise the tax in the interim to bolster the Highway Trust Fund to buy time to debate other financing streams. But, underscoring the difficult politics of it, an AP-Gfk poll released this week found that only 12 percent of Americans support raising the tax, and 59 percent were opposed.

But will Biden’s “gaffe” send the White House into a tizzy as his gay marriage remarks did?

Unlikely. It’s an election year, after all. And new taxes don’t quite rouse the base.

Canadians see problems with P3s

Link to article here.

P3 partnerships not always wise
Thu Aug 07 2014
Toronto Star

RE: Deadbeat, U.S.A., Editorial Aug. 5

There is no doubt that this bridge is needed. But just how much is it going to cost taxpayers and who will it enrich? And will we ever know?

The Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority (“WDBA”) will manage the procurement process through a public-private partnership (“P3”), select the P3 concessionaire, be responsible for project oversight and will set and collect all tolls. Chairman of the WDBA board, Mark McQueen, is also president and CEO of Wellington Financial, a venture capital firm. Director Caroline Mulroney Lapham (Brian’s daughter) also works for Wellington Financial, as VP of corporate development.

Ontario has a long history of failed P3s – 407 ETR, ORNGE, Ontario Power Authority gas plants, the Brampton and Ottawa hospitals. So do other provinces.

Based on a study of 28 Ontario P3 projects, worth more than $7 billion, University of Toronto assistant professor Matti Siemiatycki and researcher Naeem Farooqi found that public-private partnerships cost an average of 16 per cent more than conventional tendered contracts. Government prefer P3s to fund public projects, not to ensure the cost-efficient delivery of a public service, but to get costs off the government books. This keeps taxes low and reduces public debt.

But as Ontarians have experienced, taxpayers are often required to put up additional funds when something goes wrong. Or, as in the case of the Highway 407, the government cannot control the tolls charged for the use of a public highway. P3s reward powerful and well-connected contractors and financial institutions whose goal is devalue public services in order to maximize profits.

Municipalities have recently been told that any federal project worth more than $100 million must now be approved by a Crown corporation called P3 Canada, which will make binding decisions on whether the infrastructure must be a P3. In other words, those seeking federal funds for public projects must use a P3 unless P3 Canada says otherwise. This has serious implications for sensitive projects such as water and sewage plants, transit etc.

There are some public services which may be best undertaken by the private sector. If so, let them assume all the risk and ensure that the public receives value. But most necessary public services can be delivered most effectively and efficiently by the government. Most of us cannot afford to pay for private services that replace those that we lose through the public sector. No one begrudges tax dollars being put to good use providing desired public projects or services.

P3s are a shell game intended to bamboozle the public into privatizing profits while socializing risk. We rob future generations of public services that our taxes have paid for, but which we do not receive, because we cannot hold governments to account. How long are we going to allow ourselves to be duped by the promise of low taxes and lower debt while we are being robbed by P3s?

Pat McGrail, Brampton

The simple solution to the deadbeat Yankees who refuse to pay any part of the new bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor: U.S.-plated vehicles pay triple the toll of Canadian-plated vehicles until the bridge is fully paid off. Our bridge, your tolls. Ba-da-boom.

Edward A. Collis, Burlington

Virginia requesting public input on public-private partnerships

Link to article here.

Virginia requesting public input on public-private partnerships
By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor
August 7, 2014

Truckers and other drivers can make their voices heard on Virginia’s pursuit of public-private partnerships, or P3s.

The Virginia Office of Transportation Public-Private Partnerships is asking for feedback on how to increase transparency, competition and public involvement for projects that are developed under the P3 model.

Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said the request for comments is intended to improve the P3 process. He said the method should be “a tool to deliver projects that leverage private sector equity, minimize risk for taxpayers, and maximize benefits for the traveling public.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association has submitted comments. The Association sent a letter to Gov. Terry McAuliffe and members of the House and Senate transportation committees on the behalf of professional truckers.

OOIDA Director of State Legislative Affairs Mike Matousek said the Association’s communication with elected officials is intended to influence how P3 agreements in the state are structured.

He said OOIDA is generally opposed to P3s, “in particular those that put a private entity in charge of operating a toll on a road or bridge. However, these types of agreements will continue to be used so it’s important that we influence how they are structured.”

The Association also sent a Call to Action to Virginia truckers asking them to provide comment.

Public comments on the P3 manual will be accepted through Aug. 19. The request for comments and the current P3 manual are available here.

Responses can be submitted by email. Responses should include respondent’s name and address and the title “P3 Manual” in the subject line.

Written responses can also be submitted to: Ms. Jackie Cromwell, Office of Transportation Public-Private Partnerships, 600 E. Main St., Suite 2120, Richmond, Va., 23219.

Another opportunity to provide feedback and suggestions will be made available to the public in October.

Copyright © OOIDA

NTTA's $900,000 design error

Link to article here.

NTTA to review policies on project designs after $900,000 error
Transportation Writer
Dallas Morning News
07 August 2014

The North Texas Tollway Authority will review how it oversees the design of its projects after poorly designed steel led to a delay and about $900,000 in additional costs on the new Chisholm Trail Parkway.

The design flaw came to public light Thursday at an NTTA board committee meeting during which staff members asked for the money to make up for the mistake. The agency’s full board is expected to make a final decision on that request this month.

Assistant executive director of infrastructure Elizabeth Mow said she plans to recover the costs from URS, which officials said was the subcontractor responsible for the design flaw. Mow said that company does not currently have any other active contracts with NTTA.

Agency spokesman Michael Rey said steel beams needed for the project were not built strong enough.

“When they got on site, they saw they were not properly engineered for the job at hand,” Rey said.

Rey said the errors affected only the portion of the toll road over the Trinity River and University Drive in Fort Worth. He said some affected portions are still not open while others were fixed before they opened last week.

The road’s main lanes from Johnson County to downtown Fort Worth opened in May. The agency has been gradually opening various connector bridges, entrances and exits ever since.

Board members questioned why the error wasn’t caught during the design phase of the process.

“The severity of that, in my opinion, is more than just the costs,” said board member Mojy Haddad.

Mow said that the agency relies on engineers working for its contractors to review and sign off on project designs. She said the agency spot-checks about 10 percent of a project’s plans.
“There are millions of items in a design project,” she said.

Mow said the agency reviewed other portions of the project and does not believe there are other problems. She also said the problem should have been caught during the design phase, before the steel was manufactured and delivered. Mow said agency officials plan to begin looking more closely at critical portions of projects, like the affected bridge.

Board members told CEO and executive director Gerry Carrigan to bring back more information about how the agency oversees design work so they can review policies.

“Every one of us realizes the seriousness of this,” said board member Michael Nowels.

Money for the overruns caused by the flaw will come from $65 million in contingency funds already budgeted and set aside for the project. The agency has spent about $30 million of that money to date.

“This makes me sick, but it happens,” Mow told board members. “That’s what the contingency is for.”

NTTA celebrates 25 years

Link to article here.

Flashback: North Texas toll roads through the years
GJ McCarthy, Photographer
Dallas Morning News
August 7, 2014

Seeing as how today is the 25th anniversary of the TollTag, I thought it would be fun to use our “Throwback Thursday” blog series, Flashback, to look at some classic images of toll roads in our area over the last few decades.

You can read more about the TollTag milestone in our daily story here.

When I arrived in Dallas to work at the DMN in 2007, TollTags were the norm, and I was advised by then photo editor Chris Wilkins to get one asap.

Of course I didn’t. For about two or three months I put up with trying — and in a dozen or so cases forgetting — to keep plenty of loose change in my car somewhere other than under the driver’s seat.

I remember one morning, up too early, very sleepy and running late for an assignment, stupidly thinking I could throw cash — as in dollar cash — in to the change collector. That was Error #1. Error #2 became apparent when I realized I’d thrown a $20 in there by mistake. The long line of honking cars compelled me forward, begrudgingly, and I believe I went to the TollTag store that very afternoon.

Link to article here.

As TollTags turn 25, originals hang on for Dallas-area motorists
Transportation Writer
August 6, 2014

The credit-card-size, quarter-inch-thick piece of plastic hanging on Ted Wilson’s windshield isn’t just a badge of honor proving his longevity as a North Texan. It’s a still-functioning throwback to the summer of 1989, when area residents became the first drivers in the world to use toll tags.

Of course, Wilson wasn’t thinking about his hometown’s place in technological history when he and his wife became among the first people to open a TollTag account. Like Patty Hudson, another original TollTag customer, the Highland Park couple were really just excited at the chance to drive through the toll booths on Dallas North Tollway without having to stop and dig for change.

“I would write checks at the toll booth if I didn’t have 50 cents, so I was the perfect candidate for a TollTag,” Hudson said.

She and the Wilsons are among dozens of people whose early adoption of the TollTag will be celebrated Thursday at the headquarters of the North Texas Tollway Authority. These North Texans’ memories about those early days highlight how much technology and area highways have changed.

Dallas North Tollway and the Mountain Creek Lake toll bridge were the area’s only toll roads 25 years ago. Drivers had to pay their tolls on the spot. There was no getting billed later. That created traffic jams at the toll booths where the turnpike authority’s employees took toll money and made change.

A company called Amtech and toll officials envisioned the new devices as a way to cut down congestion as customers could skip the digging and tossing. That didn’t exactly pan out. Well, not immediately.

“It wasn’t really faster because everyone else was throwing their coins in the basket,” Hudson said.

$2 a month
Only about 2,000 tags were sold when the tollway, which hadn’t yet reached Frankford Road, started using the technology. And yes, you had to buy the tag back then. It cost $2 a month. And you paid an extra nickel on top of whatever the current toll was.

At the time, Amtech needed to sell about 15,000 tags to cover operating costs. Company officials told The Dallas Morning News they fielded plenty of calls from people trying to understand how it all worked. But curiosity outpaced sales.

Slowly, though, people started to catch on.

“It was just such a great idea,” said Spencer Shytles, another TollTag customer since 1989. “I was fascinated by the technology. I didn’t see why it wouldn’t take off.”

As other technologies evolved and the number of toll roads in the area multiplied, TollTags became a normal part of life in North Texas. In 1999, the NTTA introduced express lanes, so people with tags could bypass the booths that still remained for people who wanted to throw change in a bucket.

In the mid-2000s, the NTTA debuted its first all-electronic toll gantries on the south end of the tollway. By the end of 2010, the entire system was electronic. There were no more toll booths, no more stopping, no more tossing coins. People without TollTags were billed through the mail.

“That was pretty revolutionary,” said NTTA spokesman Michael Rey.

By this summer, the NTTA has handed out nearly 3 million tags, which have become stickers that remain on one windshield. There’s no fee these days for a TollTag. In fact, drivers without the tags pay 50 percent more per toll than their counterparts with TollTags.

‘Like royalty’
Original TollTag customers often get odd reactions when they call the NTTA to manage their account or update credit card information. Early customers’ account numbers have less than one-seventh the number of digits of most current customers.

Hudson and Wilson said many customer service representatives assume they’re forgetting several digits on their account numbers until they check the system.

“They treat you like royalty,” Wilson said. “They’re like, ‘Oh my God, you must be one of the owners.’”

Wilson still has that original transponder hanging on his windshield. It’s survived car replacements, countless miles and more than two dozen Texas summers.

“Whoever designed it did a good job,” he said.

TxDOT's waste of tax money on driverless cars

Link to article here.

TXDOT’s driverless leadership
August 6, 2014 by Christopher Paxton
Empower Texans

TXDOT continues to be the best parody of itself. At the last Texas Transportation Commission meeting, leaders of the agency planned to approve a multi-million dollar sum of taxpayer funds for hovercrafts, jet packs and driverless cars.

We’ve reported before on TXDOT’s bad habit of duplicitous financial habits—approving major expenditures for questionable projects, and then claiming poverty. At the most recent Texas Transportation Commission hearing, the agency topped its already extensive flair for the ridiculous.

The proposal, entitled Emerging Transportation Technology Research Initiatives detailed the department’s plans for partnerships with corporations, universities and other government entities to research and develop “emerging transportation technologies.”

The report failed to mention the potential multi-trillion dollar cost impacts of implementing many of the pie-in-the-sky ideas. Of these ideas are some “winners” for private sector investment that the department will no doubt be “testing” in the initiative.

A solar panel roadway crowdfunding page cited in the report entitled, “Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways[sic]” has raised over $2 million of the estimated $56 trillion–yes, trillion–needed to fund the project. Also in private development is a driverless car being pursued by technology giant Google. Despite pipedream promises of a new accident-free, emission-reduced driving experience for all, the current Google research vehicle has a price tag of around $300,000—more than a Ferrari.

Other ideas put forth by the report include unmanned aerial vehicles—“drones,” jetpacks, a “hyperloop,” and hover cars.

The agency has requested that the legislature fund this program with $50 million through its legislative appropriations request—the formal process by which agencies submit their projected operating costs to the legislative budget board to be included in the state’s next appropriations bill.

Former liberal Republican State Senator and current vice chancellor for federal and state relations at Texas A&M University Tommy Williams lauded the plan as a, “great opportunity.” Williams conveniently omitted for whom the plan is a great opportunity: his new employer. Through its taxpayer-funded initiative, the Texas Transportation Institute, Texas A&M already receives over $60 million to research and develop transportation “solutions.” It is no-doubt that this new plan will put even more money into A&M’s Transportation Institute.

While publicly feigning poverty, TXDOT will submit a biennial budget request to appropriators for $20 billion. Ignoring these boondoggles, agency officials are emphasizing their purported need for an additional $5 billion simply to keep up with growing population needs.

This fall, Texans will have a vote on Proposition 1, a constitutional amendment creating a major funding source for the agency. With leadership like this, it is certain that much of the new money will be wasted on similar initiatives that have little to do with operating the agency now and addressing current, vital transportation needs.

Texans are right to be skeptical of TXDOT; episodes such as this demonstrate why the agency has a long way to go to earn the public’s trust. While trying to develop driverless cars, it appears TXDOT has a bigger problem to tackle: driverless leadership.

Christopher Paxton serves as the Budget and Fiscal Policy Analyst for Empower Texans. Hailing from Houston, Texas, Christopher graduated from Baylor University with a Bachelors degree in Political Science and Communication Studies. Christopher served as the Legislative Director for Rep. Scott Sanford during the 83rd Session of the Texas Legislature. Christopher resides in Austin, Texas where he is an avid cyclist.

Austin's urban rail ballot measure lacks roads

Link to article here.

In fact, the $400 million in road projects that were later added to the measure, turned out to be roads already funded by TxDOT. So no new money on the table and most of them involve tolls.

Austin urban rail ballot item promises, but lacks, road money
By Ben Wear
American-Statesman Staff
August 6, 2014

The city of Austin in November would ask voters for authorization to issue bonds for $600 million for light rail, according to ballot language up for approval Thursday by the Austin City Council, while only promising additional funding for roads.

Business interests this summer have made it clear that their support for the overall program is contingent on $400 million in road funding, 40 percent of what the city plans to spend overall. But instead of including road bonds in the ballot language, city officials would make the rail bonds contingent on finding unspecified sources for road money.

Read more here.

Poll: Highway funding a rocky road

Link to article here.

Finally some honest polling - Americans do not support the privatization of our public roads by a two-to-one margin!

Poll: Highway funding a rocky road
August 5, 2014
By Joan Lowy and Jennifer Agiesta
Associated Press

 WASHINGTON — Small wonder Congress has kept federal highway and transit programs teetering on the edge of insolvency for years, unable to find a politically acceptable long-term source of funds.

The public can’t make up its mind on how to pay for them either.

Six in 10 Americans think the economic benefits of good highways, railroads and airports outweigh the cost to taxpayers.

Yet there is scant support for some of the most frequently discussed options for paying for construction of new roads or the upkeep of existing ones, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.

Among those who drive places multiple times per week, 62 percent say the benefits outweigh the costs.

Among those who drive less than once a week or not at all, 55 percent say the costs of road improvement are worthwhile.

Yet a majority of all Americans — 58 percent — oppose raising federal gasoline taxes to fund transportation projects such as the repair, replacement or expansion of roads and bridges. Only 14 percent support an increase.

And by a better than 2-to-1 margin, Americans oppose having private companies pay for construction of new roads and bridges in exchange for the right to charge tolls.

Moving to a usage tax based on how many miles a vehicle drives also draws more opposition than support — 40 percent oppose it, while 20 percent support it.

Support for shifting more responsibility for paying for such projects to state and local government is a tepid 30 percent.
“Congress is actually reflecting what people want,” said Joshua Schank, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a transportation think tank.

“People want to have a federal (transportation) program and they don’t want to pay for it.”

Last week, Congress cobbled together $10.8 billion to keep transportation aid flowing to states by changing how employers fund worker pension programs, extending customs user fees and transferring money from a fund to repair leaking underground fuel storage tanks.

The money was needed to make up a shortfall between aid promised to states and revenue raised by the federal 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax and the 24.4 cents-per-gallon diesel tax, which haven’t been increased in more than 20 years.

It’s the fifth time in the last six years that Congress has patched a hole in the federal Highway Trust Fund that pays for highway and transit aid.

Each time it gets more difficult for lawmakers to find the money without increasing the federal budget deficit.
Critics described the pension funding changes used this time as budget gimmicks that would cost the government more in the long run and undermine employee pension programs.

The current fix is only expected to cover the revenue gap through next May, when Congress will be back where it started unless lawmakers act sooner.

The most direct solution would be to raise fuel taxes. That’s what three blue-ribbon federal commissions have recommended.
But opposition to a gas tax increase cuts across party lines, although Republicans are more apt to oppose an increase, 70 percent, than Democrats, 52 percent.

“Every time we turn around there’s another tax, and our gas taxes are so high now,” said James Lane, 52, of Henry County in rural south-central Virginia, who described himself as leaning toward the GOP.

But Michael Murphy, 63, a data services contractor who lives near San Antonio, Texas, where a high-speed public-private toll road is scheduled to open this fall, said he’d rather see gas taxes increased than tolls imposed on drivers. Roads benefit everyone, even if indirectly, so it’s only fair that everyone who drives pays something toward their cost, he said.

A majority of those surveyed, 56 percent, say traffic in the area where they live has gotten worse in the last five years. Only 6 percent say traffic has improved in their area, and 33 percent that it’s stayed about the same.

Toll billing mistakes for over 40,000 motorists

Link to article here.

41,000 Texas motorists mistakenly charged toll
The Associated Press
August 4, 2014

DALLAS — The Texas Department of Transportation says it's fixing a billing system that erroneously charged more than 41,000 motorists.

The department told the Dallas Morning News on Monday that the effected motorists drove a new toll road in the Dallas-Fort Worth area during a free period. The department billed for more than 192,000 transactions between May 27 and July 6.

It's unclear what caused the errors.

The North Texas Tollway Authority has an agreement with TxDOT to bill customers who use state-developed toll lanes. An authority spokesman says his agency will credit all TollTag users who were wrongly billed. He says that amount was about $171,000.

He says bills for drivers without TollTags won't be mailed out.

Department spokesman Tony Hartzel says the agency is "taking steps to rectify it."

Copyright The Associated Press

Road taxes are rising, even in tax-averse states

Link to article here.

Road taxes are rising, even in tax-averse states
With road projects threatened, transportation taxes are rising -- even in tax-averse states
By David a. Lieb, Associated Press
August 4, 2014

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- For nearly a century, Missouri has taxed drivers to pay for its roads. That's always provided enough — until now. On Tuesday, voters will decide on a historic change that would tax virtually everything they buy in order to yield more money for roads and bridges.

With Congress stymied over long-term highway funding, many states are taking it upon themselves to tackle the politically uncomfortable task of raising revenue for their aging transportation systems.

In the past year and a half, one-fourth of the states have hiked taxes, fees or fines, and at least a dozen others are studying options, according to an Associated Press review. The push comes as the traditional revenue sources — federal and state fuel taxes — have deteriorated because of more fuel-efficient vehicles, more people driving less, and stagnant tax rates.

Support for the hikes has come from Democrats and Republicans alike, even in tax-averse states such as Missouri, where the Legislature has been cutting income taxes.

"Tax increases are very, very hard to pass," said Missouri Sen. Mike Kehoe, a Republican who supports the measure on Tuesday's ballot for a three-quarters cent sales tax increase. "But I think that people do look at infrastructure differently ... as an investment."

Congress agreed Thursday to a 10-month funding patch for the federal Highway Trust Fund, which was running out of money to cover all of its commitments to the states. But a long-term plan remains unresolved, and the stalemate already has caused delays for some projects such as highway improvements in Tennessee and bridge replacements in Arkansas. Federal money accounts for more than a quarter of states' total spending on highways and transit infrastructure, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"I just don't think we can count on any more federal dollars coming in than what we're currently getting, and we should assume that money is going to drop," said Rep. Dave Hinson, a Republican who sponsored Missouri's proposed transportation sales tax.

States are already facing shortfalls in their own transportation revenue.

The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that governments would need to spend as much as 50 percent more to pay for all of the work needed on roads, bridges and mass transit.

In Michigan, two-thirds of the roads are projected to be in poor condition by 2020, yet a proposed tax hike has stalled.

Missouri's highway budget is projected to plummet from a recent high of $1.3 billion annually to $325 million by 2017. There is no Plan B to replace that money if voters don't approve a sales tax that is projected to raise at least $540 million annually.

Construction contractors, labor unions, engineering firms and others have poured more than $4 million into the Missouri sales tax campaign and have outspent opponents by a more than 100-to-1 ratio. The advertising blitz is a necessity because Missouri voters have a history of rejecting tax increases.

Opposition is coming both from staunch conservatives, who oppose most tax hikes, and strident liberals, who fear the sales tax would hit the poorest the hardest while demanding nothing from the heaviest highway users. The sales tax hike wouldn't apply to tractor-trailer rigs, which were exempted under a 2012 law.

"The absurdity of it is if you go out and buy your child a toy truck, and then you go out and buy an 18-wheeler, you're going to pay more road tax on the toy truck than you are for the 18-wheeler," said Thomas R. Shrout Jr., a St. Louis consultant who is treasurer of the opposition group.

Transportation tax increases already have run into problems in some states. Last year, voters in nine of Georgia's 12 transportation districts defeated a sales tax hike, and Seattle area voters rejected a transportation sales tax and vehicle fee increase in April.

Other states have pushed ahead with increases without putting them to a vote of the people.

New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, signed a 4-cent-a-gallon fuel tax increase that took effect in July, the first such increase since 1991. Republican Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead signed legislation last year raising the fuel tax to 24 cents a gallon from the 14-cent rate.

Significant transportation funding measures were enacted recently in Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Texas voters will decide in November whether to divert about $1 billion annually from the state's Rainy Day Fund to transportation.

In many states, the funding plans have taken several years of bipartisan coalition-building, said Tony Dorsey, spokesman for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

"States are realizing that they have to fund transportation projects in big ways — you know, our system is aging," Dorsey said.

Another call to subject NTTA to sunset review

Link to article here.

More reasons to subject these unelected toll authorities to sunset review. They're just as broken as TxDOT.

After no action follows noise study, state rep calls for review of NTTA
WFAA, Dallas
August 1, 2014

ROWLETT -- A Texas state representative is being critical of the North Texas Tollway Authority for refusing to fix excessive noise problems along the Bush Turnpike in Rowlett to the point that she's asking if the NTTA is still needed at all.

Rep. Cindy Burkett said she will recommend the NTTA go through the Sunset Commission in Austin, which has the power to determine if an agency’s functions are still needed to serve the public.

“I’m going to look at putting them under Sunset review,” Burkett told News 8.

The story starts with Bill Wright, a resident of the Harborside development in Rowlett, who has a simple philosophy when it comes to the North Texas Tollway Authority.

“In my world, if you broke it, you fix it,” Wright said.

What did the NTTA break? In the view of 616 Rowlett homeowners who’ve banded together, a promise to limit noise generated by the 2010 extension of the President George Bush Turnpike.

“We’re not asking for silence. We’re asking for something that doesn’t hurt your ears and keep your children up at night,” Wright said.

Instead of accepting the noise, the Rowlett homeowners chose to fight it. They made such a fuss that the NTTA actually spent $300,000 on a study. The neighbors hoped, if the study confirmed the noise, the NTTA would find a fix.

Well, the study found places in the neighborhoods where the noise levels spiked and even suggested fixes, one of them costing as much as $33 million.

Faced with that information, the NTTA did nothing.

Texas Rep. Burkett said she helped convince the NTTA to undertake its $300,000 study.

“Well, I hope [the mission of the study] was to see if there were some noise issues. Part of it was me prodding, saying my constituents are saying there’s an issue, and let’s see if they do, too,” she said.

That’s not how the NTTA sees it.

The authority declined to be interviewed on camera, but released this statement: "In essence, the question the independent study asked was: 'Did NTTA follow all federal and state guidelines in designing and constructing sound walls?' The answer was 'Yes.' "

And so that’s where we are today; one study with two conflicting conclusions. 

One says the NTTA built enough sound walls when it constructed the road. The other says there’s still an unacceptable spike in noise, for which the NTTA will not accept responsibility.


Wright believes the NTTA won’t fix his $33 million complaint because that would set an expensive precedent.

“They didn’t want to do anything, because if they did it for us, they have to do it for others,” Wright said.

Representative Burkett sees a broken system, hence the recommendation for a Sunset Commission review.

“My focus is, is the process adequate? Is there enough flexibility?" she said. "Maybe in the Sunset review, we’ll decide, 'Okay, maybe a thought is to take a percentage of monies raised, tolls raised, putting them in a special fund to address this type of issue.'”

Another taxpayer bailout of SH 130 truck toll rates

Link to article here.

This is a taxpayer funded BAILOUT of the SH 130 foreign-owned toll road. The state of Texas needs to terminate this contract immediately and take this highway back. It's an absolute OUTRAGE that TxDOT is using tax money to give truckers discount toll rates while autos pay the sticker price. Of course, the state can artificially make the traffic appear higher than it would be otherwise with this not so veiled bailout. This sort of manipulation to prop-up a failure only prolongs the inevitable, which is bankruptcy. Terminate it and get this road back for the taxpayers.

TxDOT works to bring toll discounts back to truckers on SH 130
By Amanda Brandeis
August 1, 2014
KXAN-TV, Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Interstate 35 is a major artery in our city, but is often clogged with traffic. The Texas Department of Transportation says it has a solution.

The department again wants to lower tolls for big rigs on the SH 130 toll road, hoping to push truckers off the interstate. The stretch of I-35 that runs through downtown from U.S. 183 down to SH 71 is the most congested stretch of roadway in Texas, according to TxDOT.

During a pilot program in 2013, the number of trucks on SH 130 rose 44 percent. But the program ended when the funds dried up.

Via promises to bring street car back in future

Link to article here.

Streetcar project has already cost you $17.2 MILLION
By Emily Baucum
Friday, August 1 2014
News 4, San Antonio

With $17.2 million in taxpayer funds have already been spent, VIA Metropolitan Transit is shelving its plans for streetcars in San Antonio and moving on to other projects. The proposed plan was controversial from the start, and opposition was growing. The city clerk confirmed an anti-streetcar group had gathered enough signatures to put the streetcar project to a public vote.

The city then pulled its funding for the project earlier this week. But now the anti-streetcar movement has hit another roadblock. City attorney Robbie Greenblum said Friday that even though the city clerk confirmed the petition signatures, he says the opponents did not collection the 20,000 valid signatures needed to put it before voters.

The goal of the petition drive was to put an issue on the November ballot asking voters to change the city charter. The change would require city council to get the voters' approval before moving forward with streetcar projects.

Greg Brockhouse with the Streetcar Vote Coalition says if the city rejects the signatures on that petition, the group will take the city to court. On Monday, both the city and county pulled their support and financial backing for the project. Meanwhile, VIA is vowing to get back to basics as it shelves the controversial streetcar project.

It would have cost $280 million, and a big chunk of that funding has already been approved. Five days later, VIA is finally talking about what's next.

"We're with VIA and we're damn proud of it," VIA board chairman Alex Briseno says. With employees at his side for support, he expressed his disappointment that streetcars won't be rolling through downtown San Antonio. "We still think streetcar is a good project," Briseno says.

TxDOT already committed $92 million to transportation projects in Bexar County - money VIA planned to spend on streetcars. Now, Briseno says VIA is working on proposals to use that money on its bus routes.

"I was driving down the street the other day and saw a number of senior citizens waiting in the hot sun to catch a bus," Briseno says. "Not even a bench to sit on. We need to start investing in that. We need to take care of our core riders."

And those core riders say they have some ideas.

"Park benches for the spots on the road when it gets hot," one rider says.

"On the daily bus routes, on the daily routes," another says.

News 4 asked Briseno how much money the transit system has already poured into the failed streetcar.

"Seventeen-point-two million to get from where we were seven years ago to where we are today," Briseno says.

Greg Brockhouse with the Streetcar Vote Coalition stopped short of calling that a waste of taxpayer money, but did say it could have been used differently.

"That's a lot of streets, roads and sidewalks in the city of San Antonio that could have been fixed," Brockhouse says.

VIA says the $17.2 million investment gave us a very detailed plan on building streetcars.

Briseno says the plan will still work in two or three years if public opinion changes.

P3 toll roads: short-term gain, long-term pain

Link to article here.

Toll roads, P3s and creative financing will bring short-term gain, long-term disaster for the road building industry
By Tom Jackson
Equipment World
August 1, 2014

For the last half-century gas and diesel taxes collected at the pump have been the primary source of funding for almost all our highway infrastructure. But Congress hasn’t  increased the gas tax or adjusted it for inflation since 1992.

Anti-tax advocates claim this as a victory, but it’s not. With the highway trust fund running dry, the government has been borrowing money from the general fund to pay for a minimum of maintenance and few improvements. Instead of paying at the pump, we’re paying through a combination of income and business taxes and deficit financing.