Friday, March 27, 2009 – SB 220 authored by Senator Robert Nichols actually opens a NEW loophole that would allow existing highway lanes to be tolled and the free lanes to be subsequently downgraded to access roads. This bill would legalize the conversions of at least three highways: 281 N and 1604 in Bexar County and 290 E in Travis County. SB 220 passed the Senate 31-0 despite citizen concerns, TURF testimony, and our action alert notifying EVERY single senator of this problem.
"It's an outrage that the author of this bill, Senator Nichols, is out there touting that he's ended the tolling of existing highways, and he knows his bill does just the opposite! He's an ex-Transportation Commissioner who not only was involved in writing the first bill to address tolls on existing highways that had the original loopholes back in 2005 (SB 2702), but also he was present when Governor Perry signed the contract with Cintra for the Trans Texas Corridor, and he has plenty of ties to and funding from the highway lobby. He knows exactly what he's doing. The leopard is showing his spots," explains Terri Hall TURF Founder.
The wording of this bill leaves a number of loopholes for TxDOT to leap through.
Sections 228.201 (a) 1, 3, 5 are the trouble spots and need to be omitted. Section one essentially allows the Texas Transportation Commission to convert any freeway as long as they do it before it awards a contract. Section three would allow virtually EVERY toll project in the state to be a conversion since most were in an MPO plan prior to September of 2005. Then, section five permits TxDOT to convert freeways all it wants if they simply slap a stoplight on it and snarl traffic for years on end until the public capitulates to toll taxes. It states if a highway lane has a "control device" prior to the conversion, those lanes can be tolled and the free lanes downgraded to frontage roads with permanent stoplights and slower speed limits.
“It should NEVER be legal to take away existing highway lanes and downgrade the free lanes into frontage roads. But section #5 of this bill would do exactly that,” notes Hall.
On the Trans Texas Corridor TTC-69 expansion of Hwy 59, for instance, SB 220 would enable TxDOT to convert existing highway lanes (that have stoplights when it traverses through small towns) into a toll road. Then those toll lanes would be under the control of a Spain-based company, ACS, which has the development rights to the TTC-69 corridor, leaving access roads as the only non-toll lanes.
Hank Gilbert, on the Board of TURF, directly questioned TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz about this at the 2008 TxDOT press conference promising to use existing highways for the footprint on TTC-69, and he failed to give a definitive answer.
If you watched the Sunset Commission hearings last July, you saw legislators awaken to the fact that TxDOT was NOT following the legislative intent of its previous attempt to outlaw converting existing freeways into toll roads.
“When TxDOT is going to toll every single mainlane currently open to traffic as a US highway built and paid for with state and federal dollars and leave only frontage roads as the non-toll, the taxpayers have rightly gone nuclear,” says Hall.
Most rural divided highways eventually need stoplights at the crossovers. The stoplights make it no less a highway than before it had stoplights, but it certainly slows the thru traffic. Then, TxDOT usually upgrades to a controlled access highway by building overpasses over the stoplights and adding frontage lanes where needed. So TxDOT has been exploiting this all over the state by turning freeways with stoplights (which are naturally congested by having to stop) into tollways instead of building overpasses and keeping those lanes toll-free.
“This is wrong and unacceptable. You’ve also been hearing plenty of protest about using stimulus money to build toll roads in a TRIPLE TAX scheme Texans WILL NOT tolerate. Converting existing freeways into toll roads is the same tax scheme, this time a DOUBLE tax, using a different pot of money,” relates Gilbert who protested the use of stimulus money for toll roads for which a commissioner called him and TURF supporters, “bigots.” Watch it here.
“By leaving this bill as is, it's legalizing theft, period. If TxDOT can slap a stoplight on a highway as a license to double tax motorists to get to work, then that’s exactly what they’ll do to get easy access to our wallets. This is horrific public policy and it needs to be fixed,” Hall said.