Grassroots to TxDOT: ‘Read our lips – No new toll taxes!’

Yesterday, a Texas Conservative Grassroots Coalition project led by Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), Texans for Toll-free Highways, and Grassroots America was hand-delivered to Gov. Greg Abbott and his new Transportation Commission Chair, Bruce Bugg. The Coalition letter insists that the Transportation Commission, TxDOT, and all related mobility authorities make good on Governor Abbott’s promise to build needed roads without new toll taxes. The Coalition project was launched in response to last week’s proposal by TxDOT to the Transportation Commission to approve over a dozen new toll projects in the state’s ten-year plan. Fifteen of the 17 projects are toll projects, including I-35 in Austin and San Antonio, I-635E in Dallas, I-45 in Houston, and Loop 1604 on San Antonio.

JoAnn Fleming, Grassroots America’s Executive Director said of the latest proposal for new toll projects, “Apparently, the state and local transportation bureaucracies didn’t get Gov. Abbott’s memo during his first campaign for Governor and haven’t listened ever since. The Governor has repeatedly underscored his vow to get Texas off the toll road and debt scheme. He’s made it clear he wants the state on a pay-as-you-go plan for road construction, and voters have approved the funding.

“So, it’s about time TxDOT, the Transportation Commission, the RMAs and the MPOs all got on the same page with Governor Abbott. We are sick and tired of this nonsense.  There’s always another bureaucratic plot afoot with perpetual whining that they don’t have enough money.  If they spent one-quarter of their time working to eliminate bone-headed, wasteful processes that burn through cash, instead of devising ways to defy the Governor and the state constitution, we’d all be better off. 

“This goes back to the Sunset Advisory Board’s Report to the 85th Legislature, which stated, ‘As currently structured, TxDOT’s project development process is not meeting expectations and is not prepared to effectively handle the influx of new transportation funding projected to double over the next decade.  TxDOT has not met key on-time or on-budget measures for several years…’. It’s time for these bureaucracies to stop undermining our Governor and do their jobs. Gov. Abbott needs to put his foot down to stop these rogue actions, which undermine his administration.”

Terri Hall, Founder and Director of TURF and Texans for Toll-free Highways, notes, “Working families across this state have made it abundantly clear that they do not want more toll roads. Taxpayers approved two constitutional measures giving the biggest boost in highway funding to TxDOT in a generation, and they are rewarded with more toll roads? Talk about disrespect! Texans elected this governor on the promise that he was parting ways with the Rick Perry toll road cram down. Gov. Abbott even ran television campaign ads promising to fix our roads without tolls. Now his highway Commission is on the verge of approving 15 more toll projects? It’s decision time, and he’s running for re-election. How this comes down will not go unnoticed by the grassroots.” 

Senator Bob Hall, Vice Chair of the state Senate Transportation Committee, strenuously objecting to more toll roads, explained, “Toll taxes create a long-term penalty for the working class. At today’s average cost of $5.00 each direction, it will cost the family of a worker – over the course of their lifetimes – in excess of $135,000 for the ‘privilege’ of using the toll lane! That’s like taking a home or a couple of college educations away from that family, while they face a daily fee that could well be the equivalent of a $25.00 per-gallon gasoline tax. This is an outrageously unacceptable tax burden, and Governor Abbott must step-in to stop it before it’s too late.”

Chairman Bugg’s comments indicate that if local governments lobby the Commission for toll ‘managed’ lanes, that they’ll consider giving toll projects a green light, despite the Governor’s campaign promises, “When a local community comes to this Commission and states that they want to add capacity, and they know the funds are not available, they want to support a managed lanes concept; and when the funds that Governor Abbott and the Texas Legislature worked so hard to provide are not being used, then I think this Commission needs to consider the local community’s support for a managed lane project.” 

Coalition partners want Gov. Abbott to challenge local governments on their abusive use of excessive tolling just as he did on an array of anti-liberty, anti-taxpayer local ordinances during the past legislative and special sessions. 

Taxpayers also want Governor Abbott to investigate why the public is being told there’s not enough funding for the most congested roads after they only recently voted to approve nearly $5 billion in new annual funding with approval of Prop 1 and Prop 7.  In 2015, the legislature passed House Bill 20, requiring TxDOT to put specific policies in place to ensure the highest priority projects are funded first. Yet, that’s not what has happened. The majority of new funds have been allocated to low priority projects – by design – so that TxDOT could cry poverty and enable local governments to tap a toll revenue stream for the most congested roads, creating unaccountable slush funds outside the reach of taxpayers. 

Constitutional Crisis?

Texas Conservative Grassroots Coalition leaders say the Transportation Commission is in violation of the law because the Commission is using Prop 1 and Prop 7 funds – money that is constitutionally barred from use on toll projects – to subsidize the US 183 toll project in Austin. 

TxDOT’s presentation to the Commission on October 26 clearly shows $120 million in Prop 1 and Prop 7 funds are to be used on the US 183 toll project. In a clever deception, the agency claims it can make the move appear legal by separating the financing of the toll lanes from the non-toll lanes; however it’s all part of the same project! In the same presentation, TxDOT states that it will be doing the US 183 toll project under one contract procurement, not as two separate projects. 

TxDOT’s prior policy, as evidenced in a 2014 letter to State Rep. Ron Simmons by then-Deputy Executive Director of TxDOT John Barton, clearly states if any part of a project has a toll element, it would not be eligible for Prop 1 funds. Prop 7 has the same constitutional restriction as Prop 1 and cannot be used on toll projects either.

“Apparently, TxDOT has decided they are not required to follow the Texas Constitution.  Their brazen actions at the Commission last week are a movement toward lawlessness. If a state agency can simply break up a toll project into two parts in order to subvert the constitutional restrictions voters deliberately put in place on Prop 1 and Prop 7 funds, then it will continue to do so on every toll project. This scheme, if not challenged, will set a dangerous precedent, and we’re not going to stand for it,” concludes Terri Hall.