Texas Tribune: Lawmakers Turn to Toll Roads

 

March 23, 2015

 

The Texas Tribune's Aman Batheja has posted a story noting that anti-toll road sentiment at the State Capitol is at its highest level in at least a decade. More than a dozen bills have been filed to either tap the brakes on new toll road projects or to unwind some the toll road system.

 

The Tribune quotes state Rep. Matt Shaheen as saying: "In light of the Legislature's commitment to fully fund transportation, it is a breach of trust with taxpayers to demand that they pay the double tax of tolls and transportation taxes.”


The Tribune's Batheja writes that the pushback against toll roads and toll lanes has been simmering for years, and can largely be traced back to the 2002 proposal of the Trans-Texas Corridor, a network of toll roads, railroad tracks and utility lines. Public opposition to the plan eventually prompted the Legislature and TxDOT to declare it dead. Yet toll projects continue to flourish around the state because they allow urgently needed projects to be built decades sooner than if funded with the limited revenues that have been available for transportation. He notes that last year the Texas Republican Party adopted language opposing some aspects of toll projects in Texas.


Here is some of reporter Batheja's Tribune story:


Gov. Greg Abbott has said he wants to boost annual transportation funding by $4 billion without raising taxes, fees or tolls. The Legislature is considering several ways to do that. Both Patrick and Abbott have backed a proposal from Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols to dedicate a portion of the sales tax already collected on vehicle sales to the highway fund.


Several bills filed this session would require the Texas Department of Transportation to come up with a plan to convert most or all of the state's toll roads into free roads. State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, filed two bills that appeared aimed at killing the controversial Trinity toll road in Dallas, which local leaders and residents have been discussing and debating for decades. One of the bills would bar the project from getting state funds.


"Since TxDOT has for years been telling everyone that there is not enough revenue available to maintain our existing roads and bridges, it only makes sense to prioritize state funds by allocating them to existing projects that have been chronically underfunded," Anchia said in a statement.


In 2007, the Legislature instituted a moratorium on new toll projects with private companies. Since then, the Legislature has passed a bill each session that authorizes specific “comprehensive development agreements” to move forward. Transportation advocates are watching closely to see if this session may be the first since 2007 in which a CDA bill isn't passed.


“I think the prospects are tougher than they have been in previous sessions,” said Brian Cassidy, a managing partner with Locke Lord, a law firm that works with regional mobility authorities.


Four Democratic lawmakers filed bills this session proposing new toll projects for the state's CDA list. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, want to add the portion of Interstate 35 in Travis County to the list. Austin-area officials have discussed adding toll lanes to that segment of the highway for years. Watson said he wasn’t sure that tolls lanes make sense there but wanted to ensure that option can be fully considered.


“I want to make sure we have every tool available as we’re analyzing how we fix that mess,” Watson said.


Two South Texas lawmakers, state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, and state Rep. Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco, filed bills to add the Farm to Market 1925 project, a toll road in Cameron and Hidalgo counties, to the CDA list.