Wear: Toll opponents sense momentum at Lege, but it may be mostly hot air

The air was still when anti-toll activists, and some of their growing roster of legislative supporters, gathered on the Capitol’s south steps one gloriously sunny morning last week. Even so, the 75 or so folks on hand had the look of people with the wind at their backs.

Their leader Terri Hall, the Comal County home schooling mother of seven who has been doggedly lobbying against toll roads for a decade now, told them that $7 billion in “public funds” had been spent so far building Texas tollways.

“The abuses will keep on coming unless we stop it right here, right now, this session,” Hall said. “We want a toll-free Texas.”

Hall, often a lonely presence in Capitol committee rooms over the past several sessions (not counting various babes in arms and toddlers who snoozed while mom testified), could be forgiven for feeling a surge of confidence in her quest. Dozens of bills have been filed by what is now a significant No-Toll Caucus with at least nine House members and five senators.

And even mainstream bills to raise money for highways — the legislation that led to last fall’s successful Proposition 1 constitutional amendment and others this session to dedicate sales taxes to the Texas Department of Transportation — have stipulated that the money generated cannot be used for toll projects.

But the legislative reality is that most of the bills that Hall and those 15 or so legislators are pushing likely will never get out of committee. The chairmen of the Senate and House transportation committees — Republican Robert Nichols of Jacksonville and Democrat Joe Pickett of El Paso — are pragmatists whose focus is on getting roads built. And reaching into TxDOT’s toolbox and pulling out about half the contents (laws allowing it and its little brother toll agencies to build pay-to-drive roads) would mean less money for roads, and fewer projects.

How would those bills clamp down on tollways?

No debt, no tolls. When the money borrowed to build a toll road is paid off, the tolls would go away. Or, in a variant also on the legislative docket, the tolls would be reduced to an amount sufficient to pay for continuing operations and maintenance.

Standing alone. Toll agencies would no longer be able to use “system financing,” helping to pay for future toll roads with revenue from an existing tollway. The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is building a system of fiscally linked tollways, and TxDOT’s four Austin toll roads are part of a system as well.

Redefining “conversions.” State law already bans converting a free road to a toll road. But it defines that as taking existing lanes with no tolls and simply slapping tolls on those same lanes. If instead an agency, as the mobility authority has done here, revamps an existing free road to build a tollway in the same corridor with an equal or greater number of free lanes alongside, that is legal. It no longer would be under pending legislation.

HOV to HOT? Nope. The law allows the state to add tolls to a currently free high-occupancy vehicle lane (one where a driver must have one or two passengers along for the ride) as long as the ability to drive for free with passengers remains an option. Some lawmakers, angered at a plan to do this on U.S. 75 north of Dallas, want that law to change.

Local control. A couple of bills in the hopper would give county commissioners courts what amounts to veto power on tollways in their counties.

Watchdogs for toll agencies. Regional mobility authorities, like the one here, would be subject to the state’s “sunset” reviews — essentially a periodic bureaucratic top-to-bottom analysis — and to additional audits.

Anti-toll sentiment, when it bubbles up at the Legislature, often arises from some specific local issues, like the yearslong fight against building tolls lanes in the U.S. 281 corridor north of town. That plan (because U.S. 281 is a primary link to Comal County) originally animated Hall, and that fight is ongoing.

At Hall’s press conference, I asked for a show of hands for people from the San Antonio area. About half of the hands went up. Hall, getting into the spirit, then asked for people from the Dallas-Fort Worth area to raise their hands. That area, particularly Collin County north of Dallas, has been inundated with tollways, and many more are in long-range plans.

Most of the rest of the people were from there, with just one or two each from the Houston and Austin areas.

The transportation winds, to continue the metaphor, have been changing in the Legislature over the past three to four years. After authorizing TxDOT to borrow about $18 billion — money to be paid back from gasoline taxes, some auto-related fees and from general state revenue — lawmakers by last session had decided that was about enough TxDOT debt.

Or, at least that kind of debt. TxDOT and the various satellite toll agencies around the state owe many billions more in tollway bonds that are directly backed by the tolls from individual roads. Legislators, particularly the members pulling the lawmaking gears, are more at ease with that sort of burden.

TxDOT officials, backed by a study from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, have been saying since about 2013 that the agency needs another $5 billion a year of cash just to keep the state’s huge road network in good shape and to keep urban and interstate traffic congestion at its current level. Take away the ability to build all the future tollways on the books, however, and that annual need would go up to somewhere between $7 billion and $10 billion, officials said this week at a committee hearing.

That’s a powerful rhetorical gust in the faces of Hall and the other anti-toll folks.

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