Wear: 500 more Texas toll roads? Activist’s claim doesn’t hold up


Highlights

Longtime anti-toll crusader Terri Hall said TxDOT has 500 more toll road projects in the planning stages.

Hall based that claim on a 10-year-old study that merely listed projects that might support tolling.

A look at long-range transportation plans for Texas’ largest cities shows toll plans on less than 50 highways.

The state currently has 54 toll roads, and 26 bridges over the Rio Grande that have toll charges.

Like most of us in this Time of Trump, my truthiness antennae have been getting a workout. And sometimes an alternative fact or two can flit by those groggy sensors unnoticed.

But 500 toll projects on the way in Texas?

That one came courtesy last week of Terri Hall, the indefatigable toll road opponent from Comal County who has been showing up at Capitol hearings to say her piece since at least 2005. Hall was one of the speakers Monday in a tea party news conference and rally.

After folks had spent more than a half-hour talking about gun rights, immigration, abortion and the budget in a conference room off the Texas House chamber, Hall’s turn came. She had a lot to say about double taxation, removing tolls from existing turnpikes and the long-term leases with private companies that the Texas Department of Transportation a few times has used to build tollways.

I’d already heard all of it over the years.

Then she said it: TxDOT is working on 500 toll road projects. “Think about that,” she said, “500.”

So I did. And I thought, based on 14 years of covering this subject, “That just ain’t so.” So I asked where she had gotten that number.

From a TxDOT study, she said. She sent me a single page from that document, page 95, of an “independent performance audit” done by Dye Management Group Inc. Sometime. The page had no date on it. More troubling than the mysterious provenance of this apparent linchpin was its content.

Dye’s analysis showed that Texas had “over 500 toll-viable alternatives to upgrade or construct new highways in over 150 highway corridors.” So this undated analysis — certainly not a construction plan — said there could be 500 or more possible toll projects on just 150 highways. Not at all what Hall had said, in other words.

What was the nature of that report, and when was it done? Hall wasn’t sure. She said she had gotten it — seemingly just that one page — from former state Rep. Linda Harper Brown, a Dallas Republican. So I called Brown, who left the Legislature two years ago. I told her what Hall said about TxDOT intending to build 500 toll projects.

“That’s just not true,” she said immediately. Before she could find the study and get back to me, I reached Bill Dye, president and founder of the Kirkland, Wash., consulting firm that produced it. With a few minutes of sleuthing, he was able to tell me when that report (two volumes on various aspects of TxDOT) was published: August 2007.

Almost 10 years ago.

Ric Williamson — the then-Texas Transportation Commission chairman and a toll road evangelist who wanted all road projects examined for possible tolling — at that time was still a few months from the heart attack that killed him. The toll road backlash among the public and lawmakers was a couple of years away. And TxDOT was about eight years away from the cash infusion it got when voters in 2013 and 2015 approved constitutional amendments reallocating to highways — nontolled highways — big slices of sales and oil-and-gas severance taxes.

Hall, once the skeptical drift of my questions became obvious, changed tack. Look in long-range transportation plans, she said, TxDOT’s and those of the metropolitan planning organizations that produce 25-year predictions of transportation projects, and you’ll see all these planned tollways.

I had my doubts.

TxDOT has 25 districts around the state, so 500 would be an average of 20 planned tollways per district. But toll roads are simply not feasible in at least 15 of those districts, the most rural, because traffic is far too light on the existing roads to justify building more highways and charging money to drive on them. People would just stay off them, as has been the case with the Camino Colombia tollway near Laredo that I wrote about earlier this month.

So that leaves about 50 planned tollways for each of the remaining 10 or so urbanized districts.

But here’s the deal: Right now, 100 years after TxDOT’s birth and about 60 years since the state’s first tollway was built between Dallas and Fort Worth, the state has 54 toll roads open or under construction, along with 26 tolled bridges over the Rio Grande and a toll tunnel in the Dallas area.

Almost all of those tollways are concentrated in three places: Dallas-Fort Worth, with 17; Houston with 21; and Austin, which has eight tollways open and three under construction.

San Antonio has exactly none, at least in part due to Hall’s staunch activism. El Paso has two, and there are another two in the Rio Grande Valley.

I already knew about all of the planned tollways for the Austin area:

• Express toll lanes on Interstate 35 from Round Rock to Buda, on U.S. 183 north of MoPac Boulevard and on South MoPac.

• At and near the intersection of U.S. 290 and Texas 71 near “Y” in Oak Hill.

• An expansion of the existing Texas 130 tollway.

• And an extension of 183-A to Liberty Hill and, perhaps sometime in the next 10 to 20 years, a second piece of Texas 45 Southwest, the first part of which is just now being built.

A grand total of seven, in other words. Which is less than 50.

Hall — who, to be fair, for a very long time has been fighting an asymmetrical policy war with moneyed and powerful forces — was pretty unhappy with me by this point. You’re counting wrong, she said. TxDOT breaks up longer road projects, for its bureaucratic purposes, into segments, and she argued that I need to count each of those segments as a separate toll road project. On Texas 130, for instance, TxDOT long ago designated six segments between Georgetown and Seguin. But the 90-mile road was built in just two projects, one opening in 2006 and 2007, and the other in 2012. And a motorist driving on it sees just one tollway.

Hall sees six.

San Antonio’s long-range plan, by that measure, has 56 toll projects on it, Hall maintained. So I looked at the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s 2040 plan.

Using her generous counting method, I came up with 19 proposed toll projects — not 56 — on six highways, including nine pieces of Loop 1604 and four on Interstate 35. For good measure, I looked at the state’s two largest, most toll-centric metro areas: Dallas-Fort Worth has 77 toll “projects” on 17 roads planned over the next 25 years, and Greater Houston has 64 on 11 roads. About half of those are to build Texas 99, the expansive third loop known as the Grand Parkway.

So, for the state’s four largest areas, that’s 167 projects, by Hall’s definition, on 41 roads.

I should point out, by the way, that many of those projects are to widen existing tollways and freeways, often adding free lanes along with new toll lanes. Some are flyover bridges to serve existing toll roads.

Asked about this, Hall acknowledged she needs to “update” her numbers, “but I certainly didn’t try to engage in some plot to mislead the public.”

As I said to Hall, one can certainly argue, as she does, that building even one more toll road is bad public policy, much less 41. But in doing so, declaring that 500 are on the way, based on questionable sourcing and creative counting, does more to cloud the issue than clarify it.

The truth can be stretched only so far before it snaps.



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