- Ben Wear American-Statesman Staff
People forgot the asterisk.
Or maybe they never noticed it in the first place.
The consequences of that oversight took full form about a week ago, and the result is that the prospects for several major highway projects in Central Texas and the state’s other urban centers are now uncertain.
Back during the 2013 legislative session, when Texas Department of Transportation officials and their lawmaker allies began pushing for more money through a constitutional amendment, they said that TxDOT needed an extra $5 billion a year to fight traffic congestion. Just give us that much money and all will be well, they said.
Except, they added — sotto voce, at least in political terms — a caveat, that asterisk. They said, $5 billion more annually will do it, but only if you let us keep the “tools” we have now. Meaning, the ability to borrow money for some big urban projects and to charge tolls to pay it back.
But the $5 billion is what everybody heard, and that became the political message when what had become Proposition 1 was before voters in November 2014. Prop 1 passed, giving TxDOT a significant piece of that funding boost.
The Legislature, and voters, did the rest in 2015. Lawmakers ended the “diversion” to other state departments of about $600 million a year in gas taxes, returning it to TxDOT. And then voters in 2015 passed yet another constitutional amendment under Proposition 7, giving TxDOT a minimum of an additional $2.5 billion a year for roads.
In the middle of all that, Greg Abbott had run for governor promising to address the state’s highway needs with no new taxes, fees, tolls or debt. In other words, he dropped the caveat. And the legislative language for both constitutional amendments and the diversion cessation stipulated that none of that money could be used on toll projects.
When the dust settled late in November 2015, TxDOT had its added $5 billion a year, or at least close to it. The oil and gas taxes diverted to TxDOT under Prop 1 have proven highly sensitive to the oil business’ zigzag fortunes, varying from about $1.7 billion to $1 billion or less each year since.
But, undeniably, TxDOT is getting a lot of new cash. And the Texas Transportation Commission last year trumpeted the $70 billion it would have over the next decade to spend on maintaining and expanding the state highway system. Problem solved, right?
But the reality is that, counting all the toll projects that were built from 2006 to 2016, Texas had spent about $70 billion on highways in the previous 10 years as well. Some of that, though, had not appeared on TxDOT’s books because the highway builder, operator and funder in some of those cases were regional toll authorities or even private companies.
And that construction had gone disproportionately to urban areas, where tolls were feasible. You can’t charge tolls to expand a road from, say, Midland to Lubbock, where the existing free highways are not congested.
But in a rapidly growing state, with most of that population (and driver) expansion occurring in five urban areas, projects with huge costs remain at the top of the list. That includes as much as $8 billion for Interstate 35 through Austin, and another couple of billion dollars for U.S. 183 in Northwest Austin, South MoPac Boulevard, U.S. 290 in Oak Hill and RM 620 through the Lake Travis area.
There are similarly huge projects lingering in the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth areas as well. And that $70 billion over the next 10 years, it turns out, couldn’t come close to covering all that.
Over the past six months or so the Transportation Commission, three of the commissioners appointed to their posts by Abbott, worked with TxDOT’s staff to close that multibillion-dollar gap. The solution: 15 “managed lane” projects in large Texas cities. In other words, varying tolls on added lanes like the ones now open on North MoPac. The commission and TxDOT staff made all this explicit at a late October briefing about a new version of TxDOT’s 10-year project construction plan, to be voted on by the commission in December.
That lit the fuse. On Nov. 6, a letter from something calling itself the Texas Conservative Grassroots Coalition went to Bruce Bugg, chairman of the Transportation Commission. Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Joe Straus and key lawmakers were sent copies.
The stern three-page letter, signed by almost 230 Republican groups and individuals (including about 30 identified as having ties to the tea party), said that those toll projects “subvert the promises made by Gov. Abbott. … We urgently ask the Commission to advance the expansion of these vital corridors as non-toll.”
Collectively, the people who signed the letter control or at least strongly influence a good chunk of Republican primary voters, so their urgent sentiments were not the sort of thing that GOP elected officials can ignore. Then, on Nov. 9, state Rep. Joe Pickett from El Paso — a Democrat, no less — sent a letter to Attorney General Ken Paxton seeking an opinion on whether it is legal to combine Prop 1 and Prop 7 revenue with unrestricted money (such as bond proceeds, federal loans or gas tax proceeds) on toll projects.
Finally, on Nov. 16, Patrick likewise sent Bugg a missive making the same complaints about the toll projects. The pressure got too intense at that point, and TxDOT later that day put out a statement saying it would remove the toll projects from the nascent 10-year plan.
As I said above, lost in all this was that message from TxDOT lo those many years ago (well, four years) that it would still need some toll projects to get it all done. Or maybe there simply is a growing, and now controlling, part of the state power structure (reacting to constituents) that thinks there are simply too many toll roads.
Even with TxDOT’s pull back, the Austin area already has eight toll roads, with two more under construction. Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston have even more.
And $5 billion a year of new money (or whatever that fluctuating figure is from year to year going forward) is an awful lot of money for TxDOT to go get some things done.
But it is not enough to get it all done. If what happened a few days ago holds, some key highway projects will fall off TxDOT’s list. Perhaps the Legislature in 2019 will have to go looking for other existing taxes to redirect (as with Props 1 and 7). Perhaps it’ll even increase an existing tax, such as sales taxes or the gas tax, although that falls into the when-wild-boars-fly-over-Texas-130 category.
Or maybe, upon reflection, during the next session the Legislature and Abbott (assuming he still has his current job) will allow some selected toll projects to be built.
Governing is about making choices. This one won’t be easy.