Wear: GOP asks: Should all toll road projects be subject to public vote?

Feb 23, 2018
Construction of the Texas 45 Southwest tollway, seen here during its early stages in 2017, did not require a public vote. But GOP primary voters are being asked if they think such a voting requirement for toll projects would be a good idea. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The distinction between how rail and road projects can happen in Central Texas — state law requires Capital Metro to ask voters for permission to build or expand a rail line, while road builders can proceed, even on a tollway project, without an election — has always rankled transit supporters.

The Legislature added that requirement for Capital Metro rail elections in 1997 when the agency was in turmoil and anti-rail lawmakers held sway. Since then, area voters have OK’d one rail project — the MetroRail commuter line in 2004 — and twice said no to light rail (that second rejection, however, was of a city of Austin bond election rather than a Capital Metro vote). The expensive projects can be a tough sell.

The Texas Department of Transportation and Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, meanwhile, have completed nine toll projects and have two others under construction, borrowing close to $4 billion in the process. With nary an election. Would Central Texans have approved all those toll roads if given a say upfront? Any of them?

We’ll never know.

That’s why I find it fascinating that the Texas Republican Party, in the primary election going on right now, put this nonbinding, yes-or-no question before GOP voters: “No governmental entity should ever construct or fund construction of toll roads without voter approval.”

Bear in mind, these ballot questions in primaries almost always are put on there by party leaders to elicit a resounding “yes” from the faithful. Those clearly stated leanings then can be brought to bear on lawmakers at the next legislative session or on Congress. Texas Republicans have 11 of these questions on the March primary ballot (including the abolition of abortion, the repeal of Obamacare and a proposition approximating the failed bathroom bill from last year’s legislative session), and Democrats have a dozen (among them several enumerating rights to vote, universal health care, economic security and a fair justice system).

So, here you have the Republican Party — which, through the strenuous efforts of former Gov. Rick Perry and his friend Ric Williamson in the century’s first decade, brought the toll road wave to Texas — seemingly asking its members to endorse putting an obstacle in the way of building more.

Well, yes and no.

RELATED: Looking back at the Texas toll road revolution.

Distaste for tolls

The Texas Transportation Commission last fall was headed toward changes to its 10-year construction plan that would have included at least 15 toll projects in the state’s largest cities. Among those were projects to add toll lanes to Interstate 35 through Central Texas, and U.S. 183 in Northwest Austin.

Their reasoning? Even with the more than $4 billion in additional tax money annually for the Texas Department of Transportation approved by Texas voters in 2014 and 2015 through constitutional amendments, TxDOT will still need billions more to build these urban megaprojects. The Interstate 35 makeover from Round Rock to San Marcos, in TxDOT’s most recent estimate, would cost $8 billion all by its lonesome.

But then a large faction of GOP grass-roots groups (many of them affiliated with the tea party) sent out an open letter blasting that plan, arguing that those constitutional amendments specifically prohibited spending that money on toll projects. And TxDOT officials, to be frank, were trying to get cute with that prohibition, saying they’d spend the restricted money to add free lanes on these highways and borrowed money to do the toll elements.

That’s sort of like me hiring a contractor to renovate my home, and saying I’ll pay him for the new roof and gutter work with borrowed money and the new kitchen and bathroom with cash from my bank account. To the contractor, and the banker, the money is all the same shade of green.

Beyond distaste with that sort of financial finagling, those GOP groups really don’t want more toll roads built. In fact, many of them would like to find a way to remove tolls from existing turnpikes.

So in November, first Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and then Gov. Greg Abbott, who appoints TxDOT’s board members, trashed that TxDOT plan, and suddenly the toll roads were excised from it.

All of which is a problem for those who, looking at already choking urban traffic in Texas and the near-certain prospects of booming population, say the highway system has to be expanded. That includes much of the state’s business community, the more establishmentarian Republicans and many Democrats.

And they know that the Legislature, which hasn’t raised the state’s 20-cents-a-gallon gas tax since 1991, isn’t going to do so anytime soon. And Congress, which hasn’t nudged the federal 18.4-cents-a-gallon gas tax since 1993, likewise is unlikely to increase that one anytime soon.

Yes, President Donald Trump a couple of weeks ago unexpectedly said he might support a whopping 25-cents-a-gallon increase in the federal levy, echoing a call from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But Trump says a lot of things. Highway advocates aren’t counting on pennies from Washington.

Public toll vote?

So, in this complex and confounding political environment, requiring a public vote on building a toll road project might in fact be the only way to get one done. Ask Travis County residents right now if they’d support tolls for added lanes to I-35 — no tax increase, just charges for those who choose to use the lanes like on North MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) — and a majority just might say yes. Particularly with a well-funded campaign setting out the reasons why.

And it would remove the onus from folks like Patrick and Abbott, who could still be comfortably against toll roads in general but make exceptions when the general public overtly supports a given project. For the foreseeable future, it might be the only way to get a large-scale toll road done.

This creates an odd squeeze for GOP toll opponents like Terri Hall, the Comal County-based executive director of Texans for Toll-free Highways. Do you really go into a ballot booth and say, no, people should not have a right to vote on something? The Republican Party, after all, for a long time has been supportive (particularly in other states) of putting large policy questions before voters.

I called Hall to ask her about this, but didn’t hear back.

Of course, this is a nonbinding vote, as I said above. The Legislature, no matter what GOP primary voters say, would still have to pass a law (and get Abbott’s signature) requiring such votes on toll roads.

So I’ll be watching March 6 to see how GOP primary voters come down on Proposition 2. And what happens after they almost certainly give it a big yes.