By Bill Oakey – November 18, 2017
The plot thickens in one of the wildest and most twisted tales in Texas transportation history. In a recent blog posting, I lamented the fact that most of our local officials were kept in the dark about the massive $8 billion plan to put 4 new “managed toll lanes” on I-35. The press release announcing the project caught Travis County Commissioners completely off guard, including the “Road Warriar,” Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. I submitted a detailed list of questions to quite a few local officials, only to be told that they had not been included in the process. And that they had just as many questions of their own. Really? Yes, really.
Now the whole plan has been blown to bits by both Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. In a revealing report, the Texas Tribune explains that in 2014 and 2015, statewide voters approved two Constitutional amendments for highway funding. Each of them authorized the State to send billions of tax dollars to the Texas Department of Transportation, specifically for non-tolled roadway projects. The State’s two top leaders said they acted on behalf of Legislators and their constituents. These folks have complained loudly about road-building plans across the State that contain mostly managed toll lanes. The bombshell hit late Thursday, when State transportation officials announced that they are dropping several of the major toll lane plans, including the one for I-35.
But the drama doesn’t end there. The State Attorney General has been asked to issue an opinion on the legality of an accounting trick that was built into the toll lane plans. The Transportation Dept. had sought to use funds from the voter-approved tax dollars to build or upgrade free lanes. And then use a mixture of Federal money and other funds to build toll lanes next to the free lanes. While you are reading this, heads are rolling and a battle rages over who gets to do what with a limited amount of transportation dollars.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick released this statement:
AUSTIN – Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick issued the following statement today in response to recent reports that the latest Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Unified Transportation Plan (UTP) includes the addition of 15 managed toll lanes:
“I oppose adding any additional toll lanes to TxDOT’s UTP. I fought against increasing the state’s reliance on toll roads as a state senator and I have continued that fight as lieutenant governor. The Texas Legislature worked hard to pass Proposition 7 in 2015 to provide billions in funding for transportation infrastructure to help eliminate the state’s need for additional toll roads. Eliminating the need for tolls was one of the primary reasons the Texas Legislature passed Prop 7 and why Texas voters approved it. No new toll roads have been approved by the Senate or the House in the last two sessions and legislators I have spoken with are very unhappy that the Commission seems now to be going in a direction that opposes the will of the legislature and the majority of Texans.
“I spoke with TxDOT Commissioner Bruce Bugg yesterday and reminded him of the legislature’s commitment to reducing tolls. I sent a letter to the Commissioner today asking him to revise the UTP and develop a plan that contains no additional toll lanes.”
To view Lt. Gov. Patrick’s letter to Commissioner Bugg click here.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Managed Toll Lanes?
I remain both fascinated and befuddled by the theory for managed toll lanes. Advocates claim that they reduce congestion better than free lanes. Why? Because, they say, newly added free lanes would fill up quickly. Therefore, high-priced tolls serve as a wedge to keep too many drivers from clogging up the roads. But let’s step back from that argument for a moment. What if people absolutely need to use that road to get somewhere? Increased population drives up the demand. Keep pouring water into a bucket, and sooner or later, it will overflow. Managed toll lanes reduce the capacity, while year after year the demand keeps rising. Gosh, you don’t suppose that a City like Austin could get so crowded that we can’t accommodate any more people. Of course not. Never! We need to recruit more people to come here as fast as they can…More! More!
With managed toll lanes, the big winners are the wealthy folks who can cruise past everybody else in the faster moving lanes. What many Texans may not know is that managed toll lanes in countless other cities started out with “manageable” rates. Then over time, as congestion increased, they jacked up the rates. Google it and you will see $14 and higher peak toll rates popping up all over the country. Try doing the math on a daily commute with $14 times 2, times 21 workdays per month. Ka-Ching, that’s $588.00! And that assumes that you can get there without using more than one toll road. (See another Texas Tribune article, “Texans Driven Mad As Tolls Burn Holes In Their Wallets.”)
So, What Happens Next?
Lucky us! We’re going to get a citywide rail system. That won’t cost more than $15 or $20 billion. And if you believe that, I’ve got another promise for you. Some sweet day, the Legislature will wake up and realize that balancing State budgets on the backs of residential property taxpayers has reached its sustainable limit. All they have to do is project it out on a chart for the next five years and the next ten years. Or else they can ignore the problem and wait for the public backlash.
Gosh, you don’t suppose businesses could pay their fair share of taxes? You don’t suppose they could pay sustainable wages? Sorry, I just get crazy ideas once in a while. Please don’t hold it against me.
Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:
- “If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body (Would You Hold It Against Me)” – The Bellamy Brothers
- “Life In the Fast Lane” – The Desperado Dreamers (Eagles Tribute)
- “On the Road Again” – Willie Nelson
- “Hot Rod Lincoln” – Johnny Bond
- “Lost Highway” – Johnny Horton
As usual, you are SPOT ON! Thanks for all you do – Clare Hudspeth
Bill, I also don’t understand why none of the fat-cat road builder committees ever consider hard work in the direction of getting local business offices and city and county offices to use a variety of work hours.
Some employees would be happy to work 7-4, and others 10-6, quickly improving the flow of traffic. Some folks might even want to work 6-3 or 10-6! Same number of cars but spread out over a much longer time. Also encourage work-from-home.
Your thoughts? Thanks, Clare Hudspeth
Clare, this is an important question you might consider asking the Mayor and your councilmember. I would love to hear/read their answer — and also in a letter to the editor at the Statesman.
You started to question the MAIN issue here: that is that we currently have no limits on how many folks are coming in and living in Austin and the metro area. We have limited resources (roadways, electricity, water, etc.) and cannot continually deal with unlimited newcomers. Something has to give. See San Francisco.
It also has been compounded by our previous governor who would travel about the US actually encouraging others to move to the state.
The bucket is full and to solve it will take political bravery.
A lot of our fellow citizens have been enduring the public sector cost escalators, tolls, property taxes, because the private sector, the land rush and employment success, allowed them to ignore it as a cost under an advancing wealth in and income curve.
That may be flattening out shortly, if not already. The critical sentiments reflected in your post, and Abbottâs action, letâs hope there is more awareness and action to come.