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Opinion: Prop 1 on a collision course with Texas taxpayers

Though a supermajority of Texas legislators with the help of virtually every Chamber of Commerce are out stumping for Prop 1 in all earnestness, their efforts are starting to fall on deaf ears as more Texans tune in to the persistent problems with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). Prop 1, on the ballot November 4, would take half of the oil and gas severance tax currently collected on oil and gas production (that normally goes to the state’s Rainy Day Fund) and send it to the state highway fund for the next 10 years.

A more in-depth look at the structural road funding shortfall and the pros and cons of Prop 1’s role in it can be found here. Today, the concern isn’t about whether or not Prop 1 is the right approach to address the shortfall, but rather about something that popped up in the Dallas Morning News which said, “A caveat in Proposition 1 forbids the extra funds, which could equal about $1.7 billion a year, from being used on toll projects. But Bill Hale, TxDOT’s engineer operations director for metro districts, said a connection to the Trinity Parkway (toll road) wouldn’t be barred from using the funds because the project itself isn’t tolled.”

TxDOT spokesman Tony Hartzel then quipped: “That’s his take on it.”

That’s his ‘take’ on it? How many times have citizens watched legislative committees, particularly when TxDOT was under sunset review from 2009-2011, only to learn TxDOT’s ‘interpretation’ of the law was so obviously contrary to that of lawmakers who actually write it? TxDOT let the cat out of the bag. Once again, it’s up to its usual tricks and before the voters even go to the polls. Though the law says they cannot use Prop 1 funds for toll roads, they will find every loophole possible to wiggle in and fund wasteful projects, especially those related to toll projects, that are simply for economic development or driven by special interests.

If it’s one thing we’ve learned since the state embarked on toll roads as its silver bullet to funding and congestion problems, it’s that ‘if you build it, they will come’ doesn’t square with reality. This commentary hones in on all the reasons why like a laser beam. Both autos and trucks do everything possible to avoid paying tolls and divert onto surface streets, creating safety issues.

Empower Texans’ Christopher Paxton articulates the very real concerns taxpayers have with Prop 1 as it relates to this sneakiness by the department to find ways to skirt legislative intent. Right now, TxDOT cannot borrow anymore money. They’re fresh out of ways to keep this toll train moving full steam ahead. Prop 1 will free up money elsewhere to allow TxDOT to continue its toll agenda. They’re truly masters at shifting pots of money around to fund what they want to, while leaving other projects hanging with insufficient funding to complete them without at least some toll elements. Hence, TxDOT’s march toward adding toll lanes down the median of existing freeways.

They’re known as ‘managed lanes.’ They don’t use the word ‘toll’ because they recognize the public hates tolls, so they hide what they’re doing until the toll lanes are up. So TxDOT can use Prop 1 funds for the non-toll improvements that feed or are adjacent to toll ‘managed lane’ projects, while still claiming to follow the law.

String of failures fuels mistrust

All of this assumes no marked change in leadership at the agency. The public’s mistrust of the agency that pushed the Trans Texas Corridor corporate-run toll network, had a $1 billion dollar ‘accounting error,’ that sends $300 million in road funds to unpopular street car and transit projects as well as $50 million to a private research firm to study hover crafts and driverless vehicles, and that ‘forgives’ a $55 million toll road loan double taxing all Texans to pay for a toll road in Tyler, is in high gear. Not good timing for an agency claiming poverty.

Legislature just as guilty

The legislature’s role in this cannot be overlooked. They’ve persistently given TxDOT a free pass even when they had every opportunity to change the culture of this broken state agency. They didn’t make the appointed commission accountable to the voters by changing it to an elected commission. They didn’t even file our bill to prevent gas taxes from being used to build or guarantee the loans of toll roads (which would prevent double taxation). They’ve allowed property and sales taxes to be raided for toll roads. They blocked bills to make tolls cease when the road is paid for, and instead changed the law to allow tolls to be charged in perpetuity. They made sure every toll authority is an unelected board to ensure taxation without representation.

On top of all that, lawmakers have failed to end gas tax diversions or to dedicate all other taxes levied on vehicles (road users) to the highway fund. Yet, lawmakers scratch their heads wondering why Texans don’t trust their money will be used the right way with Prop 1. Really? Assurances it can’t be used on toll roads simply ring hollow.

Since both gubernatorial candidates are campaigning on stopping the pursuit of more toll roads, a change in leadership brings some hope that maybe, just maybe, things may be very different soon. However, with the current dysfunctional state of affairs at TxDOT, if Prop 1 passes, it will be in spite of TxDOT, not because the public has confidence in them.

Featured photo by ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

Terri Hall

Terri Hall is the founder of the San Antonio Toll Party and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom. She started a taxpayer revolt upon learning of plans to convert Highway 281 into a tollway and charge taxpayers again for what they already built and paid for. TURF's grassroots efforts halted two freeway-to-tollway projects, curbed plans for the Trans Texas Corridor, defeated bad bills with runaway taxation in the Texas Legislature, opposed using federal stimulus money to build toll roads, and awakened Texas to the coming infrastructure bubble and bailouts. Whether speaking before community groups of all types, the Legislature in Austin, at rallies in Washington D.C. or on CNN, Terri is a tireless taxpayer advocate. She invites you to learn more and to join the fight at www.TexasTURF.org.

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Categories: Budget and Finance, Elections, Must Read, News, Opinion, Policy, Transportation
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