The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly: Part 2
Nichols Opposes Converting Existing Roads to Toll Roads.
Earlier this year, I wrote a guest column describing the problems surrounding private equity toll projects as they relate to Texas transportation policy. Specifically, the column outlined how partnering with private companies could result in a transportation monopoly.
During the 80th Legislative Session, Texas lawmakers were able to avoid this dangerous situation by placing a two-year moratorium on private equity toll projects. However, we now face an even more dangerous transportation scenario: forcing Texas taxpayers to pay tolls on roads they have already bought and paid for.
Utilizing tolls to build new roads, or even to add additional lanes to current roads, is an innovative strategy that allows our infrastructure to keep pace with our growing population and transportation demand. Current state fuel taxes hardly cover the cost of maintaining current roads, much less building new ones, so a justifiable need exists for toll projects. There is a huge difference, however, between using tolls to pay for new projects and tolling hardworking Texas taxpayers for roads they have already purchased with their tax dollars.
In 2005, legislators realized that previous legislation had granted the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) the authorization to toll existing roads - roads Texas taxpayers have already built with their tax dollars. At that time, they attempted to pass new legislation banning the practice, but the bill died in the House committee. Therefore, legislators wishing to protect taxpayers had to settle for a compromise that would only allow TxDOT to toll existing lanes with the approval of local voters. In 2007, I filed SB 1268 which would have prohibited the conversion of existing lanes to toll roads. With the support of Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, the bill passed the Senate unanimously, but it again died in the House committee.
Because legislation prohibiting the conversion of existing lanes to toll roads continues to die in House committee, the compromise reached in 2005 continues to serve as state policy. This means members of a specific community could vote to toll existing roads coming into and out of their community - tolls they will very rarely have to pay unless they leave their community, but that will obstruct the free flow of commerce and put our state at a competitive disadvantage to other states in our region like Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Louisiana.
As if the current situation is not bad enough, TxDOT now wants to expand its authority to toll existing interstate highways (highways we have already paid for with tax dollars) by "buying" them from the federal government so they can convert them to toll roads. That's right, TxDOT wants to use Texas taxpayer dollars to purchase federal highways that Texas taxpayers paid to build and then charge Texans a toll to continue driving on them. According to my calculation, this equals triple taxation.
Thankfully, U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison passed an amendment placing a one-year moratorium on TxDOT's ability to enact this plan, but we are not out of danger yet. Hutchison's amendment must survive a conference committee where numerous parties will try to remove it from the legislation before it becomes law.
As we have in so many other circumstances, it is time for Texas citizens to step up and demand this unfair policy be stopped. Please contact your representatives in Washington, DC and ask them to support Senator Hutchison's amendment, and when the state legislature re-convenes in January 2009, I will work with other members to permanently end this unfair policy statewide.
Senator Robert Nichols represents Texas Senate District 3. He is a retired engineer and former Texas Transportation Commissioner.