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TxDOT sticks to toll roads or no roads agenda

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If you tell a lie long enough, it’s eventually accepted as truth. That’s what attendees of the Texas Transportation Forum hosted by the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) were expected to buy into at today’s gathering pertaining to the myths of tolling. TxDOT has been criticized by the public over the last decade for promoting its doctrine of toll roads or no roads. After several attempts at re-making the agency and trying to convince a skeptical public that it’s changed, the leopard hasn’t changed his spots and it’s back to its old toll roads mantra at this year’s forum. On the heels of announcing an $825 million toll plan for San Antonio, TxDOT continues to hold road funds hostage to tolling.

TxDOT brought in some big names today - Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and Con. John Delaney of Maryland who touted his bill to create an infrastructure revolving fund utilizing more debt that has to be repaid with tolls or new taxes, and even a surprise unannounced visit from Texas Governor Rick Perry. But TxDOT, who’s apparently formally joined at the hip with Reason Foundation and the International Bridge, Tunnel, and Turnpike Association (IBTTA), hosted a session entitled “Tolling: An Unfolding Transportation Success Story” that attempted to sing the praises of tolling that included outright false information and calls for tolling to become the funding mechanism for roads to replace the gas tax in the future. TxDOT lobbied for higher taxes with its annual forum as the mechanism while using taxpayer money to do it.

The Reason Foundation and IBTTA panelists were joined by the North Texas Tollway attorney and all three made statements about tolling that simply aren’t true. For instance, the claim tolls are a user fee and only those who use the road pay for the road. In Texas, virtually all toll roads are now being subsidized with gas tax, sales tax, or property tax revenues or other public funds - whether the Texas Mobility Fund, Prop 12, Prop 14, or federal loans or stimulus funds. This also affirms tolls are double taxation, and in Texas, the toll can stay in place in perpetuity. So the way tolls are being implemented in the 21st century it’s become a permanent tax. The toll advocates even said the aim is permanent, ongoing revenue generation. So the ‘user fee’ myth is squarely busted by their own admission.

Another argument contended tolls are tailored to highway cost. There is no way that’s a truthful statement when most toll projects being done today, especially in Texas, are not toll viable and cannot be repaid with toll users alone. So costs are passed onto all taxpayers through public subsidies or taxpayer guarantees. In addition, with congestion tolling or dynamic pricing the toll rate changes based on the level of traffic, therefore the toll rate has nothing to do with highway cost but rather big government’s attempt to ‘manage’ traffic flow through road ‘pricing’ -- which is punitive taxation.

They also made claims that tolls are a sustainable long-term source of infrastructure funding. When SH 130 tollway in Texas is going bankrupt, along with the failure of the South Bay Expressway in San Diego, the Southern Connector in South Carolina, the Pocohontas Parkway in Virginia (it never formally went into bankruptcy but was turned over to its lenders for insufficient revenues), and the faltering toll system in Orange County, California, it’s not truthful to say tolling is ‘sustainable’ or anything other than a crap shoot -- a mixed bag at best.

Tolling is anywhere from 10 to 1,000 times more expensive to drive per mile than a gas tax funded freeway. Therefore, most drivers cannot afford the expense of paying tolls on a regular basis. Since many toll projects involve managed toll lanes in the middle of existing freeways in metropolitan areas, the toll taxes are required too frequently to attract the necessary traffic to repay the debt. So the claim that tolls are more fair and that gas tax is more regressive is patently false. Tolls are exorbitantly more expensive per mile than gas tax and essentially roads for the rich. Since most drivers cannot afford tolls, the free lanes surrounding the toll lanes remain congested -- debunking another claim by the toll advocates that tolls reduce congestion. They don’t, they manipulate congestion for profit.

Though the private companies tout they’re taking all the risk if the traffic doesn’t show up (a claim both Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ted Houghton, Reason Foundation, and IBTTA reiterate), that’s simply not the case -- they get public subsidies on the front end for construction and taxpayer-backed profit guarantees on the back end.

When the moderator asked why should we turn to tolling when SH 130 is failing, the panelists again stated the private operator took all the risk so who cares if it fails when, in fact, a $438 million federal TIFIA loan that’s 100% backed by the U.S. taxpayer subsidized the deal. Therefore, taxpayers are on the hook for that money. TIFIA loans are all borrowed money from the federal reserve and when the traffic doesn’t show up, its the taxpayers who will lose that money and interest, not the private sector. They know it, yet they keep repeating the lie.

Foxx, Delaney, & Perry promote more debt and tolls to pay for roads
Secretary Foxx, Delaney, and Perry all advocated more public private partnerships that have flopped all over the country, with traffic not showing up and all sorts gotcha gimmicks in the contracts that guarantee profits and put taxpayers on the hook for the losses. TxDOT’s video touting Perry’s accomplishments summed up Perry’s road philosophy that if you build it they will come. Yet, SH 130 is the poster child of failed toll roads in Texas and proves even when you build it, the traffic and therefore the revenue doesn’t necessarily come. This claim was also used by the NTTA attorney who said more capacity means more revenue. There are plenty of failed toll projects to disprove that contention.

Perry told the biggest fib when he said he and his highway department have ‘responsibly shepherded every dollar.’ Perry took Texas from pay-as-you-go with zero debt for roads to leading the nation in road debt with $31 billion in principal and interest in less than a decade. There’s nothing fiscally responsible about exploding unsustainable debt. Building toll roads you know aren’t financially viable and then to subsidize them with tax money, charging Texans again to drive on it, is fiscally reckless and deceptive, not responsible. Delaney’s $750 billion, heavily leveraged revolving fund exacerbates the thinking that debt is easy money without consequences to taxpayers. It’s off-budget debt that still has to be repaid by the end user - you and I the taxpayer. He wants an expansion of the TIFIA loan program as well, which only adds to the problem - and that program is directly guaranteed by the taxpayers.

All told, these big guns advocated for more debt, more tolls, and more privatization, which equals runaway debt and taxation in the hands of unelected people. Tolling prices many Americans off their public highways, doesn’t solve the congestion problem merely displaces it, and institutes punitive taxation without representation. TxDOT’s choice of speakers and the universal support for more of a failed, unpopular, fiscally unsustainable policy, demonstrates that nothing short of new leadership will reserve course. Truth in taxation is in order, so is more transparency and scrutiny of toll projects with protections of the public interest taking the front seat. Ultimately, voters must hold all their elected leaders accountable for their actions and allowing such risky, irresponsible unfettered taxation.

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