Transportation was a hot subject during the recent legislative session - and it continues to be so in the interim.
This week, several Texas lawmakers, Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson and state Reps. Joe Farias, David Leibowitz, Nathan Macias and others held a press conference in San Antonio in protest against current transportation policy and the Texas Department of Transportation.
Key among their concerns are recent reports the state agency has launched a public relations plan to promote the Trans-Texas Corridor and to lobby for toll roads. Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom founder Terri Hall is among those criticizing TxDOT for using tax dollars to promote the TTC and tolling.
During the San Antonio press conference, the group also called for TxDOT to install the original gas tax-funded improvement plan for U.S. Highway 281 and drop plans to convert that roadway into a toll road, with Hall saying citizens on hand called for the “immediate resignations of TxDOT leadership.”
Hall said TxDOT intends to make some interstates into toll corridors, including Interstate 35 between San Antonio and Dallas and Interstate 10 between Houston and San Antonio and also is looking at highways 281, 1604, Bandera Road and others around San Antonio.
“If TxDOT and the politicians who enable them have their way, it won’t stop there,” she said, saying, “TxDOT plans to take every single lane on existing highway U.S. 281 and convert them into toll lanes. The only free lanes will be frontage roads, not highway lanes.”
According to www.keeptexasmoving.com, TxDOT’s Web site relating to toll roads, Texas’ population has increased 57 percent in the past 25 years, with road use up by 95 percent.
That’s a problem, the agency said, when state road capacity grew only 8 percent. TxDOT further notes on its Web site that the state’s population is estimated to increase another 64 percent during the next 25 years, with road use to increase 214 percent.
“Without new funding methods, state road capacity will only grow 6 percent,” the agency says on its Web site.
According to a TURF press release, Adkisson, who sits on the San Antonio Metropolitian Planning Organization, said, “TxDOT should begin (improving its relations with the public) by installing the overpasses and improvements at an estimated cost of $100 million and already paid for by our gas taxes instead building the hugely intrusive $400 million toll plan for U.S. 281 at four times the cost (and double the number of lanes).”
Adkisson said the state’s transportation policy has failed in several areas by not indexing the gas tax and by not accelerating other forms of transportation. Creative solutions such as contraflow should be implemented and Texas should cease being a donor state that gives away more of its gas taxes than is returned, he said, saying the state is bearing the burden of NAFTA-related traffic.
Macias, Farias and Leibowitz discussed their work during the legislative session relating to control over the toll road and TTC issues - and how that work was subsequently altered. All three encouraged voters to seek accountability at the ballot box in the next election so as to affect needed changes.
During the press conference, Macias characterized tolling of an existing highway as the same as double taxation - and questioned TxDOT’s cost escalations for certain projects.
Farias said amendments he tried to put into the two-year private toll moratorium bill, Senate Bill 792, were stripped out, adding that he’s concerned with the economic impact of tolls on economically-disadvantaged constituents.
Leibowitz, who also sits on the San Antonio MPO, said he is calling for that board to pass a resolution against TxDOT’s public relations campaign and said he will ask state Attorney General Greg Abbott for an opinion on the issue.
“I have never voted for a single toll road bill in my time in the Texas House,” said Leibowitz, who also shared his concerns that Texas is paying a disproportionate share of the NAFTA cost.
Hall noted more lawmakers are becoming involved with the transportation issues.
“The citizens support lawmakers’ efforts to put accountability and sanity back into transportation policy,” Hall said. “With U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison introducing a bill to prevent the tolling of existing interstates this week, calls from U.S. Congressman Ciro Rodriguez to investigate the tolling of existing interstates report, and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Congressman Charlie Gonzales adamantly opposed to it, the people may get relief on the federal level first.”
Hall said she supports a move back to the gas tax-funded plan for improvements to 281 and a stop to the tolling of other existing highways.
“TxDOT has breached the public trust and it cannot be repaired short of cleaning house at that agency. They’ve repeatedly sworn to our faces they’re not tolling existing roads and then lobbied Congress to do just that,” Hall said.
TURF calls for investigation
In another development this week, TURF has called for Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle to investigate the Texas Department of Transportation relating to a public relations campaign it is mounting.
“Unaccountable, eminent domain abusing, runaway toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor,” TURF founder Terri Hall said. “It’s not just smarmy, it’s illegal.”
In a recent press release, TURF criticizes the agency for disregarding input from Texans, including more than 13,000 people who spoke during hearings on the TTC.
“Apparently they lack the intellectual capacity to understand one of the most basic words in the English language (‘no’),” the release reads, with Hall adding, “To add insult to injury, they patronize us further by thinking we just haven’t gotten the message or that we somehow don’t understand their cash-cow, land-grabbing, double-taxing toll road policies, therefore they need to spend our money to further indoctrinate us into submission.”
TURF’s disagrees with TxDOT’s plans to spend up to $9 million on its public relations campaign - which started June 1 - to promote the TTC.
“The politicians who are ramming this down our throats need to realize they can’t escape the long arm of the law, especially Ronnie Earle’s. Tom Delay couldn’t and neither will they,” Hall said.
“The citizens of Texas believe the Texas Department of Transportation is illegally using taxpayer money to wage a cleverly cloaked public relations campaign to push the wildly controversial Trans-Texas Corridor and toll road proliferation,” the complaint reads as filed by TURF, which notes the agency’s public relations campaign includes direct mail, billboards and employee training.
“It’s not only an inappropriate and wasteful use of our gas tax dollars by an agency perpetually claiming it’s out of money for roads, but it’s illegal for a public agency to take a policy position and use the public’s tax money to sell them something using an under-handed PR campaign,” the complaint reads.
TURF’s complaint also notes that a state auditor’s report issued earlier this year found “mismarking” of funds on expenditures relating to the TTC, with some expenditures marked as engineering instead of as an actual expense of public relations.