Interview: Rep. Joe Pickett weighs in on toll roads
by James A. Bernsen
The Lone Star Report
Volume 9, Issue 15
Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso) served as a member of the House Transportation committee until last session and was a former chair of the El Paso Regional Transportation Board of the city’s Metropolitan Transportation Organization. Currently, he is the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government, which among other issues, oversees the budget of the Texas Department of Transportation.
Pickett sat down with LSR this week to talk about toll roads and transportation priorities. The highlights of the interview are printed below. The full text can be viewed on the LSR website.
LSR :You’ve said that the current toll road plan pits certain cities against other cities.
Pickett: And it’s growing. Initially, it started a couple of sessions ago when we talked about toll equity and Sen. [ Florence ]Shapiro had pushed to get the foot in the door which we did, and then there was a constitutional amendment which was kind of a straw poll vote, and then the last session, we came in with some funding for that. I was on transportation at the time, and I was fine about the toll equity issue. And the selling point that I gave the other members of the committee...was, if an area wants to toll, that’s O.K...
I support toll equity, I support people wanting to do a toll, let them do that. It will put more money into the pot for non-toll projects.
That didn’t happen. After all this stuff passed, then TxDOT’s policy is: ‘Not only will we commit $40 million to you, we’ll get you even more money if you will toll.’ And that’s causing a problem now, because I think we’re going to have an unbalanced infrastructure system in Texas. And as much as TxDOT has scared communities in trying to toll, there’s been a lot of misinformation out there.
Initially, they came to my area and said, ‘You’re going to lose all this money,’ and they came up with a dollar figure, and it scared the chambers of commerce, and it scared the local leaders. ‘If you don’t toll, you’re going to lose these millions of dollars.’...
So now we’ve got eight metropolitan areas, and four of them, it’s going to be difficult to come up with tolls: the two in the Valley, Lubbock and the El Paso area, we don’t have our basic infrastructure completed. We don’t have true alternative routes to offer people...
There’s nobody in El Paso who is saying that congestion is so bad, we’ll pay extra if you build us another route to get us there. We don’t have the initial route to start with.
And going back to trying to keep this simplified, TxDOT had been telling everybody that this was just a tool, and this was a way for areas that were accepting of tolls to go ahead and expedite those, and the pot would become bigger for non-tolled projects. And right now, TxDOT almost never talks about non-tolled projects.
I don’t really believe we’re in that big of a problem as TxDOT tries to portray. They go around the state saying we can only fund a third of all the projects that people want. Well, in Appropriations in the Legislature, we get $300 billion in requests for what people want, and we fund less than that...
I’m not against tolls. I’m on the record of supporting the legislation. I even voted for 3588 this last session, but I think that instead of trying to pit area against area, it should be kind of an operation of TxDOT and [should] take care of the maintenance situation that they claim is costing the big bucks.
This is where I believe that TxDOT needed to look at the bigger picture and come up with a way of funding the maintenance from here on out, because the maintenance is something that we know exactly what it is going to be [in the future]...I think they did it backwards...
So people in these areas where there are tolls were given a false security in that, [they were told] ‘You’re tolling, but it’s your money and you get to keep it.’ And we know that tolls are not going to go away. There’s been a toll go away somewhere, sometime.
LSR :I think I-30 in Dallas is the only one I can think of.
Pickett: Right, that’s going to be the exception. So now, unfortunately, it’s going to be hard to go back and change some of that, because I think we played upon fear and greed. I think first off, people were afraid that they were going to lose money if they didn’t toll, and then the greed factor came in, in that if you do toll, at least you get to keep all of your money, so now you’re not going to want to share it with anybody, and TxDOT should have created a perpetual maintenance fund...and controlled the tolls throughout the State of Texas. That way, they would have also picked the most toll viable projects in the entire state.
They’ve been pushing us in El Paso to do a project, and the best candidate for a toll in El Paso is only 35 percent toll viable...So here they want us to double-tax the people where I live, who don’t even have the basic infrastructure completed, just to say that there is a toll when it’s not even a good toll project...
Here in Austin you’re seeing a backlash. You’re hearing people in Houston and Dallas where they’re used to tolls saying, ‘You’re doing too much. You’re tolling existing roads and you’re getting around it by saying that it’s added capacity.’...
Well, you’re still going to have a fractured system throughout Texas, and tolls are going to be around, there is a use for them, but this whole plan that they have is not a perpetual plan. They’re calling it “the gap.” We’re funding “the gap.” ‘We’ve need so many projects to fix congestion, we’ve got to catch up.’ So this whole thing is supposedly just a short-term to ‘catch up,’ but it’s just not going to work.
They’re getting people creating RMAs [Regional Mobility Authorities] because of the fear and the greed...And the RMAs, they’re going to create mini-TxDOT’s with the full force and effect of the state of Texas.
LSR :Right. With all of the powers to condemn and these other things TxDOT does.
Pickett: And I asked the commissioners several months back. I said,10 years from now there’s going to be numbers that you’re going to have to defend to the public that are not being spent on construction and maintenance, because you’re growing government, too. You’re going to have these RMAs out there that have all that come with it. All that executive administration and maintenance, and all that comes with it, creating mini-TxDOT’s . And how efficient is that?
We’re talking about school finance, we’re talking about limiting government. We had a committee created in the House just for that reason, to look at things that were duplication. And now we’re talking about having mini-TxDOT’s all over the state that are going to be competing with each other instead of working for the bigger picture...
And they also went and sold it on local control. It’s not local control. If you look at the way the RMA really is set up, it takes it away from local control because the cities, the counties, the Metropolitan Planning Organizations are the forces in a community. Once you do an RMA, you turn it over to a group of appointees who are not elected officials.
And you have basically given them your proxy now on those transportation projects that have to do with the tolls, and I think that local communities are going to find out that they can no longer go to their city councilman, their county commissioner, their state legislator and have any influence on those projects that the RMA is doing.
It’s no longer going to be something of going to a public hearing or having political pressure applied. ‘Sorry, we’re an appointed board. Our whole existence depends upon generating revenue.’
And we’re creating this, and it’s our fault. We’re creating monsters out there that may have not originally been intended, but that is still what is going to be the reality.
LSR :What you’re saying sounds like special utility districts that have sprouted over the landscape in the last few years.
Pickett: And I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t have tolls and shouldn’t expand it on making them an easier situation to create. I think everybody was fine with that. That wasn’t a problem, but when TxDOT came back and said, ‘You have to.’ And they’ll tell you right off the bat, ‘We never said that.’ What you did say was, the mobility fund is only going to be for tolls...Well, if nobody presents any toll projects, then we’ll just divide the money up by the eight metropolitan regions. Well, how likely is that that nobody is going to present a toll project?
LSR :Not likely.
Pickett: O.K., Well, if somebody does, all the money is going to go there, so all of the other seven are out. Well, then, one more of the seven is probably going to present one, because they want to be involved, and then another one.
Again, the reality...is that if you don’t toll, you don’t get to participate in the mobility fund money... TxDOT is saying ,we want to cut congestion, but only for those who are willing to create RMAs and toll their constituents. So if you’re not willing to toll, and you’re not willing to double-tax your constituents, then we do not have a plan for fixing congestion in your area. How hypocritical is that?
LSR :What you’re describing sounds like extortion. They give you an offer you can’t refuse.
Pickett: Right. And so far in our community - and it’s scary, and a lot of political leaders there held together - we were pressured by a lot of people who are in the construction business, thinking we’re anti-growth and construction.
Are you kidding? I want to build more roads in El Paso. I want the local construction suppliers of aggregate and concrete to be doing great, but a lot of those people saw it just as a windfall. ‘Well, you’ve got to be for this.’ Why? ‘Because it’s good for business.’
O.K., I understand it’s good for business. But what about the driving public, the bigger picture? But if we looked at the entire state, instead of pitting region against region, we could have picked the best toll projects to do in the state and still taken care of our maintenance.
LSR :Is TxDOT holding back money, or do they simply have this infrastructure that allows them to divvy it up in a way that’s efficient?
Pickett: TxDOT so far hasn’t held back money, but I will tell you, in my experience on appropriations – and TxDOT’s really going to dislike this...they don’t know how much money they’ve got. The best guess estimates on our side – House Appropriations – is they’re at least $400 million over the revenue estimates, because TxDOT is one of those agencies that their appropriation is an estimate.
So their actual money is more than what you and the public sees in writing as a public document. It’s more. And they’ll tell you there’s a possibility it could be less. Yes, but that’s not the reality. And that hasn’t been the reality for several years, and I want more accountability...
It’s actually more than $400 million – there are some projects that didn’t get done. Again, me looking at it, they’re sitting on about $800 million right now...
LSR :Do you think that there’s a possibility that they’re over-building? If you drive up MOPAC north and see the new part they’re building, they’ve got a Great Wall of China there. Are they over-engineering these things? Are we getting something for that? Are those going to last longer?
Pickett: To defend TxDOT, I’ve never seen us over-build things to date. There have probably been things where even they admitted several months ago that priorities got skewed , and they should have done other things first and all of that. But I have never really heard anyone complain after the fact that we built too wide of a bridge or too many lanes.
But I would rather we prioritize...
Again, I’m trying to give credit to TxDOT, because over the last 10 years , TxDOT is doing a much better job. My experience goes back to before being a legislator to being a city council member in El Paso, being involved in our MPO, and over the last 10 years, it was like, ‘Wow. TxDOT’s on the move, they’re doing the right thing, they’re looking at the big picture,’ and then, bam.
Things change, because the policy has changed, and the policy is, toll or get out of the way, and if you don’t toll, you’re not getting any money, and you’re not treated the same as other folks. And it’s just policy, and I think TxDOT needs to re-look at the policy. I’m not an advocate of changing more things legislatively to tie their hands. I would rather it stay the system that we have, because it works faster that way...
LSR :If we do move back to a system where TxDOT looks at projects statewide, and looks at toll roads state wide, do you not get the ‘Not in My Back Yard’ effect?
Pickett: No. I think you sell it differently. Most of the driving public, most of the leadership around the state focuses on construction, not maintenance. Maintenance is not glorified. We don’t realize how much it costs. You build a $20 million overpass, but the life of that cost is a lot more than $20 million and I realize that.
What if I went home and said that we’re going to double the construction of transportation projects in our area. We’re going to double it.
But we as a community have to buy in. We have to participate in the bigger picture and come up with a way to help the State of Texas offset the costs of maintaining all these roads that we are maintaining, meaning, we’re going to have to have some kind of toll projects in our community. I could sell it. I could sell it because we wouldn’t be looking at 35 percent toll viable projects to force it on a public who doesn’t have an alternative route, because I gave them something. Right now, we’re not giving anything to anybody in my community. We’re saying we’re going to toll you. Why?
LSR :So would the cities and the communities come up with their preferences on toll roads and take them to TxDOT?
Pickett: Yes. I think the system would include, of course the cooperation, and you’d have to find out what is viable...And we’re still not addressing the current maintenance system...TxDOT doesn’t have a plan, and I’m saying you should have a plan.
LSR :What do you think is the driving force behind TxDOT’s going to this approach? Is it easier for them? Is it the governor’s Trans Texas Corridor Plan?
Pickett: I don’t know. I could take a guess, being an outsider. I think there’s a lot of money to be made in Regional Mobility Authorities for private firms, construction companies. I think it’s a windfall, and I worry about that. I don’t know of, and am not complaining about any backdoor deals or anything like that, but I think if I was in the construction business, I could see where my business could triple, or quadruple over the next few years if I can get in on the ground floor of some of these...
LSR :If we have projects that are not viable for tolls, are we going to have to come back in 10 years and come up with a new plan, with new funds for those?
Pickett: I would say less than that, and I’m sure TxDOT’s argument is that the money we’ve been receiving will now be used for those non-tolled projects and for maintenance. But there’s not a plan that I’ve seen that shows how that’s been laid out...
I’m not against the “tools in the toolbox” that they talk about. I’m not against TxDOT gifting dollars to a toll project. In the past, you could lend money, but you could not gift it.
I’m fine about that. But the whole idea was to expand the pot of dollars to use statewide...But again, they’re not creating synergy, they’re creating fear, distrust and [they’re saying] ‘I want your money if you’re not going to use it.’ O
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