Sunday, February 17, 2008

"TxDOT feels safe in threatening our communities and thumbing its nose at the Legislature."

Guest column:

Time to push back against Perry, toll roads

February 17, 2008

Jim Dunnam
Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2008

Take the toll route?

Tolling Interstate 35 lanes through Waco is a terrible idea, and I’m committed to stopping it.

The Texas Transportation Department is claiming budget shortfalls over the next 25 years. Its claims are exaggerated.

One independent analysis says the agency is overestimating the shortfall by $30 billion. In addition, the 2007 state auditor’s report identified an $8.6 billion error in the shortfall and questioned another $37 billion because of improper documentation.

At a recent Senate committee hearing, TxDOT admitted to another billion-dollar “accounting error.”

At that Senate hearing, Sen. Steve Ogden expressed dismay at TxDOT’s financials, calling them “screwed up.”

More diplomatic, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst wrote that TxDOT “does not show the complete financial picture.”

Sen. Kirk Watson summed it up best, stating Texans “cannot trust the Texas Department of Transportation or the policies that are consigning Texas to inadequate roads and privatized tollways.”

Even a cursory look at the facts proves the senators right. The current state budget appropriates $16.9 billion to TxDOT — that’s a $1.8 billion (12 percent) increase over its previous budget. In fact, the 2007 Legislature gave TxDOT over $200 million more than TxDOT even requested.

In addition, TxDOT’s planning process doesn’t factor another $9 billion in revenue — $3 billion in State Highway Fund bonds, $5 billion in voter-approved general obligation bonds and the possibility of $1.3 billion in Mobility Fund bonds.

At the Senate hearing, Sen. Judith Zaffirini suggested the “funding crisis” and the “solution” of toll roads is simply TxDOT “scheming to promote its own political agenda.”

So what is that agenda?

Gov. Rick Perry and his appointees overseeing TxDOT make no secret they want to make Texas a toll road state.

Their ultimate goal is to create a new privatized source of money that will be free from public accountability.

Tolling Texas roads was an idea sold by Perry in 2003 as a limited tool for communities that wanted tolls. However, once voters said OK, Perry revealed his true plans — a Spanish-run Trans-Texas Corridor and a series of toll roads crisscrossing Texas.

The first phase would take 71,661 acres and 8,036 other parcels of private land to build a road that would cost Texans more than $20 to travel one-way from Dallas to Austin.

Once this real agenda came out, the Legislature promptly stopped it, overwhelmingly passing a moratorium on most toll road projects.

Threatening Waco

Perry’s reaction was to have TxDOT start threatening local cities. That’s exactly what just happened to Waco — either “agree” to toll I-35 lanes or TxDOT will cancel existing projects and delay all plans to expand I-35.

While threatening Waco with “toll lanes or no lanes,” TxDOT chose to award more than $84 million from “Strategic Priority Funds” to Grayson County for local projects — that’s most of the cost of putting eight full lanes on I-35 through Waco.

While undoubtedly important to Grayson County, these projects are not statewide “strategic priorities” like I-35.

This just shows that the tolls agenda is one of choice, not necessity.

Money from Perry’s toll lanes will go to issue bonds for other projects. The bond money will be separate from the main state budget, meaning there will be almost no legislative accountability.

And lack of legislative accountability is the exact reason TxDOT feels safe in threatening our communities and thumbing its nose at the Legislature. TxDOT’s main funding, the gas tax, is dedicated by the Texas Constitution.

That means TxDOT can ignore the Legislature and still know it will get its money.

Bonds from toll roads will be like another dedicated revenue source, making TxDOT autonomous and the situation worse.

TxDOT needs to be reined in and made accountable. TxDOT should provide the Legislature with accurate information; but how to pay for the roads should be decided by the Legislature.

The Legislature will work to address Texas transportation needs responsibly through cooperation at the federal, state and local levels. But in order to do that, TxDOT must be an honest and accountable partner.

Our forefathers gave us great free roads in Texas. Our legacy should not mean our children have to pay an extra $3 to drive from Lorena on I-35 to buy a Health Camp burger. Instead, Central Texans need to stand up and say “no” to toll lanes on I-35 — and I intend to do just that.

Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, is State Representative for District 57.

© 2008 Waco Tribune-Herald:

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