"This is horrific public policy and it needs to be fixed. "
Terri Hall, Founder of TURF
Hill Country Times
Senator Robert Nichols' claims his bill, SB 220, prevents tolls on existing roads, when in reality it actually opens a NEW loophole that would allow existing highway lanes to be tolled and the free lanes to be downgraded to access roads.
This bill would legalize freeway to tollway conversions of several highways already in the pipeline: US 281 and Loop 1604 in Bexar County, portions of Hwy 290, Hwy 59 (to be expanded as the Trans Texas Corridor TTC-69), and elsewhere if the bill becomes law.
The wording of this bill leaves a number of loopholes for TxDOT to leap through.
It allows the Texas Transportation Commission to convert any freeway as long as they do it before it awards a contract.
The new language added by Nichols permits a freeway to tollway conversion if a highway lane has a "control device" (ie - stoplight) prior to the conversion.
The existing highway lanes can be tolled and the free lanes subsequently downgraded to access roads with permanent stoplights and slower speed limits.
For instance, SB 220 would enable TxDOT to convert existing highway lanes on Hwy 59 (that has stoplights when it traverses through small towns) into a toll road. Then those toll lanes would come under the control of a Spain-based company, ACS, which has the development rights to the TTC-69 corridor, leaving access roads as the only non-toll lanes.
Hank Gilbert, on the Board of TURF, directly questioned TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz about this at the 2008 TxDOT press conference promising to use existing highways for the footprint on TTC-69, and Saenz failed to give a definitive answer.
Many new highways are built as "divided" highways that eventually need stoplights at the crossovers. The stoplights make it no less a highway than before it had stoplights, but it certainly slows the thru traffic. Then, TxDOT usually upgrades to a controlled access highway by building flyovers over the stoplights and adding access roads where needed. So TxDOT has been exploiting this all over the state by turning freeways with stoplights (which are naturally congested by having to stop) into tollways, instead of just building flyovers and keeping those lanes toll-free.
If you watched the Sunset Commission hearings last July, you saw legislators awaken to the fact that TxDOT was NOT following the legislative intent of its previous attempt to outlaw converting existing freeways into toll roads.
The original bill, which Nichols' help write when he was a Transportation Commissioner,had loopholes that unleashed a slew of toll projects that would convert existing freeways into tollways.
This is wrong and unacceptable.
By leaving SB 220 as is, it's legalizing theft, period. If TxDOT can slap a stoplight on a highway as a license to double tax motorists to get to work, then that's exactly what they'll do to get easy access to our wallets. This is horrific public policy and it needs to be fixed.
SB 220 now goes to the Texas House where three bills have been filed to prevent tolls on existing freeways.
Contact your State Representative to ensure the right bill becomes law in order to finally rid Texans of the threat of tolls on existing roads.
Terri Hall is the Founder of Texas TURF. TURF is a non-partisan grassroots group of citizens concerned about toll road policy and the Trans Texas Corridor. TURF promotes non-toll transportation solutions. For more information, please visit their web site at: www.TexasTURF.org.
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