Texas highway fund is used as a backstop for the North Texas Tollroad Authority's toxic debt
By Terri Hall
San Antonio Express-News
Last week, both the Texas Transportation Commission (TTC) and the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) approved a deal to use ALL Texas taxpayers (our state gas taxes) as collateral for toll roads in North Texas. Highway 161, a road to primarily benefit the Dallas Cowboys (Hwy 161 is the main pathway to its new stadium), got the green light first, and we're on the hook for virtually unlimited interest on the debt for 36 years if the toll road traffic doesn't show up.
The NTTA wouldn't need the State to guarantee its debt if it didn't already know that the projected traffic to pay for it is on shaky ground. Investors won't bite unless a return on their investment is a sure thing. They made it a sure thing by using the State's highway fund as a backstop for the NTTA's toxic debt (read more history here).
For years Rick Perry's excuse for levying toll taxes on urban Texans has been, "Why should West Texas pay for the congestion in Houston or Dallas?" Yet here we are, ALL paying for congestion in North Texas! The move is also unconstitutional (exploiting what TxDOT thinks can be construed as a "loophole"). The highway fund cannot be used to guarantee loans. To skirt the law, TxDOT added a provision it thinks it can use to make the unconstitutional deal legal by charging the NTTA interest on any money lent to it from the highway fund.
Exploitation or illegal?
Sound familiar? TxDOT exploited a "loophole" that was supposed to prohibit tolling existing roads for US 281, US 290, among others (watch it here). TxDOT also exploited the prohibition against selling our highways to foreign corporations through private toll contracts called CDAs by using another financing mechanism meant for local governments (called pass through financing) to accomplish the same thing.
In another example, TxDOT exploited a law that allows it to advertise toll roads in order to wage a PR campaign to persuade/lobby the public to accept more toll roads versus following the legislative intent of the law, which was to advertise the use of toll roads already open to traffic (like "get your Toll Tag here"). Perry vetoed a law passed by the legislature last year that would have prevented such chicanery from continuing.
Lastly, TxDOT attempted "creative accounting" tricks with Proposition 12 bonds in order to multi-leverage debt (use borrowed money as a down payment to get more borrowed money and so on) after the Texas legislature soundly defeated such legislation in the special session in July of 2009. Lawmakers clearly did NOT want TxDOT to become a bank or engage in the same risky financial schemes that caused the mortgage meltdown and global financial crisis that required a massive taxpayer bailout.
So how many times will this rogue agency get away with flouting the law? Would you and I get a free pass for such violations (especially considering TxDOT is doing it with other people's money forcibly confiscated through taxation)? Of course not! Add to that its rigged, fraudulent environmental studies to gain clearance for controversial toll projects and its $1 billion dollar "accounting error," and it adds up to intolerable acts that cry out for accountability.
Scheme to buyback FREEway to toll it
Hwy 161 is already three-quarters built with taxpayer money and could open as a free road, yet in this NTTA bailout, the agency will borrow over $1 billion in part to buy back the free portion of the road so it can turn around and toll it. This scam shoots a hole through another Perry talking point that claims we're out of money to build these roads with traditional funds, "so we MUST toll it." In fact in 2007, a TxDOT report to Congress lobbied to buy back existing interstates so it can slap tolls on freeways already built and paid for, and it caused a statewide backlash, a federal amendment by Kay Bailey Hutchison to ban the practice, and a TURF lawsuit to stop such lobbying against the taxpayer.
See the pattern here? TxDOT continues its deplorable behavior unchecked while taxpayer money is exploited, wasted, and recycled (how many times do we have to pay for the same road?). At the end of the day, lawmakers huff and puff, but they never blow the house down (and clean house)!
It's abundantly clear no one is looking out for us, so we must do it ourselves. We cannot give up the fight for accountability nor can we afford for this Governor and legislature to look the other way and continue to condone such disastrous fiscal policy certain to bring economic ruin for generations.Call your state lawmakers at (512) 463-4630 or to contact his/her district office go here.
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