Friday, February 25, 2011

Grand Parkway toll roads: Over $6 billion in suburban sprawl.

Grand Parkway gets green light for design work

But no funding authorized, and foes not swayed


Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2011

AUSTIN — The state Transportation Commission on Thursday granted the Texas Department of Transportation authority to begin design work and negotiating contracts to build a key segment of the Grand Parkway.

The unanimous vote did not, however, authorize funds to start work on Segment E of the tollway, which would link the Katy Freeway to the Northwest Freeway, just west of Fairfield.

"The Grand Parkway project is an important project for our region and our state," said state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands. "Having a loop that passes around Houston, whether it's the third or fourth loop depending on where you start counting them, … will help reduce congestion and facilitate economic development."

Williams, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, called the parkway one of his highest priorities.

TxDOT spokesman Mark Cross said the agency estimates it will cost about $350 million to build the 15 miles of toll road linking Interstate 10 to U.S. 290. He said the agency has no construction time frame, but the Transportation Commission wants work under way as soon as possible.

When completed, the parkway would be about 180 miles in circumference - running as far north as Tomball and New Caney, as far south as League City, as far west as Katy, and as far east as Baytown. The total price tag for the project is expected to exceed $6 billion.

Suburban sprawl

Harris County should finish its review of the financial viability of the parkway toll project in the next couple of months, said Mark Tomlinson, director of the Texas Turnpike Authority, which builds and operates the state's toll roads.

Opponents of the long-sought outer-outer loop insist it will do little to reduce commuter congestion and will spur further suburban sprawl.

"Many people are going to move to the region, and we do need to spend money on transportation infrastructure, but this won't help," said Jay Blazek, a researcher with Houston Tomorrow, which favors greater urban planning and expansion of mass transit. "By doing this project, TxDOT is deciding urban planning for us."

He said the low-population densities generated by suburban sprawl promote further congestion and make it much more expensive for cities to maintain infrastructure.

Other critics say the new segment of the toll road no longer is needed with the completion of Fry Road, which roughly parallels the expected path of Segment E.

"If TxDOT is running out of money, one would hope they would take the last of their money and use it to solve transportation problems for real people," said Robin Holzer, who chairs the Citizens' Transportation Coalition, which long has opposed the Grand Parkway project.

"Look at congestion in Dallas, look at what's happening on 290, look at what's happening in San Antonio or Austin - are we really saying this is the best use TxDOT can come up with for $350 million? That's absurd," she said.

Dates back 3 decades

The history of the Grand Parkway toll road has been marked by controversy over the past three decades. In the 1980s, then-Texas Highway Commissioner and future Houston Mayor Bob Lanier came under fire for owning 1,700 acres near the proposed path of the parkway. At least two other lawmakers had to leave their posts at various transportation agencies involved in the project due to similar conflicts of interest.

Jeff Moseley, a former Denton County judge and current CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, rejected the criticism of the proposed toll project, calling it a key to Houston's economic viability.

"The reality is, this 180-mile loop was contemplated in the late '60s as a reliever to the growth for the region," Moseley said. "Some things have come forward that have added to the strategic value of the corridor, and probably the biggest is the tremendous population density that has moved to our region."

He said the toll road will play a key role in allowing shippers to get their goods quickly to and from the Port of Houston, which he said would see a significant uptick in business because the Panama Canal will begin allowing larger ships though.

"When you shift logistics for the mid-continent of America to Houston, you have to have a Grand Parkway," Moseley said.

© Houston Chronicle:

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"One of the most frustrating practices I have witnessed since serving in the Legislature is the diversion of gas tax revenue..."

On The Record

Make Transportation Funding a Priority


By State Rep. Ken Paxton
Texas Insider
Copyright 2011

AUSTIN, Texas – The Legislature’s top priority for this legislative session is to pass a balanced state budget for the next biennium. My top priority for this session is to do so without creating new taxes or passing any increases in existing taxes. In order to achieve this goal, the Legislature must prioritize its spending and focus on essential state services, such as transportation.

One of the most frustrating practices I have witnessed since serving in the Legislature is the diversion of gas tax revenue to fund non-transportation related expenditures. Therefore, I have introduced House Bill 815 to limit the permissible uses of the State Highway Fund and to dedicate additional revenues to the Fund in order that we may better address our State’s transportation needs.
I have also introduced H.J.R. 75, which proposes a constitutional amendment to limit the permissible uses of the State Highway Fund to prohibit future legislatures from diverting more revenue from this Fund for use on non-transportation related expenses.

Currently, the first 25% of our State’s gas tax revenue is constitutionally mandated to go to the available school fund. However, of the remaining 75%, approximately $1.5 billion in revenue is appropriated for purposes other than building and maintaining our State’s transportation infrastructure. My bills would reallocate this revenue to the construction and maintenance of non-tolled public roads and other transportation-related infrastructure in Texas.

Additionally, my legislation would dedicate other existing taxes, such as sales tax collected from the sale of tires and motor vehicle parts as well as tax revenue from undyed diesel fuel used for off-highway vehicles to the credit of the State Highway Fund.

The Texas Department of Transportation is in need of additional funding for highway construction to keep up with our State’s population growth. Conservative estimates by the Texas State Demographer show that Texas’ population will nearly double in the next 30 years.

This growth will obviously create congestion on our State’s roads, particularly in growing cities and suburban areas, like most of the communities in Collin County, if we do not address this problem now.

By stopping the current diversions and dedicating additional revenue from sales and use taxes to the State Highway Fund, the Legislature can provide more funds to improve our State’s infrastructure without raising taxes.

Representative Ken Paxton was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 2002 and is currently in his 4th term representing District 70. Paxton received his BA & MBA from Baylor University, and also earned a law degree from the University of Virginia. He and his wife Angela live in McKinney, TX and have 4 children.

© 2011 Texas Insider:

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

"We're on an unsustainable trajectory that's more aptly called a 'Debt Bomb.' "

Lawmakers to divert $2 BILLION in gas taxes to non-road uses

House budget to divert $2 billion in gas taxes while asking Texans to pay hefty tolls


By Terri Hall
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2011

With budget writers citing fiscal restraint and claiming to "balance the budget without raising taxes," a closer look says otherwise.

When lawmakers propose to DOUBLE the diversions this biennium (up to $2.3 billion compared with $1.2 billion last biennium) and continue to cannibalize gas taxes to fund seven different state agencies' employee benefits, programs in the Department of Insurance, among other non-road uses, the claim that we're 'out of money for roads' and therefore need to toll nearly every road in Texas is disingenuous and fiscally reckless. Over a HALF BILLION is going to fund the State Employee Retirement System (ERS) alone.

A dozen lawmakers have been very vocal about ending gas tax diversions, like former transportation committee chairmen Sen. John Carona and Rep. Joe Pickett. Several, like Rep. Ken Paxton, Rep. Linda Harper-Brown and Senators Robert Nichols and Jeff Wentworth, have either introduced bills ending diversions (either in part or whole) or bills to dedicate other existing road and vehicle taxes solely to highways, rather than being dumped into general revenue.

Tolls are taxes

By starving the gas tax, it's forced a reliance on toll roads. Tolls are a tax, and the most expensive way to fund roads. So claims by state leaders that they're not raising taxes and being fiscally responsible isn't being honest with taxpayers. This isn't truth in taxation -- it's a grand deception. With gas at over $3/gallon and many Texans being squeezed by the down economy, now more than ever politicians need to prioritize spending and cut the fat.

After habitually raiding gas taxes, the Legislature needs to make restitution for those funds, not ask cash-strapped Texans to pay more for their roads through prolific toll taxes, particularly privatized toll roads with toll rates as high as 75 cents PER MILE, which is like adding $15 to every gallon of gas you buy.

Get our ' fiscal house in order'

It's time to get our fiscal house in order. No more shell games and false claims that we're 'out of money' for roads when the taxes being sent to Austin aren't actually being used for their intended purpose. State gas taxes (known as Fund 6) have become a slush fund instead of a constitutionally dedicated fund for roads.

"This is not a one-time emergency measure but a routine occurrence," says Melissa Cubria, Advocate, Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG). "The state's gas tax is placed into a cookie jar, also known as State Highway Fund 6 and every year officials help themselves to as many cookies as it takes to plug the holes in Texas' budget."

The coming 'Debt Bomb'

Perhaps most disturbing is the Legislature's trend in relying on borrowing and debt to fund roads (primarily to subsidize double tax toll roads), rather than dedicate existing road taxes to highways. With the State now $31 BILLION in debt for roads, we're on an unsustainable trajectory that's more aptly called a DEBT BOMB.

The Grant Thornton Audit also called the borrowing 'unsustainable' and laid the blame on the Texas Legislature for increasing TxDOT's baseline budget with debt that's now eating up more and more of our money for 'free' roads with debt service. In fact, they're having to open fully paid for roads (SH 45SE) as toll roads to try and cover the debt of failing toll roads.

Necessitates more private toll roads

"The state's already dwindling gas tax fund is raided routinely without leaving sufficient reserves for basic road repairs and much-needed maintenance. The process lacks transparency and the dishonest charade has resulted in systematic shortfalls that encourage state officials to seek short-sighted methods to fund road projects. It has fueled the state's dependence on unpopular private toll road deals called Comprehensive Development Agreements (CDAs) or Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs)," notes Cubria.

The proposed state budget includes $1 million/yr in taxpayer money to review CDAs. It also shows 15,000 hours of legal time to review these contracts. How is this a fiscally conservative use of taxpayer money?

Reverse the spending spree

When state spending as a percentage of population has nearly tripled in the last 20 years and doubled under Rick Perry, would the sky fall if they rolled back spending to, say, 2005 levels to get some more money for roads? Compare the necessity of roads to Rick Perry's Texas Enterprise Fund (corporate welfare for his buddies) and Film & Music Marketing Fund and the misplaced priorities are glaring, and, quite frankly, offensive.


Find your Texas STATE representatives here or call the Capitol switchboard directly at (512) 463-4630. Tell them to end ALL gas tax diversions and make restitution for the gas tax funds they've STOLEN from highways.

© 2011 San Antonio Express-News:

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"Is the toll road costing me more than I'm going to get out of it?"

Texas 130 toll break unlikely to move many truckers

TxDOT set to vote on 25% cut today, but it's expected to have little effect on I-35 traffic.


By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2011

KYLE — Cutting truck tolls on Texas 130 by 25 percent won't make a difference to Sam Hutchins, a trucker for 30 years.

"They don't like us taking toll roads at all," Hutchins said of L&L Hauling, the company he has worked for over the past three years.

The Texas Transportation Commission is set to consider today lowering truck tolls on the eastern tollway loop around Austin, shaving what a five- or six-axle 18-wheeler pays from about $28 to $21.

TxDOT estimates that the change, even if it accomplishes the agency's goal of enticing extra truck traffic to the tollway, will have little effect on revenue. And it will likely have little effect on traffic congestion on Interstate 35.

TxDOT estimates that the lower tolls will increase truck traffic on Texas 130 and Texas 45 Southeast — which feeds into Texas 130 and would see the same toll cut — by 20 to 25 percent . That percentage increase, however, would apply to what is a very small number right now.

Officials last year said the 25 percent proposed cut probably would put about 350 additional trucks a day onto Texas 130 and, therefore, pull them off the parallel interstate.

However, that amounts to about 1.5 percent of the 24,000 trucks a day that TxDOT counted in 2007 on I-35 in the middle of Austin, and less than one-fifth of 1 percent of the total traffic on the interstate in Central Austin.

Interstate drivers probably will not perceive a difference.

Nevertheless, "it's a positive step," said John D. Esparza , president of the Texas Motor Transportation Association, a trucking industry trade group.

Esparza and truckers themselves pointed to several factors that will keep truckers on I-35 despite the cut.

The route through Central Texas on I-35 is 12 miles shorter than the eastern loop formed by Texas 45 Southeast and Texas 130. That amounts to about two gallons of diesel for most trucks, Esparza said.

With diesel selling for $3.43 a gallon Wednesday, that would be an additional fuel cost of close to $7 to take the tollways, assuming that a trucker doesn't end up caught in Austin traffic.

In other cases, the bosses don't want their truckers paying tolls.

"It's a business decision for each one of them," Esparza said. "Is the toll road costing me more than I'm going to get out of it?"

© 2011 Austin American-Statesman:

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