Toll Road War

Ordinary Texans Reach Out to Obama Transition Team on Stimulus Funds for Infrastructure

Click here to read the entire letter

Twenty four organizations Texas organizations, representing hundreds of thousands of Texans, concerned with transportation, environment, private property rights,  agriculture and government accountability and transparency released a comprehensive report and letter to the Transition Team for President-Elect Obama today.

The letter urges and requests:

1.  A careful review of funds requested for Texas infrastructure in order to ensure that these projects are consistent with President-Elect Obama’s stated intentions to provide, create and sustain jobs, repair and rebuild America’s infrastructure, and protect the environment.

2.   A federal review and Congressional hearings on controversial Texas projects, including the Trans-Texas Corridor.  The hearings should include an investigation into the interference by the current Federal Highway Administration in the 80th Texas state legislative session (2007).

In addition, the letter urges that federal investments in transportation infrastructure nationwide be focused on two objectives:

1.  Bringing the current system, including highways, bridges, rail, bus, bicycle and pedestrian routes, up to a state of good repair and operation; and

2.  Accelerating the construction and implementation of a robust public transportation infrastructure (light rail, bus rapid transit (BRT), bus, and pedestrian/biking systems in metropolitan areas and intercity rail) in more areas of the country.

If your organization would like to sign on to the letter, please send an email to  with your name, the name of your organization and a phone number.

Click here to read the entire letter

The Toll Road War

Since 2004 Texans, led by Central Texans, have been up in arms about plans sprung on us to convert freeways to tollways, otherwise known as the “public-private partnership” (P3s) toll roads.  Many believe there really is little “public” in the P3s, and that the state and federal government have really moved to privatize roads without the public’s knowledge or consent.  What’s more, the state and federal government were setting up a whole new layer of government (called the Regional Mobility Authorities in Texas).  The RMA’s lack public accountability and are set to allow private companies (through complex contracts only lawyers could barely understand) to set the terms of 30 to 100 year contracts, including the toll rates, toll fines and many other contract provisions for which the devil is in the details.

Perhaps the biggest problem with P3 toll roads is that it takes revenues that should be used to maintain, repair and expand transportation needs to investors, the world over.  This then compounds the problem of the lack of careful planning, including the funding of, our state’s most important asset — public infrastructure, our roads and bridges.

The problem described above, has led to the protracted “toll road war” which has dominated much of the work of CAMPO (the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) since 2004.

CAMPO, made up of area elected officials from Travis, Williamson and Hays Counties, four of whom are Austin City Council members, sets transportation plans for our region.  CAMPO has spent much of its time, since 2004, trying to mediate between angry citizens and TxDOT.  TxDOT, as it turns out, has been none too helpful even to CAMPO.  Instead of providing CAMPO with the necessary information it needs to create a transportation plan everyone (or most) can live with, TxDOT has become known as a rogue state agency dedicated to hiding information and manipulating public information to suit their ideological commitment to privatizing Texas infrastructure.  This includes, incredibly, ignoring their own traffic studies, thwarting federal environmental protection laws, hiding public documents, using public funds to promote tolling highways the public did not support and ramming the universally opposed Trans-Texas Corridor trade route down the throats of rural Texans where TxDOT was getting set to seize up to at least 1/2 million acres of prime farm and ranch land!

The story on the Texas toll wars is a long and winding road – pun intended.  Right now everyone is losing.  We’re losing time and money, and we could be losing a lot of money as the new Obama administration gets set to invest stimulus funds in public infrastructure.  This investment could help end the toll road war and bring us together to solve our transportation dilemma.  But the “road warriors” must understand that the transportation paradigm has changed.  We no longer can bet on cheap fossil fuels.  We can no longer ignore the cost (financial and human) of growth for growth’s sake, to our environment and to our very way of life, in pure economic terms.

Many groups that have sprung up to address this issue.  What we at ChangeAustin.org are advocating to do about this is something really quite simple.  The new Austin City Council, following the election next May, could hold a series of townhall meetings across the city and invite neighbors from suburbs and inner city neighborhoods, including our neighbors in surrounding towns and counties, to come together to see what we can agree on.  We need to do this outside the confines of the CAMPO setting, which has become way too adversarial.  It’s our strong feeling that–for much too long–people throughout the region have been divided on a narrowly framed debate.  Toll roads or no tolls road, and if no toll roads, how do we intend to fund roads.  Perhaps the debate should be more like this.  How should we — equitably and in a way that is sensitive to our shrinking economy and the stress on our environment — fund the movement of people and goods?  Let’s end the debate and start talking, then go to our officials and tell them what they really need to hear.

A Brief History

In 2004 a battle ensued between ordinary citizens and the Texas Department of Transportation to stop the implementation of House Bill 3588, a more than 300 page bill thrown on legislators’ desks just a few weeks before the end of the 2003 raucous legislative session on redistricting.  The new law changed how the state funds roads from a pay-as-you-go system to debt financing.  Also contained in HB 3588 were provisions to allow the state to convert freeways to tollways, and for private companies to “partner” with the state in the financing, ownership and management of these new toll facilities.  Then, of course, was something Texans had heard virtually nothing about — the Trans-Texas Corridor, a massive 1/4 mile wide swath of toll roads and utility infrastructure, designed as a “super highway” and trade route from the Mexican border to Canada.

The promoter of these plans, Gov. Rick Perry and his then appointed Transportation Commission, the late Ric Williamson, told the public these plans were designed to address the state’s transportation needs.  This made no sense to people in rural areas who don’t have traffic problems!

Despite the huge opposition mounted in suburban and urban areas of Texas (including Austin) to the toll conversions, and a huge rural voter revolt against the Corridor, the Governor nor Williamson, were deterred.  Neither were most local Austin politicians, who, regardless of party, went along.

The problem was — and remains — that Texans have never really been afforded the opportunity to vote on these controversial, costly, and special interest (Road Lobby) driven changes in our transportation plans.  In fact, one of the most prestigious transportation institutes in the country is at Texas A&M.  They had never been asked to weigh in on the Trans-Texas Corridor and issued findings in late ’06, that the state could raise funds more easily and equitably by simply indexing the gas tax, and perhaps raising it a few cents!

Finally, just this year, a federal hearing in Washington was held by US Senator Jeff Bingaman, the chair of the Subcommittee on Energy, Natural Resources, and Infrastructure of the US Senate Committee on Finance. One startling conclusion surfaced in this one hour hearing — the new genre of privatized toll roads are 30% more costly to the public.

Here in Austin, CAMPO made a recent decision to begin implementing, through “collaterized” financing, a toll road at 290E, the poorest area of Austin.

Austin’s own “Road Scholar”, Roger Baker, has followed transportation issues in Central Texas for over two decades.  We link to several of Roger’s more recent articles:

The Feds Must Take the Lead

Where Real Estate Drives the Political Machine

Here’s a short article on TxDOT’s misuse of funds for toll road “PR”.  Here’s a quick take on it.

What does this have to do with the City of Austin?  Four CAMPO members are also Austin City Council members:  Mayor Will Wynn, Sheryl Cole, Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken.  Wynn is retiring.  Cole, Leffingwell and McCracken are running in 2009.  Leffingwell and McCracken will likely run for Mayor and Cole will run for reelection to the Council.  They all voted for these toll plans.  Boy howdy, do we need change!

For lots more on this issue, including a plug for the many groups in Texas working on this issue and a great documentary “Truth Be Tolled”, go here.

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7 Responses to Toll Road War

  • WDW says:

    Thank goodness SOMEONE out there is willing to start a forum that will keep the Austin public informed about some of the (slimy) backroom politics going on regarding Austin TOLL roads that NOBODY gets to vote on. Sal Costello fought the TOLL establishment as long as he could, but I think they finally wore him down. Just know that your group will have LOTS of support from disenfranchised voters all over Austin (and surrounding areas)… and I think you’re right that the only way to change the current “bulldozer” tactics of the city council is to change the city council.
    Do you think Michael Levy could be convinced to run for mayor??

  • ljcurtis says:

    Hello. You know we don’t really have a sense of what Mike Levy is doing relative to the Mayor’s race, nor how one would get him to run. The last we heard anything about it was in October. If you hear anything, let us know. And, frankly, we have no idea how one gets Levy to do anything he doesn’t otherwise want to do. Linda for ChangeAustin.org

  • MKaylor says:

    Yes, it’s time for citizens to take back out government, both local, state, and federal. Any changes in roads or other infrastructure items that we citizens pay for should be voted on.
    We need accountability as well as results on what our tax money funds.

  • Benjamin Marsh says:

    These are serious issues and action is needed! Change Austin for the betterment of all not just big business.

  • Ruth Buss says:

    Increasing the gas tax a penny or two a gallon will be less harsh on the people of low paying jobs than a daily toll fee to a job or jobs. Stop helping the rich get richer and help those who are not so fortunate. Let’s help these people with the American dream.

  • Ruth Buss says:

    A gas tax of one or two cents a gallon is less harsh on the jobless or those barely making a living wage. Let the wealthy find another way to make more money than in a way that is detrimental to the less fortunate. Let’s help these people with the American dream.

  • Frances says:

    why can’t they just do an upper level like we have on IH35 why does it have to be a toll road

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