Skip to comments.Eyes on TxDOT: Activist Terri Hall has TxDOT’s dream of toll roads in her sights.
Posted on 01/09/2008 7:05:45 PM PST by Tolerance Sucks Rocks
Its looking like a tough year for toll roads in Texas, and no one could be happier about that than Terri Hall, the San Antonio woman whose group is leading the grassroots fight against the controversial pay-to-drive roads that Gov. Rick Perry and others want to see crisscrossing the state.
In September, Hall and her group, Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), filed suit in the state district court in Austin against the Texas Department of Transportation, alleging that TxDOT has broken the law by using public funds to lobby legislators for laws favoring toll roads. TURF and Hall also allege that the departments Keep Texas Moving campaign illegally uses taxpayer money for political advocacy. The judge has refused the states request to toss the suit out, and TURF has now gone beyond the civil case and made a formal request that Austin prosecutors consider criminal charges against agency officials.
It didnt help the states case when Hall was named San Antonioan of the year by Clear Channel radio station WOAI and political person of the year by the well-respected political blog, The Walker Report. The honor is great, but it really belongs to the people of Texas who are standing up to toll roads, Hall told Fort Worth Weekly.
The most serious blow to toll roads, however, may have been the late-December death of Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson, Gov. Perrys point man on the huge Trans-Texas Corridor project and the most vocal toll road promoter in the state.
The suit brought by Hall and TURF against two top officials of TxDOT seeks to prevent the agency from spending any more taxpayer money on either lobbying legislators or political advocacy. Both of those are illegal under the Texas Government Code, Hall said, and yet both are being done. So weve asked for information related to those illegal acts.
She pointed to a visit last fall by Williamson to Washington, D.C., when the agency announced he was lobbying federal legislators to ease toll road regulations.
The Texas attorney generals office, representing TxDOT, has challenged Halls right to sue the government, while simultaneously claiming that no illegal acts have been committed.
Basically, the state claimed that TxDOT didnt do anything illegal and therefore our suit should be tossed, said Hall. We claim that the department did act illegally, but [we] cant show that until we get documentation on telephone calls, Williamsons travel expenses, and whom he met with in D.C., the companies hired to promote toll roads, and so forth.
In a surprising legal twist, Judge Orlinda Naranjo ruled in December that Hall and TURF did have the right to pursue their suit, but asked that they limit the amount of documentation they were requesting. TURF attorney Charles Riley said a narrower request has been filed.
Our suit basically has two prongs, Riley said. The first is that the Keep Texas Moving campaign is an illegal attempt by the government to engage in political advocacy. TxDOT is claiming that campaign is over, so theres no reason to give us information on it. But weve got documentation to show there are plans for future campaigns, and thats what we want to follow.
The second prong deals with the lobbying issue, which Riley, like Hall, said is illegal. Its very clear that the department of transportation was lobbying the state legislature in the last session to kill the toll road moratorium. And they also lobbied [Congress] seeking to toll existing roads. Records on those activities, he said, are public information.
Assistant Atty. Gen. Kristina Silcocks has argued that the Texas Transportation Code allows the agency to engage in marketing, advertising, and other activities to promote the development and use of toll projects.
Hall has also filed a complaint with Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, whose office investigates crimes related to the operation of state government. If we really want to know what took place in the back room when the deals for parceling out the Trans-Texas Corridor to foreign companies were cut, its going to take a criminal investigation, Hall said.
Travis County prosecutor Beverly Matthews said the complaint is being considered. Were weighing the merits to see if a criminal investigation is in order.
But while Halls lawsuit and a possible criminal investigation could become a major thorn in TxDOTs side, the loss of Williamson has to be a stunning blow to the department. The fiery commissioner frequently spoke of toll roads as the only way out of Texas current shortfall in road-building funds. He was often described as the person Perry most trusted to take the public hits for his vision of the Trans-Texas Corridor, a vast proposal of superhighways to be built and operated by private firms.
Very few people can do what Williamson did, said Hall. There may not be anyone else as willing to front for Perry as he was.
But while Perry is no doubt looking for a successor to Williamson, Hall would prefer that the department do a lot more than find a new chairman. I think its time to make TxDOT more responsible to the people of Texas, and under Williamsons leadership that didnt happen and wasnt going to happen, she said. With the whole department up for sunset review in 2009, Hall would like to see it run under the leadership of an elected official, rather than a political appointee. An elected official would have the public to answer to, she said. And with the sunset provision coming up, this is the perfect time for TxDOT to start over and have the whole department remodeled.
Fighting Perry on toll roads is still an uphill battle, but Hall said shes optimistic, given the growth of the grassroots opposition movement. If we dont believe that it [revamping the whole transportation agency] could happen, it wont. If enough people want it to, and if politicians understand that there will be consequences for what they do, it could, she said. And thats where you start.
Hall: Recognition given to her really belongs to the people of Texas
who are standing up to toll roads.
Trans-Texas Corridor PING!
When I was in college I worked part time in the university accounting department. This same constitutional clause prevented us from paying honoraria. The rule was that if a speaker is willing to speak for free then you can't pay him. It he isn't willing to speak for free then it's a fee, not an honorarium. An honorarium is, by definition, a gift. The professors used to get sputtering mad about the policy and it still makes me laugh.
I wish her lots of luck. I have had more han my share of experience with toll roads, but the simpletons who think they are a great idea won’t budge.
Here’s the deal: the biggest difference between sitting in a traffic jam on a toll road and sitting in a traffic jam on a freeway, is that the driver on the toll road gets to pay twice as much to sit in their traffic jam - once for the toll, once for the gas taxes they pay when they fill up!
Enjoy the screw job courtesy of Gov. Goodhair, et al!
If you are sitting in a traffic jam on a toll road, the tolls are to low.
Rep. Mike Krusee, IMO, will be the next Ric Williamson.
Here is an indepth series about the *behind the scenes* goings on. (read them all)
Nice try, but no sale. I sat in traffic jams on toll roads in Chicago, in Orlando and in Dallas. Toll roads are NOT the solution that the pro-toll crowd thinks they are. And, the tolls run anywhere from $0.25 per segment to $2.50 or better. When you pay that twice a day PLUS gas taxes, it adds up to a tax on ignorant suckers. BTDT!
I prefer you, who is using the toll road, to be be ignorant sucker paying for the toll road.
OTOH, you want me, who is not using the road, to be the ignorant sucker who is paying for your free road.
Neither is correct. I prefer TxDOT AND the US Congress to stop futzing around with the gas taxes and stop funneling them to pet pork projects and restore the full gas tax to be used for maintaining existing roads and building new ones as intended. Toll roads are not a solution and not a panacea to any but government educated morons who haven't figured out that the governent has found another way to rip us (the taxpayers) off!
TxDot doesn't have the authority to tax or appropriate money.
"...government has found another way to rip us(the taxpayers) off"
User fees are not taxes. You are the one who is advocating more taxes. You want to socialize the cost of roads. You want me to pay more taxes so you can ride for free.
Again, I never said that they were. What that comment refers to is the fact that we all pay huge amounts of tax money in the form of gas taxes every time we fill our gas tanks (up to $0.50/gal.). By definition, those gas taxes are supposed to be used to build new roads and maintain the existing ones. Texas also collects a tax on gas to be used to build and maintain Texas roads and highways. Instead, Congress (as well as the Texas legislature) has been diverting some of those gas taxes for pet pork projects such that TxDOT really DOESN'T have all the money it needs for the road projects that are out there.
So, to make the argument more circular, if YOU like the idea of toll roads and YOU want to pay to use them, go for it. Just remember, however, that while you are paying your user fees (tax on ignorance) to travel on the toll road and, over time, sitting in the congestion that ultimately develops, you are ALSO paying for the free roads because you buy gas and pay state and federal taxes on that gas you pump into your tank. That federal tax money is supposed to be re-distributed back to the states to use to (primarily) maintain the interstate highway system. All of the gas tax money the state receives (from the federal re-distribution AND the state gas tax) is supposed to be used by TxDOT for maintaining the interstate highway system and state and local roads.
If you are still unable to grasp this concept, Ben, I don't know of any other way to explain it to you. Toll roads are a means of getting toll road users to pay twice to drive on state (or metropolitan) roadways.
OTOH, I can't avoid taxes used to pay for that particular road. I have no choice.
You are like a lot of people, you don't understand the conflict between the legislature and TxDot or between the legislature and the Regional Transportation Authorities.
When TxDot, or the Regional Authority, makes a deal with the private investors to build a toll road, they are bypassing the legislators. Previously, the legislature had granted these agencies the authority to do this.
But somewhere along the way, the legislators figured out that allowing these direct deals between the agencies and the investors would prevent the money from passing thru the legislators hands. Since the legislators use the road money not only to build roads, but also for political purposes, these direct deals would encroach on the legislators political power. That is why they are trying to change it.
This is in Texas. What about other states?
In Indiana, where the turnpike was sold to private investors, the legislature retained authority over interest earned from the principle derived from the sale of the turnpike. And those legislators in Indiana are using that earned interest not just for roads, but also for political purposes.
Let's look at Virginia, where the legislature created the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. This agency, like agencies in Texas, was given authority to make deals directly with private investors to build roads within agency's jurisdiction. Plus, this regional authority was granted authority to levy taxes to be used to build roads.
I understand your, and others, positions on this issue.
You say that TxDOT and the Regional Transportation Authorities shouldn't be allowed to make direct deals with the private investors because the agency might do something that is not in the state's best interest.
The reality is that the legislature has pilfered and misdirected the road tax money to benefit members of the legislature. The best solution is to take this money away from the legislature.
I don't really think that you do. You continue to argue (in essence) that the rest of the world is stupid.
As new head of TxDot said, the voters approved Prop 12 for $5 billion for road funding, but we will have to wait until the next session of the legislature to see how the legislature wants to spend the money. How much will go for actually building roads that are needed and how much will go to a legislator’s campaign donor.
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