Yes, you can use toll road funds for non-road projects

Who knew?

Surplus revenues from Harris County’s toll road system for years have paid for improvements to nearby roads and infused funds into street rebuilds around the county.

Now, the Harris County Toll Road Authority is about to go off-road. Under a plan unveiled Tuesday, the tolling agency will spend $53 million connecting existing cycling, running and hiking trails and building new ones. The projects, sketched out in a sweeping plan presented to Commissioners Court, aim to reconnect neighborhoods on opposing sides of the county’s tollways and leverage county money with that of management districts and other local agencies aiming to add trails.

“The toll road for a long time has been focused on finishing its system,” Executive Director Roberto Trevino said. “That’s changing to how do we manage it, and provide better mobility and connectivity even if you are not on the toll roads.”

The court approved the plan on a 3-2 vote, with Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle voting against it.

If fully built, the plan envisioned by HCTRA officials is a network of 236 miles of trails, usable by cyclists, runners and others, mostly adjacent to the sprawling county toll road system, primarily the 82-mile Sam Houston Tollway that rings the metro area. Made up of longer “network spine” projects of 5 miles or more, smaller community connectors that link local neighborhoods and targeted projects to build onto existing trails proposed by others, the total cost of all the links could reach $600 million or more and take years to build.

The effect, Trevino said, would be a much more inclusive transportation system.

“We are putting a focus on the areas around the toll road and putting back quality of life,” he said, noting the safety challenges some areas face because of the region’s large roads and the “divisive” discussions about how to integrate bicycle and pedestrian safety without compromising automotive travel.

Actually, we appropriated toll road funds for flood mitigation projects just last year, so we did actually know this. That won’t stop some heads from exploding at the thought of spending this money on (gasp!) BIKE TRAILS, but who cares? It’s legitimate transportation infrastructure, it will help mitigate road traffic a little by giving people safe options for not driving when they just have a short distance to go, and it will absolutely be a boon to quality of life. People use the heck out of the White Oak and Heights bike trails in my neighborhood. A lot of it is leisure travel rather than commuter or task-focused travel, but that’s fine. Quality of life is a big deal, and it’s a big return on the investment. It’s about time we used some of this money for this purpose. Stace has more.

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3 Responses to Yes, you can use toll road funds for non-road projects

  1. Bill Daniels says:

    I would be on board with spending surplus funds for this kind of thing, if they hadn’t raised the tolls multiple times. I’m old enough to remember when that first toll segment was built, 1-10 to 59, when they had The Bangles play the party on the toll road. The road was so successful, they ran surpluses right away, and their response was to raise the cost, because too many commuters were using it.

    And I still am sore about that promise that when the bonds were paid off, the toll booths would be removed. Instead, what developed was a toll road fiefdom. I mean, it’s nice our toll road overlords are tossing a pittance at the masses for bike trails, but it would have been better if they just stuck to their core mission, build toll roads with bonds, pay the bonds off with tolls, then remove the toll booths. HCTRA went…..another way.

    Having said all this, the toll road authority spending money on bike paths….not the thing I’m going to get outraged about. Agree somewhat with Kuff’s assessment here.

  2. If the toll roads are generating “surplus” revenue, why don’t county officials simply lower the tolls and give drivers a break? Geez. With the price of gas and everything else rising (inflation is sky-high), I bet residents would appreciate the price of something actually going DOWN. If county officials have to generate and spend surplus toll revenue, then I can think of many higher priority, transportation-related projects (such as re-surfacing old roads, fixing potholes, adding lanes in strategic areas to relieve congestion, updating/adding to our public transportation bus fleet). Frankly, most people don’t even own a bicycle and those that do rarely bicycle to/from work (they drive or ride the bus). Building more bicycle paths does almost nothing to help relieve our traffic problems. Anyway, I wish our elected officials would default to REFUNDING “surplus” revenue to Harris County residents, instead of constantly looking for ways to spend, spend, spend…

  3. Jonathan Freeman says:

    Count me in with Greg on this one. I’m old enough to remember the promises made about the toll roads, even old enough to remember how that Bangles concert left me wondering if the road was constructed properly as the weight of the crowd caused it to move.

    The later justification for the profitable roads was that they required upkeep and additional constables to enforce the tolls but commissioner’s court kept expanding the definition of related projects so here we are funding bike trails of all things. Law enforcement has made it clear that they lack the manpower to keep these trails safe so will that mean additional increases to fund that as well?

    As many predicted back when these were being built, the tolls will never end because politicians won’t give up any revenue stream they aren’t forced to give up, always finding a way to spend more. The fairness issue brought up that users should pay for upkeep rather than general budget money is reasonable though. Perhaps building up a reserve to a specific point and then start closing alternating sets of tolls each year, automating them more to save in the long term might be preferable to this ever expanding quagmire we’ve found ourselves in?

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