Flooding affects toll roads, too.

This makes sense to me.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to create a local government corporation to manage Harris County’s toll road system in a move expected to provide a windfall to county coffers and allow surplus toll collections to be spent on non-transportation purposes.

Approved by a 3-2 vote along party lines, the local government model would allow the Harris County Toll Road Authority to refinance its debt at historically low rates and divert funds to help the county respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn, and invest more in flood control, supporters said.

Under the proposal by new Budget Director David Berry, the county will receive a $300 million lump sum in toll revenue and then $90 million annually from the system. The toll road authority collected $901 million in the fiscal year that ended in February.

Peter Key, interim executive director of HCTRA, urged the court in a memo to adopt the new governance model.

“This is an unprecedented situation that presents unique financial challenges for the county and may require additional levels of financial support for the county to effectively respond to these challenges for the foreseeable future,” Key wrote.

The toll road authority’s current bond indenture and state law limit the use of surplus revenues to non-toll roads, streets, highways and related facilities, according to a Q&A created by the county budget office. After refinancing under the new governance structure, HCTRA revenues can be used by other county departments.

The proposal would not affect toll rates, the budget office said, nor would it privatize the system or sell off any assets.


While Fort Bend, Brazoria and Montgomery Counties use local government corporations to finance and operate their toll roads, Harris County’s will serve as a financing vehicle only. The toll road authority estimates Harris County will save $60 million by refinancing the system’s roughly $2.7 billion debt at lower rates through the corporation.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she supported the idea because the county can “maximize every dollar” in a challenging fiscal environment.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said diverting some toll revenues would be an effective way to boost flood control spending. It also could be used as matching funds to state or federal appropriations on ambitious capital projects like deepening the Houston Ship Channel.

I’m fine with this. If the toll roads are generating more revenue than is needed to operate and maintain the roads, then sure, let’s use some of that money for other necessary purposes. Flood control would be high on my list, but other capital projects make sense, too. Commissioners Court will still be accountable for all this, as they currently comprise the board of this LGC, and they will be responsible for appointing subsequent board members. Let’s put this revenue to some good use.

(You may say, if the toll roads were bringing in such excess revenue, we should have cut toll rates. I say that’s a policy choice, and my preferred policy would be to do something like this instead. Lowering tolls is pretty far down on my priority list. Your mileage may vary.)

In the “Would you like some cheese with that whine?” department:

Both Republican commissioners voted against the proposal. Jack Cagle in Precinct 4 lamented the fact that there had been no public meetings on the topic before Tuesday’s vote, unlike the extensive campaign in the summer of 2018 seeking support for the $2.5 billion flood bond program.

Precinct 3’s Steve Radack derided the idea as a ploy by the court’s Democrats who, in his view, are looking to siphon money from the toll road authority instead of asking taxpayers for more.

“This is a money grab,” Radack said. “They’re going to use it to pay for things that are normally paid for via (property) taxes.”

Hey, remember when Commissioners Radack and Cagle broke quorum to prevent the democratically-elected majority on Commissioners Court from voting on a property tax rate hike that was intended to cover future downturns in revenue resulting from COVID-19 and the state’s rigid new revenue cap? Good times, good times. Maybe let the majority vote on its policies next time, and campaign against them on the places where you have disagreements? Just a suggestion.

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10 Responses to Flooding affects toll roads, too.

  1. Ross says:

    There was a Paul “The Toad” Bettencourt ad in my mobile Facebook feed excoriating the Commissioners for this, saying they wanted to sell the toll roads to some nebulous set of conspirators who would then screw taxpayers. Typical bull shit from Bettencourt and the comments were typical of his low information, mouth breathing moron supporters who think everything the government does has no cost, and should be free to them.

    If this allows the County to do more with the toll road money, that’s fine by me. There are options to the toll roads that don’t cost users anything, so they don’t have to support this with their dollars.

  2. Bill Daniels says:

    Am I the only one here old enough to remember the big promise of the HCTRA, that there would be 30 year bonds issued for each segment, and then when the bonds were paid for, the toll booths would be removed and they would become freeways?

    That is the original sin of the toll roads….the voters were lied to, and now HCTRA is it’s own large fiefdom. And let’s look back at history. When the toll road started, the segment between 59 South and Katy Freeway, the tolls were set at a dollar. There was so much traffic, greater than expected, that HCTRA was running a surplus, so what did they do? Raised the toll.

    So while no one can really argue with flood control improvements, getting HCTRA to kick in a little bit for that in exchange for being left to break their promise to the drivers of Harris County is a bad deal, IMHO.

  3. Andrew Lynch says:

    Voters should get time to comment before 300 million is moved to a county slush fund. They rushed this through to avoid voter push back.

  4. Ross says:

    Bilk, there is no actual evidence of a binding commitment to make the toll toads free. Tolls are still used for toll road maintenance and new toll roads, and for County mobility work.

    No one is forced to use toll roads, so if you don’t want to pay for other projects, don’t use toll roads.

  5. Bill Daniels says:


    I will concede that tolls (user fees) are one of the fairest forms of taxation, because anyone who doesn’t want to participate merely has to not drive on the toll roads. We agree on that.

    Having said that, did I take crazy pills 30 some years ago? While there maybe was no written, iron clad contractual guarantee to remove the toll booths when the various stretches of road were paid for, I distinctly remember the voters being told that during the campaign. Am I wrong about that? I mean, anyone who was here back then surely can confirm or deny.

  6. C.L. says:

    I remember when the Lottery was ‘sold’ to the State of Texans, money from ticket sales was going to help fund the education of the students.

    This plan sounds like that plan….


  7. Ross says:

    I was here 30 years ago. I don’t recall any promises of free toll roads after the initial cost was paid. Lots of folks talked about it, but there wasn’t anything from the election with a promise. That’s actually worked out well, since lots of other toll roads were built without as many new bonds, and they are well maintained.

  8. David Fagan says:

    “No one is forced to use toll roads”, that is until every road coming in and out if the city is a toll road. 290 leading into Austin was converted to a toll road, and if you are going into Austin from that direction you have to use it. I do not agree with that. Is that the future of roads? Austin is the trend setting capital of the state.

    If the funds from the toll road were used exclusively on outlying roads, then Harris county should have absolutely tremendous roads. Roads that could even mitigate flooding in their design.

  9. C.L. says:

    I’d be happy to throw in an extra quarter every time i use a local toll road if the powers that be commit to using toll road $s to building new roads with pervious concrete from here on out.

  10. Ross says:

    @David, there are other ways to get to Austin than 290. And 290 has non-toll lanes next to the toll lanes. I’ve never used 290 to get to Austin, I use i-10 then 71.

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