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Toll road lawsuit

An anti-toll road organization has filed a lawsuit alleging that two toll road related authorities are illegal.

A lawsuit filed in Travis County contends the Metropolitan Planning Organizations in San Antonio and Austin — which dispense tens of millions in federal gas taxes annually — are illegal.

Lately, some of the money in both cities has been allocated for toll roads. That’s a burning issue for People for Efficient Transportation, which had the Texas Legal Foundation file the lawsuit Wednesday in district court.

“It’s a double tax,” PET spokesman Sal Costello said in a statement. “It’s morally and ethically wrong.”

The lawsuit, which targets Gov. Rick Perry, the Texas Department of Transportation and the two planning organizations, doesn’t actually say tax money can’t be spent on toll roads.

Instead, the suit claims the planning organizations have no legal footing in Texas to spend at all.

Perry’s spokeswoman, Kathy Walt, said the suit is a bunch of huffing and puffing.

“This is a frivolous lawsuit that amounts to nothing more than a public stunt,” she said.

The suit hammers out several arguments:

There’s no state law to create the planning organizations, and the governor has no authority to do so as called for in federal law.

State law doesn’t authorize the planning organizations to allocate federal gas tax money.

State legislators serving on the planning boards, two in San Antonio and seven in Austin, violates the Texas Constitution’s separation of powers.

The San Antonio planning organization noted, however, that federal law says boards should include local elected officials, officials with transportation agencies and “appropriate state officials.”

Rather than seek an injunction, PET wants to use a court ruling to help push for legislation to fix the flaws.

At the same time, members will seek changes to make the planning organizations more accountable.

“A supermajority of Texans oppose tolls on taxpayer-funded highways and want government to be accountable for toll decisions, but those desires have been ignored by government,” said David Rogers, the legal foundation’s policy director.

I’ll come back to that point in a moment. In the meantime, here’s PET’s press release with a fuller statement of their arguments. I don’t have anywhere near the expertise to evaluate their claims, but as any success on their part would have a dramatic effect on a lot of road construction planning around the state, I want to keep an eye on this.

Now then. Regarding that “supermajority” opposition to toll roads, it depends to a certain extent on how the question is phrased, as the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority recently found when it commissioned a poll on attitudes towards toll roads.

•Half of Central Texans said “no” when asked whether “there is a need for toll roads” here. But that includes toll roads cut through the prairie, like the Texas 130 bypass east of town and five other entirely new roads that will have tolls, and expansions of existing highways, like Ed Bluestein Boulevard, where the new lanes will have tolls and there will be free access roads. Some might accept one kind of toll road and reject the other.

•When the question is narrowed somewhat and people are asked if they approve of adding toll lanes to existing highways, 60 percent say that’s a bad idea. That’s precisely what would happen in the “phase two” toll road program that caused so much controversy over the past year and a half. The mobility authority would operate those five roads: Ed Bluestein, Texas 71 east of Interstate 35, U.S. 290 East in northeast Travis County, U.S. 290 West in Oak Hill, and Texas 45 Southwest, the only completely new road.

•As for conversions — taking an existing road and simply slapping tolls on it without making further improvements — 78 percent are against that. The only two pure conversions bandied about locally over the past two years — short stretches of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and U.S. 183 — were abandoned after public umbrage.

•So, if most of us don’t like paying tolls for these roads, then it follows that we must support raising gasoline taxes to build road improvements, right? Well, no. Asked how to pay for improvements, 38 percent said tolls were the answer, 37 percent opted for a gas tax hike and 25 percent had no response.

“It shows us we have a lot of work to do” in the public relations and education area, said Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the mobility authority.

In the abstract, I don’t think there’s anything illegal or immoral about toll roads. My objections largely have to do with the way they’re currently being pushed as a panacea to all our transportation needs, from the utter unaccountability of toll road authorities like HCTRA, to the fraudulent claims being made by TxDOT officials about how much more the state gas tax would have to be in order to properly fund road construction the old-fashioned way, and back to the clear lack of concern about building toll roads through established residential areas. (Go back to Christof’s post and read carefully the letters highlighted in red in the third bullet point from the bottom for an example.) If HCTRA were subject to the same requirements about public meetings and regulatory oversight that TxDOT is, I’d be a lot more sanguine about the whole thing.

Any comment from the more-qualified-than-me crowd as to the merits of this suit?

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One Comment

  1. More on how the Hempstead Managed Lanes might extend inside 610:
    http://www.ctchouston.org/information/factsheets/eureka/eureka.shtml
    Option #4 (towards the bottom of the fact sheet) is what the TxDOT representative said HCTRA was currently favoring. But we never really know what they intend until construction is ready to start.