Proposed by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), Senate Bill (SB) 756 would require that tolls cease after the toll project’s cost of construction and any associated bonds are paid off. Additionally, the road would become a state highway maintained by state funding.
Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) is a co-author of the bill and believes the bill, which has been proposed before, represents truth in taxation.
“A toll is just a tax,” Sen. Hall told The Texan.
He points to Interstate 30 that runs between Dallas and Fort Worth as an example of a previous toll road that had the toll removed after it was paid for.
Terri Hall, who represents Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), supports SB 756. She explained to The Texan that toll roads moved from a true user-fee model to a system financing model where the toll funds paid by the user do not necessarily get credited for use on the road for which the toll was paid. The co-mingling of funds associated with system financing causes a lack of transparency, Hall pointed out, and doesn’t make clear the actual traffic demand on any road segment.
“Toll agencies can hide bad decisions and move money around to cover the parts in the red with those that make surplus revenue,” she added.
Bills like SB 756 are supported in the Texas Republican Party platform, which states, “We believe that tolls should come off the road when the debt is retired, and if the debt is ever restructured or refinanced, the pay-off date needs to remain the same or receive voter approval in order to extend the toll tax longer. Maintenance should then revert to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).”
Contrasting with SB 756 are many proposals, like House Bill (HB) 3968 by Rep. Ed Thompson (R-Pearland) which would allow for up to two more toll projects to be authorized each year if the construction costs are estimated to exceed $1 billion. The project would need to be approved by voters in the counties in which the project lies.
There are at least a dozen other bills that would authorize tolls or toll projects, according to TURF.
“The toll road mafia has quite a hold here [in Austin]. We have a fight on our hands to make sure there are no [comprehensive development agreements],” Sen. Hall said, referring to the agreements authorizing the building of toll projects.
In an effort to bring more transparency to toll billing practices, Sen. Hall has also authored SB 1000. He explained that the bill is meant to create “uniform, transparent, and consistent management practices.”
Among the mandated practices are capping the administrative fees that tolling authorities can charge and requiring tolling authorities to set up payment plans, notifying vehicle owners if there is a problem with their toll tag payment method, and keeping drivers’ data private.
“We’ve learned that agencies are selling this information left and right,” Sen. Hall said, mentioning the ubiquitous car warranty calls that may be familiar to the reader.
The bill also removes the criminal penalty for unpaid tolls. Unpaid toll collections are a huge problem across the state. As reported by KXAN, 2.2 million Texas toll accounts had a bill sent to collections in 2018 by the Texas Department of Transportation. The article reports one resident receiving a bill for nearly $30,000, most of which were administrative fees.
Whether SB 1000 will gain traction this session is another matter. “It is a priority for the grassroots, but not the leadership,” Sen. Hall admitted.
SB 756 has been referred to the transportation committee but has not been set for a hearing. SB 1000 has not yet been referred to a committee. HB 3968 has not been referred to a committee yet either.