No new toll roads: Lt. Gov. Patrick’s message to TxDOT

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Department of Transportation is no longer considering including new toll roads in its Unified Transportation Plan after receiving backlash from Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Within 24 hours of Patrick asking TxDOT to revise its plan and come up with one that does not include additional toll lanes, the state transportation agency released a statement saying it is committed to use certain voter-approved funding for non-tolled projects.

“Members of the Texas Transportation Commission and TxDOT staff have been in regular contact with the Governor’s office over the past several weeks and we understand the Governor’s expressed desire to not include new toll roads,” TxDOT said in a statement. “In response to public comments received, we are developing a plan to scrub the UTP update of any toll roads in the proposed revisions.”

Patrick said he spoke with Texas Transportation Commission Chairman J. Bruce Bugg Jr. to remind him of the legislature’s commitment to reducing tolls.

“Since I became Lt. Governor and before, as a state senator, I have strongly supported efforts to reduce the state’s reliance on toll roads by making transportation funding a priority,” Patrick wrote in a letter he sent Bugg on Nov. 16. “That’s why I am writing to let you know I oppose the Texas Department of Transportation’s plan to add managed toll lanes to fifteen major roadway projects in the Unified Transportation Plan.”

The Unified Transportation Plan, as was first presented, included 15 managed toll lanes. The plan was designed to eliminate or ease congestion across the state.

“The governor and his staff have been in constant communication with members of the Texas Transportation Commission and TxDOT staff to express their desire to not include new toll roads as part of TxDOT’s Unified Transportation Plan,” Abbott’s spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said Thursday in a statement.

A day after Patrick’s letter to TxDOT, Abbott said he believes the state has the resources it needs to take care of transportation infrastructure without creating extra tolls for drivers.

“TxDOT is doing a great job to build more roads and unclog our congestion,” Abbott said. “We want them to do that in a way as I promised and that is without adding more toll roads.”

In 2015, Texans voted to approve Proposition 7, which dedicates a portion of the state’s sales tax as well as motor vehicles sales and rental tax to non-tolled projects as part of the State Highway Fund.

Patrick said the Texas Senate’s efforts provided TxDOT with an additional $8.6 billion and helped bridge their annual $5 billion shortfall in an effort to reduce or eliminate the need for new toll roads. Patrick told Bugg he’s disappointed that TxDOT created a plan to add toll lanes to “virtually every major roadway currently under construction.”

Driving on the northbound section of the North MoPac toll. (KXAN Photo/Alicia Inns)
Managed toll lanes were added to MoPac as a way to ease congestion.  (KXAN Photo/Alicia Inns)

Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, said he’s proud to vote for more transportation funding in Texas, but the legislature has made it clear that those funds are not to be used on new or existing toll roads.

Dale said he’s concerned with the constitutionality of some TxDOT projects currently in the works, such as one that would add toll lanes to the north and southbound stretch of US 183, between MoPac Expressway and State Highway 45.

“It’s not appropriate. I mean, I can’t see any way that they’d be meeting the intent of the legislature,” Dale told KXAN on Friday. “I made that known to the transportation commission and I’m glad that the governor and lieutenant governor are on this issue now as well.”

Following Abbott’s and Patrick’s remarks, Bugg reiterated the commission’s commitment to using that funding for non-tolled projects.

“The Texas Transportation Commission fully understands and is committed to continue to use the funding from Proposition 1 and Proposition 7 for non-tolled projects,” Bugg said in a statement.

Transparency in transportation funding also garnered the attention of State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, who heard from TxDOT Wednesday during a Senate Transportation Committee meeting at the State Capitol.

Following the meeting, Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, told KXAN she’s worked hard to make sure new funding does not go toward toll roads.

“If we’re going to push new … money out, then that’s money for new roads and we don’t need to be tolling those roads,” Kolkhorst said. “One of my concerns is that as we are putting new money into our transportation system, that we make sure that we don’t waste those dollars.”

Patrick also reminded Bugg that no new toll roads have been approved by state lawmakers in the last two sessions.

“Legislators I have spoken with are very unhappy that the Commission seems now to be going in a direction that opposes the will of the legislature and the majority of Texans,” Patrick said.

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