State Rep. Matt Krause rolled out a new plan Tuesday to take on one of Texas conservatives' long-standing bugaboos, announcing a bill he's calling the "Toll Payer Protection Act." The bill, the Fort Worth Republican says, is intended to get local communities involved in decisions to build toll roads or lanes, fix ongoing problems with toll billing across the state and, eventually, convert tolled roads to non-tolled after they're paid off. It stops short of banning toll roads outright, an idea that's been pushed by conservative groups.
"The truth is that the people are rightfully tired of business as usual when it comes to tolling in Texas," Krause said in a statement. "Whether it's not feeling like they have a voice in the process, notorious problems with toll billing or no light at the end of the tunnel once a toll goes up, the status quo can no longer be maintained. And it shouldn't be. It's time for change."
Krause's bill is backed up by a group called Texans for Traffic Relief. The group says it doesn't want to get rid of toll roads. Instead, Texans for Traffic Relief spokesman David White says it just wants to fix the way they are conceived and implemented to make sure Texas' economy continues to thrive.
"Texas is booming, and we need smart reforms that will allow us to continue the unbelievable growth that we've seen over the last few decades but also puts Texans in the driver's seat," White said. "Toll roads are never going away unless we are going to raise taxes, which no one wants to do. In order to keep the Texas economy the envy of the nation, we must have toll policies that are commonsense, transparent and accountable to the taxpayers."
If the bill passes, all new toll projects would require voter approval, and entities in charge of toll roads throughout Texas would be required to use similar billing practices for drivers, including capping administrative fees for toll scofflaws. Roads also would be required to have a timeline for becoming un-tolled.
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In North Texas, removing tolls from toll roads after they're paid for isn't a new idea. The stretch of Interstate 30 between Dallas and Fort Worth began its life as the Texas Turnpike before becoming toll free when it cleared its debts in 1977. According to a 1968 article that frequently pops up on online forums like Reddit, a similar plan was in place for the Dallas North Tollway before quietly falling by the wayside.
"The DFW Turnpike was a forerunner in this region, and that was a singular decision on that particular turnpike," Michael Rey, a spokesman for the North Texas Tollway Authority, told the Observer when we looked into the continued tolls on the tollway, "and the Dallas North Tollway has had several extensions to it that have increased debt."
Without continued tolls, it would be impossible to keep roads like the tollway in the shape they're in today, Rey said.
While they represent the easiest way to new road construction in Texas — state legislators aren't going to raise the gas tax to provide more funds for transportation — toll roads are unpopular in the state, with more than 60 percent of Texans saying that removing tolls should be a transportation priority in the latest statewide transportation poll from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.