With the possible exception of our love for Whataburger, nothing unites Texans like their hatred of toll roads. Few reliable public opinion polls directly measure the level of hatred, but the Texas A&M Transportation Institute's semi-regular statewide transportation survey provides a taste of the depth of feeling on the issue. Out of 15 possible fixes to the state's transportation funding, toll roads are the only one opposed by the average survey respondent. In fact, toll roads were about 50 percent less popular than investment in walking, biking and public transportation, which is remarkable because Texans hate those things too.
The seeds of this antipathy — car dependence combined with an innate human aversion to paying for things — are baked into Texans' DNA, but it took voters until a few years ago to realize that the state was in the midst of an epic toll road binge and grope for the right democratic levers to rein it in. By 2013, the Legislature was well populated with toll road skeptics who, though they haven't succeeded in outlawing such projects, have seriously curtailed their future use.
The big highway funding measure the Legislature sent to voters in 2014 — Proposition 1, which passed easily — included the stipulation that the money couldn't be spent on toll roads. Ditto for Proposition 7, the big transportation funding measure voters approved in 2015. There was little ambiguity in any of this. Transportation planners would get several billion additional dollars per year for their backlog of highway projects so long as they wouldn't slap tolls on those projects. It thus stands to reason that the $1.3 billion LBJ East project, which is expected to receive $800 million in Prop 7 funds, won't have those tolled "managed lanes" that were originally planned. Right?
Apparently not. The Dallas Morning News reported that toll lanes are still very much part of the plan thanks to a bit of sleight of hand orchestrated by Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. Morris has effectively split LBJ East into two separate projects. The first, running 7.3 miles through Garland and Mesquite, will use the estimated $800 million in Prop 7 money and thus won't include tolls. The second picks up at the intersection with Miller Road and Royal Lane (i.e., just after the freeway leaves Garland and enters Dallas) and heads 3.7 miles west to Central Expressway. It will have a pair of toll lanes in either direction, which will generate the $500 million needed to complete it.
This raises some interesting and important questions, such as: WTF? And: Can they really do that?
To understand what's happening here, it's important to understand a few things about Morris. Though it's hard to tell from his title, Morris is arguably the most powerful transportation official in North Texas, directing the flow of the billions of dollars of state and federal transportation funds that pass through the council of governments. He ostensibly carries out the will of the Regional Transportation Council, which comprises 44 elected officials from various local governments, but the body is too unwieldy and too easily won over by Morris' politically canny distribution of funds to be anything more than a rubber stamp. Besides, its members frequently cycle through while Morris is a constant, having occupied his post for 26 years and counting.
Morris is also a big cheerleader for highways to the point that his Volvo is tricked out with vanity Interstate 35 license plates. He is particularly fond of tolled highways and has been instrumental in the development in North Texas of what the Wall Street Journal described in 2014 as "one of the most extensive toll-road networks in North America." He argues — and may sincerely believe — that, in the absence of a massive, sustained increase in highway funding, tolls are the only way to address the transportation needs of a rapidly growing region.
His appearance Monday before the Garland City Council was a magisterial display of political maneuvering. "The good news is, this section in your community will not be tolled," he told them early on, as if offering them an extraordinary concession. He was also doing them a favor, he implied, by tolling the other portion of the road.
"The good news is the Legislature came up with about 30 percent more money. It's too bad they didn't fund all of our needs. I'm not sure anyone ever will with a region of 7 million quickly going to 10.7 million [in 2040]. So our office has to stand up regardless of criticism and defend the transportation system in 2040."
Garland officials have waited decades for the LBJ East redo, and Morris played heavily on their evident desperation to get the project done. Garland City Councilman Steve Stanley wondered obliquely if it wasn't a bit disingenuous to break the project into pieces in a way that allowed the use of both state funds and tolls. In response, Morris warned that taking an alternative course would cause extensive delays.
"You can very easily request us to treat it as one project and then we'll hold off on noise walls, we'll hold off on a whole bunch of stuff, we'll wait for the hearing, and then we'll go ahead and fund your project," Morris said. In video of the meeting, an elderly woman can be seen in the front row, shaking her head in vigorous disapproval.
Stanley also complained about the closure of LBJ East's HOV lanes, which has added 20 minutes each way to his wife's commute. The lanes were shut down last year and will reopen in several months as — wait for it — toll lanes. Paradoxically, given public sentiment, Morris defended the switch as a victory for the democratic process.
"Everyone operated in good faith and had a public hearing. Everyone operated in good faith and went to the Federal Highway Administration to approve that project. Everyone operated in good faith when TxDOT put those plans out for bid. Everyone operated in good faith when the bidder was selected," Morris said. "And then all of a sudden we wake up one day and say 'Well we're not interested in proceeding with the project.'
"If you're ever going to get the Federal Highway Administration to take your permanent project seriously, we needed to defend the current process. ... We had to support the public involvement process, we had to support the sanctity of a public hearing, that ... somehow there isn't some body or some thing that can stop the will of the public."
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In a conversation on Wednesday morning, Stephens pointed out that the "thing" that threatened to stop the "will of the public" was, in fact, the will of the public, who voted in legislators and approved propositions that strictly limited the use of tolls. He's curious about how the Legislature will respond to Morris and the RTC forging ahead with the tolling plan. "On its face it's inappropriate," he says.
State Senator Bob Hall, a Republican from Edgewood, offered some thoughts in the comment section of the Morning News story:
Don't overlook the fact that the HOV lane has been closed for almost a year. Could it possibly [be] the Saul Alinsky socialists' approach to making people accept what a free people would oppose. Alinsky said make the situation very painful and the people will eventually accept anything. The people in Garland have been adamantly opposed to I 635 being tolled. Guess the powers that be feel it has now been painful enough that the people will accept a toll road.
Which, if you ignore the Saul Alinsky reference, doesn't seem all that nuts.