With more than 50 supporters behind them cheering and waving signs that read “Toll Free Texas” and “Hands Off Our Freeways,” Republican lawmakers on Monday called for an end to the state’s heavy use of toll roads and toll lanes and returning Texas transportation to a pay-as-you-go system.
“These are people from all across the political spectrum, on all sides of the aisle, who are sick and tired of toll roads in Texas,” said state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who has authored bills to boost the Texas Department of Transportation's transportation budget and reduce its reliance on tolling.
Supporters at the rally in front of the Texas Capitol voiced support for a variety of bills filed that are aimed at either stopping new toll road projects or undoing the state’s current tolling system entirely. Anti-toll sentiment at the Capitol is high this session as state leaders have backed boosting TxDOT’s budget by billions of dollars.
“Texans cannot sustain the toll tax burden anymore,” said Terri Hall, the head of Texans for Toll-Free Highways, a lead organizer of the rally. “Something must change and fast.”
Most of the attendees at Monday's rally were from either San Antonio, where Hall's group is based, or the Dallas-Fort Worth area, which has seen the fastest proliferation of toll projects in the state in recent years.
“I am from Collin County, and my district is completely surrounded by toll roads,” Leach said.
Federal and state gas taxes are the primary revenue source for road construction and maintenance. Yet that revenue stream has not kept up with rising construction costs and the improving fuel efficiency of cars. Texans pay the same 38.4 cents per gallon of gas as they did in the early 1990s. Over the last decade, the state has increasingly relied on tolling to help finance highway projects, a shift that has increasingly drawn criticism from both Republicans and Democrats.
Several speakers said that Texas should return to a "pay-as-you-go" system of funding roads. Cathie Adams, president of the conservative Texas Eagle Forum, recalled the creation of Interstate 30 in North Texas back in the 1950s. The tolls were removed from the road after the debt to build it was paid off. She and others said that TxDOT should use that approach to tolling if future toll roads must be developed. TxDOT officials have argued that continued tolling is necessary to cover the costs of maintaining toll roads and to fund other transportation projects.
“I think we lead the nation now in road debt, and it’s time for that to come to an end," state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, said. "We need to start having pay-as-you-go like we used to have it.”
State Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, said he supported the activists' efforts but also noted that the current measures proposed in the Legislature wouldn’t raise enough money to end the state’s reliance on tolling and debt for transportation. Senate Bill 5, which has already cleared the Senate, would add billions to the highway fund over time by dedicating some of the sales tax collected on vehicle sales to transportation.
“We need two to three times that amount of money if we’re going to stop building toll roads and we’re going to stop selling paper to fund the roads,” Huffines said. “So please keep working to get more funding in for TxDOT and for the highway system so we can stop the toll roads.”