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Tuesday, December 6, 2022
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For Whom the Road Tolls | Part 2


NTTA Tollway Gantry | Image by WFAA

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As discussed in the previous part of this series, the North Texas Transportation Authority (NTTA) expects to fully pay off all of its tollways by 2049.

Still, this does not mean the tolls will disappear after that year.

Unlike with the earlier Dallas Fort Worth Turnpike, no state law currently mandates tolls end once the roadways are paid off. With no laws instructing it otherwise, the NTTA has indicated it will continue to collect tolls on its roadways.

NTTA claimed that it is necessary to maintain tolls because the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) does not have the funds to build or maintain roadways through its regular taxation methods, like the gas and oil tax.

The Texas Comptroller’s Office explained that “Texas’ motor fuels taxes are simply failing to produce the revenue needed to meet” the growing infrastructure needs being driven up by the constant influx of new residents over the past several years.

Because of the supposedly “insufficient” amount of taxpayer dollars managed by TxDOT, the regional tolling authorities insist that they play a vital role in providing transportation services to our rapidly growing state.

For example, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority confirmed NTTA’s suggestion that the tolls would never disappear.

On its “Toll Truths” page, the organization responds to the notion that tolls would be removed once building costs have been paid off by stating, “Roads are never really paid off … A continuous funding stream is needed to maintain the road.”

With that said, questions have arisen concerning whether NTTA is making the best use of its funds.

NTTA’s April 2022 financial report indicated that it holds over $10.5 billion of assets. However, that balance is significantly offset by $10.4 billion in liabilities, primarily the NTTA’s obligatory bond payments. Still, this leaves roughly $500 million in surplus revenue that was generated.

Ongoing questions surrounding the existence of a surplus in toll authority budgets led Gov. Greg Abbott to sign a law in 2019 creating additional financial accountability measures for the regional toll authorities across the state.

Increased transparency, however, has not satisfied toll road detractors.

“There shouldn’t be surplus revenue on toll roads,” stated Terri Hall, director of Texans for Toll-free Highways, commenting on Abbott’s move when the legislation was just a bill.

Even some Texas lawmakers urged additional action, calling for legislation directing NTTA to end toll collection upon paying off its debts.

Hall’s group, Texans for Toll-free Highways, claims that tollways are inefficient, an additional burden on residents, and unaccountable. The organization pushes for the end of tolls, suggesting that people “do not want or cannot afford to pay tolls on a daily basis. We must keep an affordable, freely accessible public road system in place.”

In an email exchange with The Dallas Express, Hall directed her ire at the fact that the toll systems are not required to end toll collection at any particular point, meaning they can charge tolls indefinitely.

She wrote, “The TX Constitution prohibits perpetuities, so yes, we want the tolls to come off once the debt is repaid, and we want to block their ability to just refinance every so often to keep the toll debt going forever.”

Some would disagree with Hall’s reading of the Texas Constitution, which states, “Perpetuities and monopolies are contrary to the genius of a free government, and shall never be allowed, nor shall the law of primogeniture or entailments ever be in force in this State.”

A “perpetuity,” however, is generally understood to mean a “security that pays for an infinite amount of time.” Texas code specifies that the rule against perpetuities refers narrowly to the interest payouts of non-charitable trusts, with attorneys noting that its application mainly deals with estate planning.

Supporters of tollways, however, note that taking a toll road is entirely optional and that without alternative taxing mechanisms, many transportation projects could not have been started, much less completed by TxDOT.

“History shows that, without toll roads, several major corridors would still be waiting to be built,” claims the NTTA.

NTTA points to the President George Bush Turnpike as an example, claiming that it was “completed 10 years ahead of the government-projected schedule” because of its toll-based funding mechanism.

However, rising inflation and increased commuting costs will continue to drive the debate surrounding the tollways and their place in North Texas.

This story was pitched to The Dallas Express by one of our readers. Do you have a story you think should be covered or a tip on breaking news? Submit your idea here.

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