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Abbott, Davis Downplay New Toll Roads As Way To End Traffic Gridlock

LBJ Express
A look at the new LBJ Express, which includes managed toll lanes.

KERA and its media partners  -- The Dallas Morning News and KXAS-TV (NBC 5) -- continue Five Days in October, a week-long report about issues the governor's race. Today, we look at how Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Wendy Davis would address the state's growing need for infrastructure. That includes toll roads and the role they should play in relieving traffic congestion.

Texans have a love-hate relationship with toll roads. 

Outside the Plano office where drivers buy their toll tags and pay fines, Scott Hergenrader says he’s grateful for anything that helps him cut through North Texas gridlock.

“I just know with the growth we have in North Texas we’re going to pay one way or the other," he said. "You do have a choice. You can go on the (toll) road or not go on the road."

But many of the drivers here say they use toll roads because they often don’t have a good option. That’s something Don Silaff of Nevada in Collin County resents. He believes the state just needs to do a better job managing taxpayer money.

“I think the new roads in the future should not be as much toll roads as they’re planning," silaff said. "I think there are enough dollars if they would spend them properly and wisely that we could do without (toll roads).” 

Terry Read of Carrollton thinks he’s being gouged. Tolls on the roads he drives go up 5 percent every two years.

“With the extravagant fees, I can’t believe we aren’t covering the expenses. There’s money out there,” he said.

The candidates for governor know toll roads are a flash point for voters. When asked during the Sept. 30 KERA debate whether more toll roads will be needed as the state’s population and congestion grow, Republican Greg Abbott said that’s not in his plan.

“Short and simple my plan does not involve any toll roads, period,” Abbott said.

Democrat Wendy Davis, who served on the Senate Transportation Committee, said she’s also looking at alternatives to toll roads.

“I believe it’s been a poor solution for Texans to have to pay twice," she said during the debate. "They’re paying at the gasoline pump then they have to pay again to drive on toll roads."

So what else is out there? How can Texas come up with the additional $5 billion transportation officials say we’ll need each year just to keep gridlock from getting worse?

Davis and Abbott have similar plans. Both want to stop lawmakers from using gas tax money for expenses other than transportation. 

“We stop the diversions away from funding that was intended for roads. Money that was intended for roads should be spent on building roads,” Abbott said.

Davis sponsored a bill last session that would end the diversions and address funding shortfalls for other needs that would result from doing that.

“My plan includes a way to replace the hole that’s left by ending those diversions because right now much of that money is going to education and health and human services,” Davis explained. 

Davis also co-sponsored the Proposition One legislation on the November ballot. If it passes, the state every year would use some of its Rainy Day saving account money for roads.

Abbott also supports Proposition 1 and would raise additional road money by shifting the use of some fees already being collected.

“We take part of the sales taxes that you’re already paying when you buy a car or truck and use it to build roads that those cars and trucks are driving on,” Abbott said.

In his Arlington office, Texas Transportation Commissioner Victor Vandergriff is pleased candidates are looking for new road funding.

“But I don’t see toll roads going away at this point in time,” he added.  

Vandergriff believes, however, that a serious effort to develop additional transportation revenue could lead to toll roads being just one way, instead of the primary way, Texas pays for new pavement.

Learn more about the Five Days in October series here -- there are stories, and radio and TV pieces, too.