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February 19, 2016 11:40 AM, EST
Texas DOT Begins Looking at Axing Tolls
Jessica Wilson/Flickr

The Texas Department of Transportation is beginning a legislatively mandated look at what it would cost to eliminate toll roads in the state, the agency’s new executive director said.

Before a raft of new funding measures was passed beginning in 2014, the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University concluded that the state needed to find $5 billion more — or a 50% increase — in annual transportation spending before the state could begin to ease the growing traffic jams on its roads. That estimate assumed, however, that the state would continue receiving revenues from tolls, James Bass said in a session with reporters last week.

The Texas Transportation Commission in December appointed Bass, who was then TxDOT's chief financial officer, to the post of executive director.

Even with slumping oil prices, Bass said that the state is on schedule to add just over $5 billion to its transportation spending by 2020. That’s when all of a series of recently passed measures will kick in.

But one of the top proponents of those measures, state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, has set another challenge for TxDot — to figure out what it would cost to eliminate toll roads in Texas.

Former Gov. Rick Perry’s unpopular push for a Trans-Texas Corridor and other toll projects have led to toll fatigue that has prompted numerous proposals to roll back such projects.

Pickett, who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee, is among the toll-road skeptics.

Two constitutional amendments he championed will bring in more than $4 billion a year by 2020, and they stipulate that none of it can be used for toll roads. He also is leading a push to eliminate toll lanes on the César Chávez Border Highway.

And Pickett last year sponsored House Bill 2612, which requires TxDOT to find out what debt the state has for toll projects and to devise a plan to eliminate tolls.

Bass, who has said complete elimination of tolls could cost TxDOT a lot of money, last week was asked about the feasibility of such a project.

“Tolls have been part of transportation in Texas for coming on 60 years,” he said.

The agency is gathering information now for the report, which is due by Sept. 1, Bass said.

The executive director declined to say whether he thought the state could get rid of tolls. It’s up to policymakers to make that call, he said.