TxDOT ‘worst habitual toll violators’ list updated

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has updated its list of 25 worst habitual toll violators.

State law defines these violators as those who have driven on a toll road without paying at least 100 times over the past 12 months. This listing comes thanks to SB 1792, the bill authorizing TxDOT  to release the names of offenders as part of an effort to collect more than $27 million in unpaid tolls.

The first list released in mid-October ranged from the top spot reflecting more than 14,000 unpaid tolls amounting to $236,000 owed in tolls with the bottom spot earned for 3,600 violations amounting to $82,000 in tolls and fees due.

As October’s former top spot offenders have dropped off the new list, Mandy and Stephen Dyment of Hutto, the couple formerly ranked in second place, have now advanced to the top of the list with their 10,500 unpaid transactions racking up $217,600 tolls and fees owed.

TxDOT owns and operates five active tollways, four of which are in central Texas. This includes State Highway 130 which has additional problems as reported by Watchdog Wire contributor Terri Hall:

Texas’ first foreign-owned toll road financed through a controversial public private partnership just got downgraded to junk bond status by Moody’s Investors Service. The Spain-based firm, Cintra (65% ownership), and San Antonio-based Zachry (35% ownership), known as SH 130 Concession Company opened the southern leg of State Highway 130 last November.

Concerned citizens with Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) immediately launched a boycott of SH 130. Since then, the anemically low traffic levels signaled trouble from the beginning and Moody’s downgraded the concession company’s rating in April warning of the risk of default. The downgrade this week warns of default unless the company can restructure its debt or attract a substantial increase in traffic.

Moody’s predicts Cintra will be unable to meet its June 2014 debt service payment: “Thus, absent a sponsor injection of equity, a debt restructuring, or some other method of generating significantly more revenues, there is a high likelihood of a payment default in June 2014.”

The concessionaire has already dipped into its reserves to meet prior debt service payments and will need to tap its contingency funds to make its December payment, leaving inadequate funds to meet its June 2014 debt payment. If Cintra defaults on its debt, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) could execute a termination agreement and takeover the tollway, leaving lenders with limited ability to take possession of the facility as collateral.

It’s unclear whether TxDOT would continue to operate the highway as a toll road or as a freeway. State Rep. Paul Workman authored a bill in the Texas legislature earlier this year to tap state and federal funds to buy back the ailing tollway and make it a freeway. Many predict if SH 130 were a free highway that the road would finally attract significant levels of traffic from the heavily congested Interstate 35, which most travelers cannot afford to do now given the high cost of tolls in addition to the higher consumption of gas given the road’s extra distance and the road’s highest-in-the-nation 85 MPH speed limit.

TxDOT’s potential “solutions” to dealing with the financially troubled roadway created even more controversy:

When a local San Antonio TV reporter goes on a rant over a toll lane proposal, you know the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has hit a nerve. TxDOT is proposing to add two elevated toll lanes on Interstate 35 each direction from Loop 410 in Bexar County to Schertz in Comal County, approximately 15 miles. The insanity doesn’t stop there.

Transportation Commission Chairman Ted Houghton, self-proclaimed as “the most arrogant commissioner of the most arrogant state agency in the state of Texas,” announced at this week’s commission hearing that it wants to convert ALL existing free lanes on I-35 through Austin into toll lanes, and turn the failing State Highway 130 tollway into a freeway. The move would force those who can’t afford tolls into driving approximately 30-35 miles out of their way to get on SH 130 to travel north-south, not to mention Austinites and anyone who needs to travel I-35 for local travel would be double taxed and possibly priced off their own previously free highway in perpetuity.

State Highway 130, an alternative route that runs parallel to I-35, has not been attracting enough traffic to cover the debt service payments, on either the northern segments run by TxDOT or the southern segments operated by the Spanish firm, Cintra. Cintra’s portion has just been downgraded to junk bond status. The state could terminate the agreement or otherwise take over the asset for pennies on the dollar if the private operator goes bankrupt.

However, it’s unclear how TxDOT would repay its own debt on the northern segments of SH 130 if it were to be converted to a freeway, and it’s also unclear how it plans to convert the southern segment into a freeway when it signed a 50-year public private partnership (P3) concession agreement with Cintra in 2007. It may seek to bail out the failing toll road by buying it out rather than let the asset fail and take it over at a vastly reduced price. Considering the close ties of Cintra to Governor Rick Perry’s office, it’s quite possible Cintra is working a backroom deal for a bailout since it knows what Moody’s has already declared publicly – the tollway is headed for bankruptcy. Either way, federal taxpayers are on the hook for a $430 million federal TIFIA loan on Cintra’s tollway.

And taxpayers – be it state, federal or both – are likely to be the big losers in this equation.

Meanwhile, to date TxDOT is only releasing names of the worst offenders although, per the Austin American-Statesman, it has discretion to release the names of all habitual toll offenders, a number reportedly totaling 28,000 for October.

Per the TXDOT website, the agency also has the authority to:

  • Ban vehicles from using TxDOT toll roads with Texas Transportation Commission approval. If stopped by law enforcement, vehicles in violation of the ban can be ticketed and impounded.
  • Report the habitual violators to county tax assessor-collectors to potentially block the renewal of the vehicle’s registration.

Lou Ann Anderson is an information activist and the editor of Watchdog Wire – Texas. As also a contributor at Raging Elephants Radio and a policy analyst with Americans for Prosperity – Texas, she writes and speaks on a variety of public policy topics. Lou Ann is the creator and online producer at Estate of Denial®, a website that addresses probate abuse via wills, trusts, guardianships and powers of attorney as well as other taxpayer advocacy issues.

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