Montgomery County leaders are at a crossroads – and in the crosshairs of this major decision are the Texas 249 tollway project and Montgomery County Toll Road Authority.
Commissioners agree the project is necessary, but they are divided over who should build it and whether it should be tolled.
Texas toll roads have been hotly debated in the state Legislature over the past decade. Despite a moratorium placed on such projects in 2007, lawmakers find exceptions to keep them moving forward. That's because toll roads have become a necessary source of revenue for construction and maintenance of tolled roads as well as funding other mobility projects.
While some argue these tolls are double taxation or taxation without representation, area homeowners should recognize that local toll roads can help alleviate their county property tax burden that seems to rise with every appraisal.
Montgomery County residents – specifically property owners – pay virtually all costs of road construction and maintenance countywide through property taxes and local fees. The county's debt service, mostly for roads, amounts to $55.4 million for fiscal year 2017. County residents are taxed enough already, and local conservative political groups that tout as much in their acronyms should consider alternatives sources that spread the burden of funding these road projects. By rejecting tax revenue relief for our county's hardworking homeowners, ironically, these Tea Party groups are advocating a heavier tax burden on local property owners, who make up a majority of voters countywide.
Rules are different for the state and counties when it comes to road funding revenue sources. It's not a level playing field.
The Texas Department of Transportation receives money from fuel consumption taxes, vehicle registration fees, oil & gas revenue, other vehicle fees, toll roads, bonds, statewide sales tax receipts and even the general revenue fund via the Economic Stabilization Fund to pay for statewide road construction and maintenance.
Counties are limited to your local property tax dollars, plus other local fees, to pay for county road projects and improvements. County government receives no sales tax or gas tax revenue to offset costs. Residents can approve general obligation bonds to fund road construction, but this is paid for with their property tax dollars. Unless Texas counties receive the OK for a consumption tax, such as local sales tax dollars, the only alternative to alleviate some of the tax burden on property owners is through toll roads and revenue bonds, which are different from general obligation bonds and are the responsibility of the investors, not the taxpayers.
Texas 249 Project
The crux of the county's toll debate is the Texas 249 project, known as the "Aggie Expressway," which will connect Houston to College Station.
Montgomery County's 3.6-mile portion from Spring Creek to Pinehurst in Southwest Montgomery County has come under scrutiny. The $73 million section is planned to be a toll road, just like Harris County's portions. TxDOT will construct the remainder of the expressway, including 11.5 miles of toll road in Montgomery County, which will be tolled.
County Judge Craig Doyal and Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley, with support from Precinct 1 Commissioner Mike Meador, are spearheading this project and have been since Doyal was the Precinct 2 commissioner. They have proposed using revenue bonds to fund the project, tolling the roads to pay the bonds and then allowing the Montgomery County Toll Road Authority, which is made up of the elected members of Commissioners Court, to determine whether to continue tolling the road once the bonds are paid off.
Opposition arguments include:
1. The Texas 249 project is double taxation (property taxes and tolls).
2. It's a state road; let TxDOT build it and control the tolls.
3. It's taxation without representation because voters did not approve the project.
4. Projected toll revenue is uncertain and taxpayers still would be on the hook for any shortfall.
5. The toll is just another revenue source that enables county government to grow.
6. The road is being built to spark economic development, and that's not the county's job.
The Courier believes there is a compromise that can accommodate both sides and address most issues.
1. Fund the project by using the $66 million in pass-through toll revenue the state still owes the county.
First, this money came from the 2005 road bond referendum, therefore it is voter-approved revenue. (The state paid the county for vehicle miles traveled on certain roads, so the money was not generated through a toll on county drivers.)
Second, county taxpayers would not be on the hook for any debt or interest payments because this eliminates the need to fund the project with revenue bonds. Third, it's not double taxation because local property taxes would not be used to fund the project (Revenue bonds do not require local property tax dollars anyway).
2. Montgomery County already loaned the Montgomery County Toll Road Authority $10 million for this project. The MCTRA could toll the roads until it pays back the county for the interest-free loan used to fund the project. Once the MCTRA reimburses the county the $73 million, Commissioners Court can decide whether to remove the tolls – and even dissolve the MCTRA – or use the continued revenue from the toll to fund other projects countywide, again offsetting some of the tax burden placed on county property owners.
3. By keeping the Texas 249 project under the MCTRA and therefore the county, there is local control over the tolls and revenue generated. That money will stay in the county and our elected leaders can decide whether to remove the tolls; and, if so, when that would be appropriate.
4. The Courier supports road construction and improvements that meet the needs of residents and accommodate county growth – not projects that create or spark development. TxDOT, Harris County and Montgomery County have identified this as a necessary project, and many leaders across the county agree.
The Montgomery County Toll Road Authority was created in August 2006 by a vote of Commissioners Court. It was needed because, in November 2005, county voters approved a road bond referendum that included tolled flyovers at Texas 242. Yes, voters approved those tolled flyovers, and the MCTRA had to be created to oversee the construction.
The MCTRA had not overseen any toll projects other than the 242 flyovers until the Texas 249 project.
There is supposed to be a third flyover from Interstate 45 to eastbound Texas 242. That should be funded through the existing flyover tolls. Once that is paid for and constructed, the county should remove those tolls.
Montgomery County is growing and is projected to reach a million in population over the next few decades. Studies have shown the county needs at least a couple of billion dollars in road projects to meet current and future mobility demands. Our elected leaders must determine how to fund these projects and whether to place that burden solely on the backs of each property owner already paying thousands a year in taxes or to find alternative sources, such as toll roads.
Commissioners Court Responsibility
Commissioners Court is primarily responsible for county roads and bridges, as well as the county budget. Managing the county's revenue and expenditures includes determining all revenue sources – from setting the tax rate and fees to, yes, deciding whether to toll roads.
Ultimately, it is our county judge and commissioners who decide whether county government grows – and by how much.
Earlier this year, the court, spearheaded by Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack, was the leader in providing tax relief to county homeowners by approving a 20 percent homestead exemption.
Doyal and Riley have presented a Texas 249 plan that meets mobility needs in a developing West Montgomery County while finding a funding solution that does not burden taxpayers any more.
The Courier believes there is a compromise that will satisfy most involved and allow for flexibility regarding the future of the Montgomery County Toll Road Authority and road funding.