Texans could soon know more about how much money their toll agencies spend after debt and maintenance costs are paid

Texas Tribune Blue Government News

A toll road in Austin in 2017.
A toll road in Austin in 2017.
Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune

The Texas House isn’t yet ready to remove tolls from roads whose construction costs have been paid off. But lawmakers in the lower chamber just passed a bill lauded by toll critics that would shine a light on how much money tolling entities take in — and how they spend it.

Many drivers assume that they won’t be charged tolls once construction costs are covered, but tolling entities can continue to keep charging drivers even after the initial costs are paid. While toll entities say this practice is crucial to maintain existing thoroughfares and fund new roads, toll opponents rail against the practice.

House Bill 803 would require tolling entities, which are mostly run on a county or regional level, to publish a yearly financial summary on their website that would make clear how much revenue they bring in compared to how much they spend on debt and maintenance. Currently, toll entities may publish annual reports that include their financial information, but proponents of the bill say that these documents are often too difficult for the average person to digest.

“This bill is about transparency,” Frisco Republican state Rep. Jared Patterson said during a hearing on the legislation he authored. “It’s about shining a light on the activities of our tolling entities and giving the public easier access to the information they need to hold them accountable.”

Toll road critics say knowing the extra revenue that comes in after debts and maintenance costs are paid is crucial.

“We have to drill down into surplus revenue. There shouldn’t be surplus revenue on toll roads,” said Terri Hall, the founder and director for Texans for Toll-Free Highways, during the bill’s hearing.

But tolling entities often say their financing systems, which sometimes allow them to use money from one toll project to expand existing roads or fund new ones, helps them keep pace with demand for new infrastructure in their area. And maintenance of roads can cost up to four times the cost of their construction, Dee Anne Heath, director of external affairs for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, said in a statement.

“Again, this is why system financing is so important, because that revenue goes back in to the region for mobility improvements,” said Heath.

In a report from last year, The House Transportation Committee suggested that “any revenue generated on a toll road should only be used to repay the cost of the infrastructure, financing, maintenance and operation until the initial costs have been fully repaid,” unless a local government or voters say otherwise. After the toll road is paid off, the committee said the entity should charge just enough money to cover maintenance costs.

Patterson said he worked with multiple tolling entities and sought their input in the bill’s drafting process, so they could comply with the reporting requirements. However, no tolling entities formally registered their position on the bill, while six people registered in favor of it.

“This bill would require information we already have on our website to be posted in a more centralized location,” said Michael Rey, the spokesman for the NTTA, in a statement.

In their 2017 fiscal year, NTTA generated $762 million in revenue, and $582.7 million went to maintenance, operations, and paying debts, according to Rey. The extra $179.5 million goes to road widening, improvements and congestion mitigation. However, Rey said NTTA does not keep this financial information — including revenues, debts, and operational costs — for individual toll projects.