Are you paying for toll roads already paid off?

Soon, the names of people who owe toll road violations will be published online
May 22, 2012 3:29:51 AM PDT
Do you use the toll roads? Half a million of you do every day and now we have some bad news for you. You may be paying forever, even if the roads were paid off a long time ago.

The next time a politician asks you to vote on something, you might want to get all the fine print in writing. Don't you get sick of broken promises?

It's another morning drive to work, and before this day is over, half a million of you will pay a toll just to get where you need to go.

Doesn't that make you feel like you want to cheer? Well, we really did cheer when the West Belt Tollway opened in 1989. Of course, maybe that's because the girl band The Bangles were playing a live concert on top of the new highway.

Steve Malouf now pays close to $200 a month in tolls.

"Makes me angry, really angry," he said.

Because Steve knows what we found downtown inside a building that looks on the outside like it should be torn down; newspaper accounts of the nasty political fight three decades ago over the idea of selling bonds to build toll roads. Seventy percent of you said OK, but all those cheering people...wonder if they'd be so excited today if they knew they had been scammed?

"You feel scammed?" we asked toll road driver David Sartis.

"Oh sure, of course," he said.

We found this brochure from the early days of the Toll Road Authority, printed just after we OKed building the West Belt and the Hardy Toll Road. The promise was simple: "When both roads combined have covered their costs, the roads will become free public highways."

"What'd you think would happen when we paid the roads off?" we asked Sartis.

"Well, you would think they'd take the toll booths away, right?" he replied.

Well, if you used the toll road today, you already know that didn't happen.

But the promise is there in black and white. They used it get us to vote.

"Well yeah, it does make you wonder well why they aren't free," one toll road driver said.

We've already made back the money we paid to build the roads and then plenty more. Take the Hardy. Toll road construction costs $287 million. We made that back by 2004. You've paid a total in tolls of $617 million.

"You sort of wonder what happened?" we asked another toll road driver.

"Yes," she said.

This stretch of the Sam Houston costs $72 million to build. You know how much you've paid in tolls? $865 million.

"Do you feel cheated?" we asked Malouf.

"Very much so," he said.

"The construction of that road has been paid for 12 times?" we asked Harris County Toll Road Authority Director Peter Key.

"It's one system, it's one system that funds all the needs out there," he said.

I didn't see that in the fine print. Did you? But leave it to politicians to welch on a deal. It happened in September 2001 at a Harris County Commissioners Court meeting, way down on the agenda. Look at H, a bunch of gobbygloop about bond stuff and then "a resolution for pooling of a list of toll road projects as component facilities." Translation: you're going to pay tolls forever.

If you were watching Eyewitness News back in 1983, you heard a prediction that was right on.

"These projects will more than pay for themselves, in fact, have money left over at the end," former County Judge Jon Lindsay said at the time.

"You guys are a cash cow," we told Key.

"This agency does take in a substantially amount of revenue," he replied.

"Take a guess," we asked toll road driver Devon Pedrick.

"I don't know -- $1.5 billion," he said.

"It's actually more than $5 billion," we said.

"Wow," he responded.

"Don't surprise me, fourth largest city in the nation -- sure, captive audience, it's awesome," Malouf said.

So much money has been made, the Toll Road Authority has to give some of its extra cash to Harris County commissioners every years -- nearly $900 million so far, not to pay off debts, but to pay to fix up other roads. So when you pay a toll, you're not just paying for the right to drive on a special road, you are paying to fix up roads for other folks who didn't pay a dime.

"Everybody should pay their own fair share and it seems like just a few of us are paying for what they should be paying for and it's just not right," Sartis said.

During that road party in 1989, The Bangles taught us to 'Walk Like an Egyptian.' Twenty-three years later, 13 Undercover has taught you something else.

"The whole free thing -- never going to happen?" we asked Key.

"From practical standpoint, it's hard to imagine the road going free," he replied.

And do you want to see how much money they've made from you on tolls? Just go to 13 Undercover Interactive, where you can see the evidence of a broken promise. Check out a particular road -- try the Sam Houston Tollway. You'll see the how much we've paid in tolls and how much they've made.


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