Harris County toll road rates to increase again

June 28, 2013 4:10:17 PM PDT
Get ready to start paying more to use Harris County toll roads. A fresh round of rate hikes are come soon, and it comes one week after a 13 Undercover revealed millions in toll road debt going to pay off a complicated financial maneuver approved years ago.

No one likes paying tolls, but whether you like it or not - they're here to stay and they're about to get even more expensive.

Starting this September, it will cost you more to ride on many of Harris County's 120 miles of toll roads. The Harris County Toll Road Authority says the annual rate hike is tied to inflation and designed to avoid larger periodic increases.

And even though it has one billion dollars in the bank, the agency says that money is already committed to future projects.

We asked Peter Key, the head of the toll authority, to explain to you why it needs even more of your money.

"It helps to maintain the road, it helps to put new projects on the ground, and it helps to service the debt that has already been incurred on the toll road system," Key said.

That debt, as 13 Undercover first reported last week, was made even worse because of a risky financial maneuver years ago.

"We have literally lost our shirt on these deals," former Harris County tax assessor Paul Bettencourt

Our investigation revealed you're paying millions to Wall Street banks because in 2006 county commissioners at the time took a gamble while refinancing bonds used to build toll roads. So far, it's costing us $47 million, which you're paying off every time your go through a toll booth.

"It does appear that Harris County took on unnecessary risks in engaging in this transaction," University of Houston finance professor Craig Pirrong said.

But soon, a one-way trip on the Katy-managed lanes will cost $2 more at peak time, and EZ tags holders will pay an extra 5 cents every time they go through a toll plaza.

"And what do you say to the people who say, stop it already with the rate hikes?" we asked Key.

"Houston is undergoing tremendous growth, that's probably a good thing for the community," he replied. "But when you experience that kind of growth, you have to cope with it. And part of coping with it is being able to put road projects in the ground that can handle all of that growth safely."

Critics say the toll authority should use the money it already has more wisely.

"If we just make all the rates a little bit more, we're generating more money but we're not actually improving transportation for the people paying the tolls," said Robin Holzer with the Citizens' Transportation Coalition.

County commissioners oversee the toll authority, but you won't see them voting on toll increases. That's because back in 2007, commissioners created a policy allowing for what they call annual recalculations.

We've been told by more than one insider on Friday that was political cover created by commissioners, who didn't want to take heat every time the county wanted to raise tolls.

Brian needs your help to uncover fraud, public corruption and waste. Got a tip? Call him at 713-663-8760.

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