Will paid-off tollways ever become free?


OK, in the spirit of full disclosure, I pay tolls every day I come to work here at Channel 13. I even get to pay when I sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Westpark Tollway -- love it. Half a million of us pay tolls every day, even if the roads could have been paid off years ago.

One nine-mile stretch of Beltway 8 cost $135 million to build. You know how much you've paid in tolls just to use it? Just guess. More than $1 billion.

And you're still paying. But why?

"Will you acknowledge that voters were sold, in a sense, a bill of goods?" we asked Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

"No," he said.

Emmett didn't even live in Harris County when voters first OK'ed toll roads, but he says no one was told they'd be free when paid off.

"The language on the ballot did not say that those would become free roads. People interpreted it that way," Emmett said.

Well, he's right about the ballot. We checked a sample. Doesn't say the word "free" anywhere and it's eight whole words long, chockfull of information for voters. Don't you feel scammed?

"You thought it was a contract?" we asked taxpayer Raymond Akluso.

"Thought it was a contract and when the time comes, it should be free," he said.

There wasn't any contract, and maybe all the people who are screaming now just misunderstood.

"The people that I've talked to, going back to Judge Lindsay and everybody else, said they were pretty clear that it was not going to be free," Emmett said.

But here it is in black and white, the Harris County Toll Road Authority promising voters the roads would be free once they were paid for.

"Frankly, I haven't even seen the old brochures and whether some advertising person put out a brochure that said that -- I just don't even know," Emmett said.

But the public paid for that brochure. In the county archive building, we found an old Houston Post column. Lynn Ashby was a big name back then. It reminded voters a Dallas tollway was paid off 17 years ahead of schedule and now it's free.

But Darryl Bates figures the fix was in from the start. They never intended to take those toll booths away.

"You know that was never going to happen," he said. "Once they start charging you, they're going to keep charging you."

Whatever was promised, county commissioners didn't say a word when they made tolls a way of life forever.

"It was one of the wisest decisions county government has made in the state of Texas," Emmett said.

That's because politicians like that tolls from popular highways, like West Belt, help pay for highways that aren't so profitable.

"If those toll revenues had paid off the West Belt and Hardy, then you wouldn't have Beltway 8 all the way around the community, you wouldn't have Westpark, you wouldn't have the managed lanes on I-10," Emmett said.

Take the northeast part of Beltway 8. It opened last year. It cost $346 million to build but only took in $14 million last year. And don't forget the $5 billion you've paid in tolls. It helps them keep them looking clean.

"When you transition off the toll road system onto our freeways, look how bad they're looking," Harris County Toll Road Authority Director Peter Key said.

So all those tolls, well the government is really doing you a favor.

"We have a much better mobility system here than they do anywhere else and it's because of the fact that people who use the highways are paying for them and it's not being put on backs of the property taxpayers," Emmett said.

"If you could vote today, would you rather pay tolls or a higher property tax?" we asked Akluso.

"None of the above," he replied.

"I don't think that's one of the choices," we said.

Erica Agudelo says she'll take tolls.

"Because you can choose to use it or not to use it, as opposed to if you own property, well you just have to pay taxes," she said.

But a lot of people have to use the toll roads to get to work, and for some folks, a property tax increase wouldn't be near as expensive as all those tolls.

"Which would you pay for?" we asked taxpayer Mike Steele.

"Higher property taxes, because I'm spending about 120 bucks a month on tolls," he said.

Our toll road stories have made a lot of folks scream foul this week because it's not about the best way to pay for roads. If it was, let's give folks another chance to vote.

Does Erica Agudelo speak for you?

"You have to remember you're dealing with the government. You know, haven't you ever seen that sticker 'Don't steal, the government hates competition?' It's the same thing," she said.

Some of you have asked if you could start a petition drive to stop the tolls. Well, you can't do that in Texas. You can vote to get rid of all the politicians who make you pay tolls.

And on 13 Undercover Interactive, you can see exactly how much we have paid. We made our money back on a lot of highways last decade.

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