State Rep. Joe Pickett proposes ending all toll lanes in El Paso

EL PASO, Texas - State Rep. Joe Pickett will soon formally propose to begin the process to eliminate all current and planned toll lanes and toll roads in the El Paso region, saying they're inefficient and no longer necessary.

"Things have changed and if you want to lessen congestion, you open up the roads to everyone," Pickett said in an interview Monday.

The toll lanes on the Cesar Chavez Border Highway from Paisano to about the Zaragoza port of entry began operating in January 2014 and are maintained by the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority (CRRMA). The extension of the Cesar Chavez Border Highway into West El Paso is currently planned to consist only of toll roads. Pickett said the Texas Department of Transportation about ten years ago began pressuring communities, like El Paso, to implement toll lanes or toll roads to make up for a lack of revenue for transportation projects.

Pickett said El Paso reluctantly agreed to add toll lanes on the border highway but a changing economic climate now proves them unnecessary. Last November, voters in Texas approved a constitutional amendment to take a portion of the gasoline tax and use it for road funding. Passing Proposition One put $1.7 billion a year in the Transportation Highway Fund, according to state officials. And in a couple weeks, voters are expected to pass Proposition Seven which would add about $3 billion a year for transportation by shifting money collected from the general sales tax, and the motor vehicle and rental taxes.

Pickett also pushed and passed a bill that requires TxDot to analyze and report to lawmakers what it would take to close all state-initiated and state-operated toll roads. "We need to convert it to a non toll road because we can, because its right. And we have the money in the future to pay for the maintenance," said Pickett of the Border Highway toll lanes.

Pickett said it's plausible to close the lanes because they were built with cash, not debt. TxDot provided $60 million to reconstruct the existing lanes and add toll infrastructure and lanes to the Border Highway.

The Executive Director of the CRRMA, Raymond Telles has a different perspective. He said the CRRMA should look at closing toll roads if its possible but said it's complicated. "There's no debt on the construction of the tolls but the CRRMA has taken out debt on the operation of the tolls." Telles said the CRRMA, at last check, owes TxDot about $5.5 million it borrowed to operate and maintain the toll roads in the early years. "Are those debts simply forgiven? Does somebody else pay them? Does the City of El Paso pay that debt," Telles asked.

Plus, TxDot would have to agree to take over the operation of current toll lanes. "Txdot not only forgives debt but also takes on additional responsibility for operating and maintaining that extra lane," said Telles. That means TxDot would also have to agree to take over maintenance of the entire Border Highway west extension that would run from Downtown to Sunland Park in West El Paso.

Additionally, Telles said closing the tolls could be costly if there are early termination fees with the vendors the CRRMA contracts, such as general engineer consultants, for the operation of the toll lanes.

Telles also pointed out revenue for the toll roads is legally bound to be used only for the operation of the tolls and for transportation projects in the area. "That's important when you have a tolling facility that may not be making money in the early years but in the long term it will make money. You also take off that additional revenue that can be used for additional transportation projects in the region."

These obstacles don't phase Pickett. "Any money that may have been advanced to them (CRRMA) to operate the tolls, we would ask that money to be forgiven and we would ask TxDot to do the maintenance (of the roads). So I'm trying to cover all the basis as to why they would object to removing the toll. What does it hurt sitting down and negotiating a way out of a toll project if you can."

Pickett said the money from Propositions One and if passed, Proposition Seven, should cover any revenue the toll roads would make for El Paso in the future. As the Chairman of the Texas House Committee on Transportation, Pickett would have a major role in determining how much funds the El Paso region would receive from Proposition One and Seven.

During the planning phase for the Cesar Chavez toll lanes, Pickett was on a subcommittee on the Metropolitan Planning Organization that required the toll lanes cease to exist if the revenues did not cover operation and maintenance after 15 years of operation.

According to the CRRMA's latest quarterly report, the toll lanes are generating more revenue than what they were forecasted to. The toll lanes were forecasted to generate $178,656 from January to May 2015 but actually generated $221,441.

Pickett is also critical of the toll lanes because of the lack of controls to prevent Mexican drivers from using the lanes without paying. Initially Telles had said the CRRMA could work with the City of El Paso's International Bridges Department to install license plate readers and stop repeat offenders at the ports of entry. But he said the CRRMA's data shows only 1% of toll lane users who don't pay are Mexican nationals. Telles said the low number doesn't justify the cost of installing license plate reading technology at the ports.

Pickett plans to propose a resolution in a couple weeks in the MPO asking TxDot and the CRRMA to begin discussions to end the toll lanes.

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