AUSTIN - Toll roads are about as popular as tornadoes - a fact emphasized last fall when protests effectively put the brakes on a $500 million, 27-mile tollway connecting Garland and Greenville.
Now the private Texas Turnpike Corp. and its 18 investors are fighting another blow in the form of an attempt to revoke its authority to condemn land for the stalled Northeast Gateway - or any other project, for that matter.
Turnpike President John Crew said the state turns away from the tollway at its peril.
“We’ve got devastating growth coming,” he said in a Senate hearing Wednesday, and an underfunded road-building effort hasn’t kept up. “The state with the most infrastructure wins."
But Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, said taking land by eminent domain - a process that pays property owners fair market value - is "egregious" even when used by government for other projects.
Hall told colleagues that he wants to end the Turnpike Corp.'s ability to do that, after several previous attempts.
Texas’ need for mobility and infrastructure doesn’t get much argument, especially from gridlocked motorists, and the area northeast of suburbs is seeing big development.
Toll roads - such as the Chisholm Trail Parkway linking Fort Worth and Cleburne - are one way to make room for growth without raising taxes.
But they're falling seriously out of favor.
Gov. Greg Abbott, unlike his predecessor, opposes toll roads - period.
So do voters, who last year dedicated half of Texas’ oil and gas revenues to the state highway fund. That money cannot go to toll roads.
The private Turnpike Corp. has failed in its two attempts to develop a private highway - including the Northeast Gateway.
To date, Texas has no privately owned toll roads. (The Chisholm was built by the state controlled North Texas Tollway Authority.)
The Legislature eliminated private toll road companies in 1991 - an era when state coffers were full. The Turnpike Corp. was an exception, having incorporated in time to be grandfathered. Until now, it's held onto its power under a 1913 law to condemn land by eminent domain.
Crew, in defending his company, argued that condemning land works if used for a public purpose, such as meeting a booming need for transit.
But it's highly unpopular, especially for the likes of Brenda Short, of Caddo Mills, about 40 miles east of Dallas.
Short told lawmakers she bought 32 acres in a quiet part of Hunt County when she learned of plans to condemn her land for the Northeast Gateway.
“The property had been for sale for a long time,” she said, adding that the Turnpike Corp. should've bought the land then.
Crew said eliminating his company’s ability to take land against the wishes of property owners doesn't end his company. But it will greatly hinder his ability to build the Northeast Gateway.
He didn't get much sympathy from Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who's a co-sponsor of Hall's proposal.
She wanted him against coming to her district in east-central Texas, halfway between Austin and Houston, with plans for a toll road.
“They would go crazy,"