Texas bill would require free toll roads for some veterans
Four years after the Legislature passed a law allowing wounded and disabled veterans to drive for free on toll roads, about half of Texas' nearly two dozen tolled roads and bridges are still charging them for passage.
A House bill set for its first hearing Thursday could eliminate that practice by simply changing one word in the statute -- "may" to "shall." State Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Corpus Christi, who carried the 2009 bill allowing toll agencies to discount or forgive tolls for veterans who are officially disabled, were awarded a Purple Heart or a Medal of Honor, now believes the option needs to become a mandate.
He also wants to add veterans awarded the Air Force Cross, the Navy Cross, and the Air Force and Army Distinguished Service Cross medals to the no-tolls roster.
Central Texas, due to different ownership of the area's six active tollways, presents veterans with a confusing mishmash.
On Texas 130, for instance, a veteran with the proper license plates can drive free from Georgetown to U.S. 183 at Mustang Ridge. But if that former service member continues south toward Seguin on the section of Texas 130 operated by a private company, a bill will arrive in the mail. Similarly, a vet going from Round Rock to Leander will have several free miles on Texas 45 North, followed by a pay-to-drive trip on 183-A.
"The motivation for the bill is that there be uniformity across the state," Herrero said. "I hope that these entities would look beyond the dollar they would not collect from these veterans. The first question should be, do you or do you not want to help veterans?"
That question, inherent in the original bill, has put the state's various toll agencies in an awkward position. While the affected veterans -- about 160,000, Herrero said -- represent less than 1 percent of the state's population, the uncollected tolls can build up to appreciable money.
The Harris County Toll Road Authority, which profitably operates four tollways and a toll bridge, quickly decided to waive tolls for qualified veterans. The forgone tolls cost the agency about $6 millionover the first three years, about 0.8 percent of total revenue.
But the Texas Department of Transportation, which has seven tollways (including four in Austin), the North Texas Toll Authority, which has six toll facilities in the MetroPlex, and the state's regional mobility authorities held off. That includes the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, the Austin-based agency that operates 183-A and the Manor Expressway in the U.S. 290 East corridor.
TxDOT reversed course last year after an American-Statesman report detailed how toll authorities around the state were ignoring the 2009 law. Qualified veterans began driving free on TxDOT tollways as of Dec. 24. By the end of February, about $203,000 in tolls were waived, agency officials said, a pace that would amount to about $1.2 million over a year. The free rides, had they carried charges, would have amounted to about 1 percent of TxDOT's total toll revenue during January, agency communications chief Bob Kaufman said.
Kaufman said the agency believes that if Herrero's bill passes, the requirement to waive or discount tolls would apply to the privately run section of Texas 130 south of Mustang Ridge.
Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority officials have so far declined to join the waiver program.
"The primary concern is not specifically the revenue. It's really the potential for this program to expand to include other beneficiaries," said authority spokesman Steve Pustelnyk. "We support wholly our veterans. The question is, where does it stop?"
A spokeswoman with the North Texas toll agency said it does not oppose Herrero's bill, but its debt agreements limit free passage to select groups, such as law enforcement. TxDOT made a similar argument before changing course last year.
A few veterans have complained to the Statesman after getting bills for what they assumed were free trips on area tollways. Fred Lord, a retired Army lieutenant colonel disabled by wounds in the Vietnam War, advises fellow vets to keep an electronic toll tag on their cars. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in particular, some of them low paid and dealing with stress-related conditions, benefit greatly from free rides on uncongested tollways, said Lord, part of the Austin chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
"They don't have a whole bunch of money to pay the tolls," Lord said. "To them, it's a big deal, and they'll remember it forever."