Image: Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough known as “The People’s Judge” (front row, second from left), Keough’s Chief of Staff Jason Millsaps (far right), and a large group of citizen activists led the charge to remove the State Highway 242 flyover tolls, which finally occurred at midnight on Tuesday, May 28, 2019, after the Montgomery County Commissioners Court voted to end the tolls earlier in the day. From left to right, front row: Montgomery County Republican Party Treasurer John Hill Wertz, Judge Keough, Kelli Cook, Cindy Muth Gaskill, Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District Board member and GOP Precinct Chairman Jon Paul Bouche, Chief Millsaps. Left to right, back row: Dale Fessenden, Montgomery County Republican Party Vice Chairman Reagan Reed, Calvin Russell, Republican Precinct Chair and “Quiet Lady From Magnolia” Ginger Russell, and Republican Precinct Chair David Smith. (Photo: Courtesy of the citizens in the photograph.)
Conroe, May 29, Midnight – The State Highway 242 flyover tolls ended one minute ago (hopefully forever) after the Montgomery County Commissioners Court voted yesterday unanimously to remove them. The proposal by Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough, the “People’s Judge,” to remove those tolls, which he presented at the April 9, 2019, Commissioners Court meeting, and which Keough and his Chief of Staff put forward in a thorough presentation, began the process.
Citizen activists, including Montgomery County Republican Party Treasurer John Hill Wertz, the inimitable Kelli Cook, Cindy Muth Gaskill, Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District Board member and GOP Precinct Chairman Jon Paul Bouche, Dale Fessenden, Montgomery County Republican Party Vice Chairman Reagan Reed, Calvin Russell, Republican Precinct Chair and “Quiet Lady From Magnolia” Ginger Russell, and Republican Precinct Chair David Smith, among many others, had vociferously lobbied and campaigned for removal of the flyover tolls since January, 2018, when the taxpayers paid of the debt for the two flyovers.
On April 9, “People’s Judge” Keough sought to alleviate traffic by removing the flyover tolls at the intersection of State Highway 242 and Interstate 45. The Commissioners Court members would hear none of that sensible proposal and voted it down two (Keough, Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack) to three (Precinct 4 Commissioner James Metts, Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley, and Precinct 1 Commissioner Mike Meador). Keough noted that only three percent (3%) of the traffic that goes through the Interstate 45-SH 242 intersection uses the flyovers, based upon car count studies. In other words, traffic specifically seeks to avoid using the flyovers, because the County government has continued to toll them.
Fifteen months after the taxpayers had paid the debt and a few weeks after he came into office as County Judge, Keough asked the right question, directed to Riley, who is President of the Montgomery County Toll Road Authority: “You’ve been the chair of this committee. How come do we not know the answer to this by now? We have moved to take the tolls off the road how many times? Many times, and we still don’t know the answer to that question, which tells me that they just don’t want to do it or we just don’t care, because we want to keep this toll going, because it’s an additional source of income, which is an additional tax.”
Keough also argued, “Part of this whole deal is that the people want it off, so we should take it [the tolls] off.” Keough said, “I ran on this. I ran on the fact that I would do exactly what the people asked us to do…and that we represent them.”
Although Noack voted for removing the tolls, he seemed to argue in favor of keeping them until the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) provided the County government with a definitive answer whether TxDOT would take over the maintenance expense for the two existing flyovers. Noack has claimed that he’s been working to remove the SH 242 flyover tolls since January, 2018, when the County government paid the bond debt on the flyovers.
Keough’s Chief of Staff Jason Millsaps presented some answers to the Commissioners Court. Millsaps presented the contract between the Commissioners Court and TxDOT and explained that Montgomery County is only responsible for maintaining the flyovers as long as the roads have tolls. Once the County government removes the tolls under that agreement, TxDOT would be responsible for maintenance of the flyovers, according to Millsaps.
As this newspaper confirmed on April 18, TxDOT confirmed that it would assume the maintenance expenses for the two flyovers.
Riley told the Commissioners and the public on May 28 that he had received an email from TxDOT that they agree to assume the flyover maintenance expense. Riley asked Montgomery County Attorney B.D. Griffin to draft an agreement between Montgomery County, the Harris County Toll Road Authority, and TxDOT to end the tolls and transfer ownership and maintenance of the flyovers to TxDOT. Riley also confirmed that TxDOT has completed an engineering inspection of the flyovers, which they did at his behest.
Noack then interjected that he wanted the tolls removed immediately from the flyovers. Riley agreed and included that instruction in his motion.
Keough quietly presided over the proceedings as County Judge. The vote was five to zero in favor of the motion to remove the tolls and transfer maintenance and ownership of the flyovers to TxDOT.
Keough remarked, “Today’s court action is a huge win for the citizens of Montgomery County, as the flyovers will be utilized as they were designed and congestion relief is in sight for the entire 242 intersection. It was great to see the Court work together to achieve this monumental task. What an honor it is to serve the people of Montgomery County!”
Montgomery County GOP Treasurer Wertz said, “As someone who lives down SH 242, we’re very much looking forward to this change, which is something that should have happened a year ago. All of the roadblocks Charlie Riley had put up could have been solved, like whether TxDOT would pick up the maintenance immediately. For over a year, we’ve paid tolls for something that should have been free.”
Cook, who holds the highest position in the American Constitutional System of Government, a private citizen, said, “Thanks to all of you who contacted the commissioners and told them to remove the 242 tolls! The citizens of Montgomery County have been heard loud and clear. The double taxation will cease. The 242 tolls are being removed tonight at midnight! The commissioners court vote was unanimous today. Hopefully Montgomery County’s message will be heard around that state. If it can happen here, it can happen elsewhere!”
From 1953 to 1977, what is now known as Interstate 30 between Dallas and Fort Worth, also known as the Tom Landry Freeway, operated as the Dallas-Fort Turnpike, a tollroad. In 1977, however, the citizens had paid off the bonds which financed construction of this important road. The Texas Department of Transportation removed the tolls and the road became a freeway. That is one of the few instances in history where government removed tolls from a road.
The Harris County Toll Road Authority assured citizens that it would remove tolls from roads when the taxpayers had paid for them. That never occurred, because the Authority remains far too out of touch with citizen interests to take such an action. The Authority enjoys the money too much.
In the face of enormous citizen opposition, disgraced former County Judge Craig Doyal and elitist Precinct 2 Montgomery County Commissioner Charlie Riley lobbied TxDOT to allow them to construct 3.1 miles of tollroad now known as the “Decimation of Hope Highway” or the TX-249 Extension which begins and Spring Creek and heads northeast just south of the interchange of TX 249 and Spur 149 at Pinehurst. TxDOT had originally planned to build that road as a freeway. Doyal and Riley also lobbied TxDOT to build the remainder of TX 249 as a tollroad in Montgomery County. At the Grimes County line, the road becomes a freeway, because Grimes County leaders and citizens had lobbied for the road not to be a tollroad. On June 27, 2017, Doyal and Riley lied to the TxDOT governing board, the Texas Transportation Commission, in a public hearing that Montgomery County was “unified in support behind a tollroad.”
The Decimation of Hope Highway will likely open in early 2020. Drivers will likely avoid TX 249 just as they avoided the State Highway 242 flyover tollroads, which became a block at the SH 242-Interstate 45 intersection and a source of traffic congestion. Thinking citizens should boycott TX 249 and force removal of the tolls.
Why did the SH 242 flyover tolls finally come off? Because citizens actively made clear to their government those tolls were unacceptable after the January, 2018, repayment of the bond debt in full and because an elected servant (Keough) and a public employee (Millsaps) understood they work for and are servants of the citizens.