Austin and Dallas, February 5 – Texas Transportation Commissioner Victor Vandergriff has resigned due for two reasons: personal scandal and tollroads scandal. Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal, the embattled politician who is desperately shoving a tollroad extension as the TX 249 Tollway, known among Montgomery County citizens as the Decimation of Hope Highway, invited Vandergriff to speak in favor of the TX 249 Tollway before the Montgomery County Commissioners Court on December 19, 2017, in an obviously staged presentation.
Several newspapers, including Texas Tribune and the Austin American-Statesman, reported that Vandergriff billed the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) for Austin trips when he was actually there to lobby on behalf of automotive dealers who had hired him as a private lobbyist to advocate for them before the Texas Legislature. The Tribune reported on January 9, 2018:
“While there’s nothing new about hired guns for auto dealers advocating for carve-out bills at the Capitol, Vandergriff was billing taxpayers for his trips to Austin as a commissioner for the Texas Department of Transportation at the same time he was getting paid by a company Berkshire had just bought to represent its interests before the Legislature.
“It wasn’t an isolated incident. Vandergriff has repeatedly conducted private business in Austin while TxDOT was paying for his travel and other expenses…”
Investigations have shown that Vandergriff has engaged in that practice for at least two years. After reporters finally caught him, Vandergriff said he’d reimburse TxDOT for expenses he incurred on those trips.
The Governor, Greg Abbott, will certainly accept Vandergriff’s reimbursement, but, at the same time, Vandergriff must resign from the Texas Transportation Commission and has done so.
The staged event in Montgomery County on December 19
Doyal invited Vandergriff of Arlington to come to Montgomery County on December 19, 2017, to put the scare into Montgomery County about the Tx-249 Tollway. Vandergriff failed miserably. After several very open practice sessions between Doyal and Vandergriff during multiple breaks during the Commissioners Court meeting, Vandergriff, who hails from a political family in Fort Worth that used government to enrich themselves, at first said what Doyal wanted to hear: “If you don’t build the Tx-249 Tollroad now,” referring to the 4.5 miles sandwiched between the 15 mile Tx-DOT section and the HCTRA tollroad, then “we won’t see it built in our lifetimes.”
A few minutes later, Vandergriff amended his comment to say “we won’t see it built during our business careers.”
Riley brought to the Commissioners Court his regular group of supporters, including members of the infamous political “Charlie Riley Band” to “testify.” Riley also enlisted some law enforcement officers from the Magnolia area to beg for the tollroad to increase mobility. The law enforcement officers never quite explained how a tollroad that goes out through vacant pastureland and ends in Todd Mission, Texas, will increase mobility and assist law enforcement in the Magnolia area, which Riley has largely ignored during his 3 years as a County Commissioner. (How’s that widening of F.M. 1488 going?!)
In actuality, Riley’s little group of people did nothing other than disrupt the meeting several times and shout profanities at a conservative Republican Precinct Chair who had the audacity to follow the Republican Party Platform and oppose tollroads. At one point, representatives of the Precinct 1 Constable’s Office offered to come to the Republican Precinct Chair’s assistance, although she thanked them and declined.
The staged presentation fell apart when Noack and Clark pressed Vandergriff
After the Doyal-Riley show ended, Precinct 3 County Commissioner James Noack asked Vandergriff, “I spoke with TxDOT Regional Director Quincy Allen who said the Tx-249 road would be built whether Montgomery County does it or not. Isn’t that true?”
Vandergriff undercut the entire staged presentation by answering Noack truthfully, “Yes, but it would be more like a farm-to-market road like what Grimes County will get than a tollroad.”
Clark’s wisdom shines through
Precinct 4 County Commissioner Jim Clark, in his down home common sensical manner, then delivered the death blow to the very poorly staged presentation of Doyal and Riley when he looked right at Doyal and said, “I can’t imagine that if TxDOT is overseeing the construction of A and they’re building C, then are you serious that they’re not going to build B right in middle of them?”
Of course, even Vandergriff nodded his head that the Tx-249 extension construction would occur in the 4.5 mile Decimation of Hope Highway section, even if Montgomery County didn’t proceed to build it as a tollroad.
Statewide opposition and Montgomery County opposition to tollroads
Two days ago, another Texas Transportation Commission member, Tryon Lewis of Odessa, also resigned after Governor Greg Abbott forced TxDOT to shift away from its intention of building more tollroads in Texas.
On Thursday, November 16, 2017, TxDOT announced that it intended to expand the construction of toll lanes in conjunction with highway rebuilds for roads that are presented untolled. Within a few hours, Lieutenant Governor Patrick issued a statement that “lawmakers are very unhappy with the Texas Transportation Commission [TxDOT’s governing board] whose members appear to be going in a direction that opposes the will of” Texas legislators and Texas drivers.
Two days later, on November 18, Governor Greg Abbott joined the chorus of opposition to more tollroads in Texas: “I think TxDOT is going a great job to build more roads and unclog our congestion. Obviously, we want them to do that in a way as I promised and that is without adding more toll roads, and I think they have the resources to be able to do that.”
Unlike Doyal and Riley who ignore Montgomery County citizen opinion, TxDOT acquiesced to the loud protests from the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, and several state legislators on November 19 when it announced that it was withdrawing the program for more tollroads it had announced only three days earlier.
Meanwhile, the Montgomery County Republican Executive Committee voted 34 to 1 on August 15, 2017, to call for a statewide referendum that “No governmental entity should ever construct or fund the construction of toll roads, unless its voters have approved each road by referendum.”
In response to Montgomery County Republicans’ call for a statewide referendum – and to the gathering of over 1,000 petition signatures stating opposition to the Tx-249 Tollway in Montgomery County during a 3-day period in August – the State Republican Executive Committee overwhelmingly voted to place Proposition 2 on the statewide ballot for the March 6, 2018, Republican Primary Election: “No governmental entity should ever construct or fund the construction of tollroads without voter approval.”
Republican Primary Election Statewide Proposition 2: “No governmental entity should ever construct or fund the construction of tollroads without voter approval.”
It’s becoming pretty clear that Doyal and Riley have a stark political choice: either they get their tollroad and lose their jobs as County Judge and Commissioner, or they can try to keep their jobs but disavow their core political supporters, who include Sheldon, Varde, Austin consultant Pete Peters, Bobby Adams of Halff Associates engineers, and Jones & Carter engineers.
Clearly, Doyal and Riley have chosen to remain loyal to their outside-of-county campaign contributors. Doyal and Riley have repeatedly lied to the citizens of Magnolia and of Montgomery County that the TX 249 extension wouldn’t occur unless it’s a tollroad. Even Vandergriff contradicted them on December 19.
It appears only two people in all of Texas support tollroads at this juncture: Craig Doyal and Charlie Riley.