Image: Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough (right) with First Lady of Montgomery County Kim Keough. Keough has successfully put the Commissioners Court and the Texas Department of Transportation in position so that removal of the State Highway 242 flyover tolls appears likely at the Tuesday, May 28, 2019, Commissioners Court meeting
Conroe, May 24 – Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough, the “People’s Judge,” has successfully placed Montgomery County and the Commissioners Court into position so that removal of the State Highway 242 flyover tolls appears likely at the Tuesday, May 28, 2019, Commissioners Court meeting. Keough placed the item on the Commissioners Court’s agenda on April 9, 2019, but encountered fierce resistance from all four of his colleagues on the Commissioners Court (although Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack did vote with Keough on that occasion to remove the tolls.)
Keough came into office as County Judge on January 1, 2019, but Montgomery County taxpayers had paid the debt on the SH 242 flyovers in January, 2018. Only after Keough raised the issue forty-five (45) days ago did any members of the Commissioners Court take action to ensure the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) would assume the expenses for maintenance of the flyovers, if the County government voted to end the tolls.
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) on April 9.
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.
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.
In fact, Rob Eissler, the taxpayer-funded lobbyist who was to act as the County’s emissary to TxDOT, had never looked into the issue of TxDOT’s agreement to assume the flyover maintenance as of April 9.
On April 18, this newspaper confirmed with sources inside of TxDOT that TxDOT had agree to assume the maintenance expenses for the flyovers, if the County government removed them. Commissioner Noack later confirmed that he had received the same assurances from TxDOT.
Keough’s Chief of Staff Jason Millsaps presented some answers to the Commissioners Court during the April 9 meeting. 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.
Montgomery County Attorney B.D. Griffin later disagreed and told the Commissioners Court that he was not definitively willing to render that legal opinion when Noack asked him that question later in the meeting. “The unilateral removing of the tolls does not require TxDOT to maintain that,” Griffin explained. Griffin also explained that the funds to construct the third flyover are not in the County-TxDOT agreement.
Noack agreed that the agreement is not clear whether TxDOT will “come in and start maintaining them” once the toll flyovers end.
It turned out that TxDOT agreed with Millsaps and the plain reading of the TxDOT-Montgomery County agreement.
Keough and Millsaps argued that terminating the flyover tolls would not impact the construction of a third flyover on the northbound Interstate 45 side eastward towards State Highway 242. Millsaps noted there are escrow funds available to Montgomery County under the State’s “pass-through” tolls program for the construction of the third flyover. Millsaps explained that the State would likely contribute additional funds for the construction of the third flyover, because it would connect a federal road to a state highway. The escrow funds available to Montgomery County total approximately $56 million.
Griffin did, however, make clear that the County government would receive all “pass-through” toll funds to which the County is entitled, regardless of the decision whether or not to remove the tolls.
Millsaps also told the Court that he ran a poll on social media during the morning of April 9 in which he asked whether respondents supported removing the tolls from the SH 242 flyovers. 93% of the respondents answered “yes” and only 7% wanted the tolls to remain on the flyovers.
Always wanting to spend more citizen tax dollars, Meador argued on April 9, “We don’t have a current commitment from TxDOT to maintain the two flyovers.”
Keough pointed out that the agreement between the County government and TxDOT stipulated, “The Department shall be responsible for maintenance of the project after completion of the work, except that the Developer (the County) shall be responsible for maintaining any highway or improvement that is tolled.” Griffin was unwilling to interpret the agreement that TxDOT would be responsible for maintenance of the flyovers after completion of the work on them and after the County removed the tolls on them.
Riley said, “I can tell you that as of yesterday talking to Quincy Allen [TxDOT’s Regional Engineer], they’re in no hurry to maintain these flyovers…Just because we remove the tolls does not mean he’s going to maintain the flyovers.”
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 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.“
Although he voted to remove the tolls, Noack argued, “I’ve always been in favor of removing tolls, but before we do it, we need to make sure we have the right answers from TxDOT.” Noack’s argument clearly provided the fodder for Riley and Meador to persuade Metts, as the swing vote, to vote against removing the flyover tolls.
These issues have pended for more than 14 months, so it is inconceivable that none of the members of the Commissioners Court – Noack, Riley, and Meador – have determined the answer to whether TxDOT would assume the maintenance responsibilities for the flyovers, if the County government removed the tolls.
Metts said he opposes tollroads but would not vote to remove the tolls until he knew with certainty who would maintain the flyovers and who would pay for building the third flyover. “There are a lot of unanswered questions here, but nobody has given a clear answer today…and I haven’t got them yet…I would like to have something from the state written down.”
Keough insisted upon a roll call vote. By the time it was Metts’ turn to vote, the vote was two in favor of removing the tolls and two against. Metts was the deciding vote to keep the tolls on the State Highway 242 flyovers.
Riley placed the item on the agenda for the May 28 meeting, because TxDOT confirmed what others knew all along and what Millsaps and Keough had made clear both on April 9 and during Keough’s electoral campaign for County Judge: TxDOT would assume the flyover expenses once the tolls came off.
Keough clearly was the impetus behind this great victory for the citizens of Montgomery County. Thankfully, it appears Commissioners Noack and Riley will support removing the flyover tolls and follow Keough’s terrific leadership on this issue.