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Amid mounting debate over toll lanes, transportation commissioner says it's time for 'new blood'

Gov. Greg Abbott now has two spots to fill on the commission that oversees the Texas Department of Transportation at a time when he's drawing ire for blocking toll projects.

Toll road in Central Texas on Dec. 17, 2017.

DALLAS — One of the state’s most influential transportation officials on Thursday said he’s stepping down from the board that oversees the Texas Department of Transportation to make way for “new blood.”

Texas Transportation Commission member Victor Vandergriff, who said his resignation is effective Friday, is the second person since last week to announce their exit from the five-person board.

The departures come after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who appoints transportation commissioners, told the body not to use toll lanes to help fund highway expansions and renovations throughout the state. That directive came hours after The Texas Tribune reported that TxDOT officials considered classifying the tolled and non-tolled portions of some highway rebuilds and expansions as separate construction jobs to get around a constitutional prohibition on using some state tax revenues on projects that have toll lanes.

Vandergriff is one of many state transportation officials and regional planners who have long said that managed toll lanes alongside non-tolled highways can help fast-track construction projects needed to keep pace with population growth in the state’s urban areas.

Vandergriff said state leaders at some point will have to be forthright with Texans that congestion is only going to get worse unless toll projects continue to be built or legislators raise the state gas tax.

“I’ve raised the question enough times, I don’t want to be a broken record, if that makes sense,” Vandergriff told The Texas Tribune on Thursday. “It’s just time to do something different. Obviously, I’m frustrated we can’t get projects moving as fast as we could or should. It’s just time for new blood.”

Vandergriff told the Tribune that it was his choice to step down about a year before his term ends and that Abbott did not ask him to do so. He made his resignation official at a meeting of the Regional Transportation Council, which oversees transportation policies and funding in North Texas. His departure was first reported by D Magazine last week.

Vandergriff told RTC members that his exit is not related to a Tribune investigation that found he billed taxpayers for trips to Austin as a transportation commissioner while also being paid to represent the interests of an automotive company at the Capitol. Vandergriff said he plans to reimburse the state for certain expenses incurred during at least three days of travel.

Fellow transportation commissioner Tryon Lewis announced last week that he is also stepping down. He plans to apply to be a judge in Odessa.

Meanwhile, state and regional planners are still scrambling to rework long-term transportation plans months after Abbott directed TxDOT not to rely on toll lanes as a financing mechanism. In North Texas, the governor has drawn ire because his directive instantly created a shortfall in a $1.8 billion plan to rebuild the aging LBJ Freeway in eastern Dallas, Garland and Mesquite.

“He’s being very short sighted,” Dallas City Council member Lee Kleinman said.

A spokeswoman in Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Toll lanes and toll roads have become increasingly controversial as more of them have been built throughout the state. And Abbott, who is up for re-election this fall, has long promised to combat congestion without relying on toll revenues to fund highway projects.

To shore up a $643 million gap in the LBJ rebuild, North Texas transportation officials are now considering delaying other highway projects. Regional planners in the state’s other urban areas may also have to delay other highway projects to cover shortfalls, but the full impact of Abbott’s directive throughout the state isn’t clear yet. TxDOT officials were not available to discuss the matter Thursday.

Uncertainty about the LBJ project’s future has prompted criticism from some of Abbott’s fellow Republicans. Denton County Judge Mary Horn on Thursday sent a letter to the governor supporting managed toll lanes on LBJ Freeway. Such lanes were recently added to Interstate 35E, which runs through her county north of Dallas.

Horn told Abbott that while residents opposed managed toll lanes before and during construction, they are widely supported now that they are open. She said the lanes provided money needed for highway expansions and improved traffic. Horn also criticized the governor and other state officials for blocking local leaders’ attempts to solve their own transportation woes.

“The Republican Party that I belong to has always held that he who governs best is he who governs closest to the voter,” Horn said.

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