Critics said they are comfortable with transfers of toll revenue outside the toll road authority, but only when they benefit transportation.

"The fees and taxes we collect ought to go to the purposes for which we collect them, or be reduced," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of Public Citizen Texas. "If they're generated to pay for toll roads and transit expansions within the Houston area that's one thing, but moving it off to other demands of the county is just not appropriate."

Boosting other modes

Tom Dornbusch, a board member of local advocacy group Citizens Transportation Coalition, said his group sees the value in self-supporting toll roads, but said the group would like to see mobility funds directed to boost modes of transportation other than roads.

"When you look at all these other purposes, they just don't have any transportation basis to them," said small-government advocate and former county tax assessor Paul Bettencourt. "What you're really taking about is morphing the toll road into a general-purpose, one-stop-shop bank for government."

County Judge Ed Emmett agreed that toll road funds should be used only to enhance the toll road system, but stressed that is how nearly all of the revenue has been used.

The county fronted toll money for Hurricane Ike recovery efforts in 2008 knowing insurance payments and federal reimbursements would come later, he said. The outstanding principal on that $33.5 million loan is $7.7 million.

"Everything else since has gone to mobility," Emmett said. "If you're only talking about $7.7 million for Ike relief, criminy, we've got hundreds of millions set aside so we can build roads. I put our system up against any system anywhere in the country, and that's what I just hate about getting off into discussions that cause people to think, 'Oh well something's really wrong there,' when it's not."

The principal balance on the $26.3 million Sports Authority loan from 2006 is $19.3 million, Chief Budget Officer Bill Jackson said.

Benefit to all residents

Commissioner El Franco Lee disputed the characterization of the toll road authority as a bank, saying it has ample funds on hand because it takes a prudent, incremental approach to building projects.

"That's not extra money that you don't do nothing else with. We're able to maintain a balance and not tax people out of existence," Lee said. "Affordable housing is still in reach of a lot more people here and you still have reasonable access to employment centers. Mobility is a mislaid term, because mobility fosters development and spurs commercial and residential development."

Commissioner Jack Cagle, in whose Precinct 4 the Tomball Tollway will be built, agreed, saying the county's use of toll revenue allows even those who do not use the system to benefit from it.

"Some might say, 'Well that's not fair either,' except to the extent that your commerce is increasing, so that engine drives and benefits the overall economy," Cagle said. "If we were to build all of our roads on the taxpayers' back without the toll road system being in place, we'd have to increase their taxes to a level that would be extremely uncomfortable and unpalatable."