CAMPO & Climate Politics
Austin reps and mayor split on 2040 Plan vision statement
By Michael King,
4:02PM, Sun. Nov. 3, 2013
City Hall is reportedly still buzzing over a recent split vote on the broad goals of the future planning for the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization – one which removed "climate change" as an explicit rationale for the region’s long term transportation plan.
Observers of recent City Council meetings will have noticed a persistent policy chill (sometimes not just policy) between Mayor Lee Leffingwell and the rest of Council on certain high-profile questions – notably the Austin Police Department budget and, in a related recent issue, how much APD patrol is necessary on overnight bike trails. Leffingwell won that latter dispute – the majority voted to end the pilot bike trail program, but not before some members, most notably Mike Martinez and Chris Riley, objected strongly to the public notion that bicyclists were being pitted against police protection.
Apparently the tension has also visited CAMPO, where Riley and his Council colleagues Bill Spelman and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole were on the losing end of a vote to restore “climate change” to the 2040 CAMPO Transportation Plan vision statement, where it has previously accompanied such ennobling rhetoric as “Our transportation system is about economic opportunity, quality of life and environmental stewardship” (2035 Plan). That stuff will apparently still be there, but at a work session prior to the latest board meeting – where suburban county representatives along with Austin officials sit and set long-range regional transportation goal – the decision was made to delete “climate change,” because the language reportedly rankles some of the suburban officials (for reasons we presumably don’t need to rehearse for Chronicle readers).
At any rate, at the subsequent formal board meeting the three Austin CMs attempted to amend the vision statement to once again include the language, after Riley made an impassioned plea on the importance of keeping climate protection as a goal. According to a report last week by In Fact Daily, they lost, 7-9, with Leffingwell voting with the majority. A subsequent vote to adopt the overall vision statement carried 10-6.
Leffingwell defended his vote to IFD by saying it was simply an attempt to keep “peace in the valley” of the regional group, and that the issue at hand was “a meaningless little statement about what our purpose is there at CAMPO.” He noted that he personally believes in the science of man-made climate change, but he didn’t see the point of arguing over a divisive policy goal that would have no substantive effect on the actual transportation plan which, if implemented, would effectively “combat climate change.”
His Council colleagues adamantly disagreed, and Cole, Spelman, and Riley all reiterated the need to keep the goal as an explicit CAMPO mission. Spelman said he would work to return combating climate change as a goal in the new year, and Riley told IFD, “CAMPO’s current long-term plan identifies climate protection as an express goal for our region, and I’d like to see that goal carried forward to CAMPO’s 2040 plan.”
Of course, what might hurt Leffingwell’s reputation in Austin and on the Council dais could well help him achieve strategic policy goals in regional transportation. That was indeed the explanation given by mayoral aide Amy Everhart, who told Newsdesk that Leffingwell felt there was more at stake in regional cooperation than rhetorical victories. “It just seemed to mean something to [the suburban members], and Lee has been working regionally on this transportation stuff," said Everhart. "He sees that we are taking climate change into consideration in practice. And he just thought, if it means something to them, to take it out of the vision statement, then he would support that.”
Everhart said that while some of the opposition to the language undoubtedly stems from official conservative climate change denialism, there was also some feeling that a decision already made during a work session was about to be overturned at the behest of the big city representatives. “There was also a sense of Austin dictating,” Everhart said. “They’re just sick of Austin telling them what to do.” And the mayor, she added, just doesn’t believe changing the vision statement will have any substantive effect on the actual transportation plan.
Also at work might well be the difference between Austin politics and regional politics, including the sense that this episode works well for both the Council members and the mayor. Inside Austin, Council members with ambitions acquire political capital by strong environmental rhetoric; beyond city limits in GOP Land, that’s a very mixed bag. And the mayor, who has indicated no intention of pursuing another office beyond 2014, sees the next year as his culminating chance to establish an institutional legacy, especially on transportation matters. “He just really sees, he’s got one year left in office,” said Everhart, “and his top priority is transportation, and he really sees that he needs these allies outside of the city.”