Naked City

A Jury of Their Peers

It sounds perfectly innocuous: "an independent quality-assurance peer-review of overall transportation planning and decision making in the CAMPO planning area." But this peer-review study has become a flashpoint in the always contentious struggle over Austin's transportation future.

Back in October, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization -- the regional body charged with approving all local transportation projects -- approved the concept of "working with a variety of public agencies and private business" to undertake this study. The CAMPO board was supposed to approve moving forward with a consultant search at its Nov. 8 meeting, but the item got pulled from that agenda (which also featured CAMPO's pivotal vote to allow Capital Metro to proceed with its light rail plans). It is likely that the issue will come up again at the Dec.13 CAMPO meeting -- at 6pm at the Thompson Conference Center at UT, if you want to go.

Why is this so controversial? Mostly, because of the "Gang of Four" who first proposed the peer review -- St. David's Healthcare CEO and longtime local luminary Neal Kocurek, Austin American-Statesman publisher Mike Laosa, former Chamber of Commerce chair Gary Valdez, and Texas Turnpike Authority (TTA) chair Pete Winstead. Of these, Laosa and Winstead set off the loudest alarm bells among local progressives and transportation activists.

The Statesman, of course, has been a longtime and vigorous critic of Capital Metro, and an equally fervent proponent of S.H. 130, and Winstead is leading the agency that would build and operate that much-maligned toll road, as well as others in Central Texas, if they're ever built. So they are hardly unbiased. Indeed, in TTA board proceedings back in July, Winstead argued that CAMPO's own planning -- which in his view "adopted a compact-city model ... that suggests where we'd like people to be living, [under which] light rail and other transit would make more sense" -- did not reflect reality, and that "when we go to Wall Street [to get] our bonds," the ATS model "could hamper or delay our projects."

So, it is feared, this "independent peer review" is actually an attempt to cook the local transportation numbers to justify S.H. 130 and other road projects at the expense of Capital Metro and the city of Austin. (One might think that the point of a long-range plan is to direct transportation investments to create a more functional region, not simply extend the unpopular status quo of sprawl and gridlock, but apparently Winstead thinks otherwise.)

Also recall that S.H. 130 was converted from a straightforward highway project to a toll road because the state couldn't come up with a cost-benefit analysis that justified the investment. So the issue of funding is a real one, and the peer-review proposal involves not just re-examining the planning assumptions, but "recommending improvements to the funding decision process." This is seen by many as code for "killing light rail and raiding Capital Metro's sales tax to fund S.H. 130 and other road projects." In the last legislative session, Round Rock Rep. Mike Krusee filed a bill that would have given voters a chance to do exactly that.

But if peer review's opponents are right, and Winstead et al.'s motives are so transparent, then why not let them knock themselves out producing a study that will surely be DOA? Because they're not so sure. The fear was aptly expressed by Austin City Council Member and Cap Met board member Daryl Slusher, who noted that many city boondoggles and policy missteps have been justified by "people waving around reports by 'independent experts' that say we have to do something that, it turns out, is wrong. And I don't want that to happen here."

Slusher made those observations at a Capital Metro board meeting, which highlights one of several ironies here: Originally, the backers of peer review asked Cap Met, which has much to lose from such an effort, to pay the lion's share of the $250,000 price tag. When it adopted its current budget, the Cap Met board instead set aside $125,000 to contribute to all such proposals, of which peer review was only one. This was officially described as a nod to fiscal responsibility, but the leeriness of the Cap Met board toward peer review is no secret.

Another irony is that the CAMPO plan, and the mainstream political opinion that it reflects, has made its peace with S.H.1 30 and the TTA's other projects. In the view of CAMPO's planners, the region needs to adopt a more compact development strategy and build light rail and expand its highway network, all at the same time, in order to keep up with the demand for mobility.

But "all at the same time" is not good enough in the fractious climate of Central Texas, where the city and its suburbs are all scrambling for their piece of the pie. By its backers' own admission, the peer review process is intended to cut the pie into different -- and presumably unequal -- slices.

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