The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

Peer Pressure

By Mike Clark-Madison, October 27, 2000, News

Gosh, that wasn't so bad now, was it? After months of bitter wrangling, our local arbiter of transportation planning, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), was finally subjected to the "peer review" study backed by the road warriors and fought by the transit troops. Now that the draft is in, guess who won.

Okay, we'll give you a hint. "The process by which the transit plan was developed is sound, and it recommends light rail in a corridor that has the highest potential for success." Or how about: "Regional leadership is needed to ... develop ways to integrate the transportation plan with local land use plans." And furthermore: CAMPO's "regional population forecasts are, in our judgment, too high" and "the employment projections for the Austin central business district are too low."

Those are all quotes from Cambridge Systematics' draft report, and they don't sound much like what the pro-SH 130 and anti-A-Train crowds have been saying about CAMPO, one of dozens of metropolitan planning organizations (or MPOs) created by federal law decades ago in metro areas around the country. Not that the road hawks were completely busted; Cambridge also noted that the MPO's 2025 long-range plan, which is already more asphalt-swelled than the left would like, is a sound blueprint for future infrastructure.

But the Cambridge report nevertheless says, in plain English, yes to transit, yes to Smart Growth, and yes to a compact city. Which is what CAMPO was already saying, which is why people like Statesman publisher Mike Laosa and Texas Turnpike Authority chair Pete Winstead felt CAMPO needed a peer review to see the error of its ways. If nothing else, the Cambridge report is very much not what transit advocates thought it would be -- a stink bomb meant to hijack light rail at the ballot box.

"We expect that many readers are expecting this document to provide them with a definitive answer on whether or not light rail should be implemented," the Cambridge consultants write. Then, in italics: "This review does not make a recommendation on light rail, nor was it intended to." Well, this is half right; that was the intent of those advocating peer review, but the local and state officials on the CAMPO Policy Advisory Committee felt this intruded on their own prerogatives, and Cambridge's charge was thus more limited.

Rather, the peer review hits, and hits hard, on the common-sense notion that CAMPO should actually do what its name implies. (By the way, as Cambridge notes, "We have been asked to be 'hard hitting.'") You may recall that CAMPO used to be called the Austin Transportation Study. Its new moniker suggests a more regional focus, an interest in planning more than just transportation, and an independent stand-alone organization.

This is indeed what many want, and it's what Cambridge says we need, but it is not quite what we now have. "The Austin region needs a far more comprehensive approach to transportation service delivery. Regional leadership is needed to take the 2025 'plan' and develop a 'strategy' to carry that plan out in an expedited way," reads the report. "CAMPO is in a natural position to take this leadership role in the Austin region."

Lead? CAMPO? Rare has been the issue on which the 21-member CAMPO board has not voted unanimously in favor of whatever the staff, the Texas Dept. of Transportation, the Turnpike Authority, Capital Metro, or whoever else has brought their way. On issues that have raised hackles, like light rail or SH 130, the votes have split fairly predictably between city and suburbs, Dems and Rs. Austin state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, chair of the board, builds consensus by cutting off his opponents' microphones.

But what Cambridge envisions is an MPO that controls the scheduling and buildout of planned projects, sells the community on the need for and vision of its plans, coordinates its plan with land use planning at the local level(!), and takes responsibility for getting the money needed to build all the roads and rail we need, which we do not currently have. "There is a constant battle for resources that we characterize as highly divisive and inconsistent with successful regional planning," the report reads.

Could this happen? It has elsewhere; the trend nationally is for MPOs to save cities from themselves and their dysfunctional politics. But CAMPO is highly political, and a bit dysfunctional, itself. Typically, MPOs are dominated by technical experts and midlevel political staffers, but here the senator himself takes charge. For CAMPO to become a true regional leader, power players from Barrientos on down would have to allow the MPO to become something larger than themselves.

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