Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

Great leaps forward: On local transportation, we're in for a bumpy ride

Austin At Large
As important an issue as it is, for journalists the transportation beat is notoriously dull, slow-moving, and arcane. Those of us who've mastered it take a perverse pride in covering the dull, slow-moving, and arcane. But what a difference a day like Nov. 5 makes. Nothing has gotten less arcane, but it's arguably less dull. And it's clearly moving a lot faster.

Gerald Daugherty completed his yearlong march on the Travis Co. courthouse, cashing in the political capital he's accrued in about 15 years of throwing bombs at Capital Metro. Throughout the campaign, he told us and everyone else that, well, of course, if he was elected, he'd want to claim the county's seat on the Cap Metro board from Margaret Gómez. But now, in his new team-player (Red Sox?) persona, Daugherty has abjured this desire and will now, likely, replace his defeated predecessor, Margaret Moore, on the board of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization -- where he will join an established coterie of great and good road-over-rail minds.

That much is sure, even though the CAMPO board will look a lot different. As I write, CAMPO is deciding how to expand its boundaries. (The board was set to consider the issue Monday night but delayed the item until Dec. 9.) Right now, the CAMPO study and planning area includes all of Travis and part of Williamson and Hays counties -- an artificial zone determined by reference to what the census calls the "urbanized area," and the minimum size required by the federal legislation that creates and empowers MPOs. This boundary has to change anyway after the 2000 census, and CAMPO would like to expand beyond that new artificial minimum. But by how much? All of Travis, Williamson, and Hays? And all their respective cities? Or all those plus Bastrop and Caldwell -- the five counties together forming the official Austin metro area?

This matters for two reasons. Road projects in the farther-flung fringe would be subject to CAMPO's planning authority and eligible to receive the funds attached thereto. More importantly, adding all five counties and their cities would stack the CAMPO board (formally, the "policy advisory committee"), which is the final arbiter of which highways get built where and when and how around here.

For a while, the CAMPO board has been precariously balanced between urban and suburban interests -- usually pushing for roads, but with conditions (as we saw with SH130 and MoPac). In recent weeks, CAMPO staff and the board's executive committee (led by state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos) had been attempting to go slow -- expanding to the full five counties in two phases. And CAMPO has weighed different scenarios for board composition, including possible weighted voting to give the big players -- the cities of Austin and Round Rock, and Travis and Williamson counties -- the influence they deserve. But Bastrop and Caldwell counties and the smaller Central Texas cities are not inclined to want to wait. Likewise, CAMPO staff has floated the idea of cutting the number of local legislators (right now, they all get seats on the board). Fat chance of that, not when a GOP statehouse gives the highway lobby its most fruitful prospects in decades, despite the state's sparse finances.

Since CAMPO is a creature of federal law, other than by packing its board, there's not much the Texas highway ho's can do to minimize its power to apply common sense to their fantasies. But we now have two other entities -- the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority and the Austin-San Antonio Commuter Rail District -- that, while officially subservient to CAMPO's plans and priorities, have the favor of state Rep. Mike Krusee and Barrientos, respectively, and thus have effective power over CAMPO. Krusee has pre-filed bills to give the RMA (a sort of mini-TxDOT that's a joint venture between Travis and Williamson counties) the power to condemn land and sell bonds to fund the highway projects in its portfolio. First up: the U.S. 183-A toll bypass in Cedar Park. Does that mean Austinites will pay more than their share for a road in Williamson County? Is that what we mean by "regionalism" now?

In the new Capitol, Barrientos' star is clearly falling and Krusee's is rising, but on local transportation issues the two of them could still, likely, save us all time by designing Austin's future transportation network over coffee somewhere and having it etched on stone tablets. While they're at it, they can decide the fate of Capital Metro. With the GOP takeover, if Daugherty and his main man at the Lege, state Rep. Terry Keel, so desired, the transit authority could be gutted a hundred ways this session. Yet Krusee has emerged as Cap Metro's unlikely protector -- perhaps in deference to the state's GOP queen, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who's not with the R program on mass transit. If Krusee prevails (and so wishes), Cap Metro should be safe at least through the expected 2004 A-Train referendum.

The third man at that table should be Austin Mayor Gus Garcia, but the city and its troublesome priorities (you know, Smart Growth, the environment, sustainability, all that rot) have already been cut out of the loop on the RMA and will likely get to do little but watch as these decisions get made. The vacuum thus left has already, sorta, been filled by Travis Co., which is doing that new dance craze, the Democrat: shuffling to the center and trying to wrap its arms around Daugherty, the county GOP, and their campaign-long obsession with suburban traffic.

Meanwhile, Krusee has also pre-filed bills to enable TxDOT to pursue the Trans Texas Corridor plan -- thousands of miles of new road-plus-rail routes, each a quarter-mile wide, all across the great state -- that seemed so ridiculous when Gov. Rick Perry floated it in May. What a difference a day like Nov. 5 makes. State Highway 130 is part of the TTC plan; right now, its design/build team is getting public input on its future look and feel, and one doubts that any actual Central Texas citizen -- even those likely to attend SH130 charettes in Del Valle and Hutto -- would want it to look and feel like the Trans Texas Corridor, which (as envisioned back in May) in its concrete triumphalism would have embarrassed Mao Zedong.

But now is not the season for common sense, but for Great Leaps Forward. Fasten your seat belts. end story

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transportation, Capital Metro, Gerald Daugherty, Mike Krusee, Gonzalo Barrientos, Terry Keel, CAMPO, Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, RMA, US 183-A, SH 130, Austin-San Antonio Commuter Rail District, Austin MSA, urbanized area, Trans Texas Corridor, Texas Department of Transportation, TxDOT

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