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Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

Wheels in Motion: for candidates, the rubber has yet to meet the road (or rail)

By Mike Clark-Madison, April 25, 2003, News

It's easy to argue, or hope, that the current election is a battle for the hearts and minds not of the same old activists but of the mythical Average Austinites. And it's an article of faith that said Average Ones are hacked off most of all about traffic. In their literatures, all the leading mayoral candidates say transportation is a top priority. Only one, though -- Max Nofziger -- says much about what he would do as mayor to fix Austin's mobility messes. Nofziger has (and makes sure everyone knows he has) a multipoint plan for reducing traffic congestion and improving air quality at a fraction of the cost of the light-rail project he worked to defeat in 2000. Even the Statesman, which had little trouble curbing its enthusiasm for Nofziger in its nonendorsement, singled out Max's transportation plan for specific, if faint, praise. (The self-laudatory Max-for-Mayor press release, quoting that section of the endorsement, followed directly.)

As someone who's covered this beat for more than a decade, I can agree that Nofziger's plan is a damn sight more detailed than Will Wynn's highly abstracted talk of shared regional goals, or Marc Katz's impassioned sputtering that City Hall should do things it has in fact already done. But that's the difference between an election campaign, which is brief, focused, and goal directed, and the transportation beat, which is none of those things. Right now, as the candidates wend to and fro, major events are happening in the background, in the murky and glacial way that transportation decisions happen. These changes are going to have a big impact on the next mayor. It would be nice to know what the candidates think of them.

Other People's Mobility

My problem with the Nofziger transportation plan is that it fails to address the two concepts that have completely shaped and circumscribed Austin's transportation future -- "the region" and "the Legislature." Max has basically proffered a Plan B for Capital Metro -- more buses, free fares, incentives for hybrid cars, with rail only planned for existing rail right-of-way. I have no problem with a Plan B, but on the transportation to-do list, Capital Metro and rail are way down below the horizon right now. Other things matter more.

Most urgent, methinks humbly, is the painful legislative birth of a new Texas beast, the regional mobility authority. Now, as you may remember, Travis and Williamson counties formed a Central Texas RMA months ago, as authorized by legislation passed last session. But what we called an RMA and what will soon be known by that name are bureaucratic life forms about as similar as a puppy and a mastodon. All we locals wanted, simply put, was a legislative contrivance allowing Travis and Williamson to work together to build a single road -- the US 183-A toll bypass in Cedar Park -- faster than if we left it to the state, and more efficiently than the individual counties would be able to.

Unfortunately, Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, failed to quite pull off the required RMA framework in the 2001 session. So Krusee (now chair of the House Transportation Committee) endeavored to do cleanup this time. But things got out of control, and what the Lege now has in hand is a bill converting RMAs from bureaucratic devices, subservient to the will of the counties that created them, into highly empowered transportation superagencies. Under the new framework, in the local context, a Central Texas RMA could someday subsume Capital Metro, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Austin-San Antonio Commuter Rail District, and the cities' and counties' transportation departments into a single massive road machine.

Alarmed, the Travis Co. commissioners have managed to get Krusee's bill tweaked in a way that doesn't change the ground rules quite so drastically. But the saga has spotlighted what are already uncomfortable truths about the Central Texas RMA -- Williamson Co. has four seats on the RMA board, while much larger and wealthier Travis Co., whose citizens will ultimately pay much of the cost of a road in Cedar Park, only has three. And the city of Austin has no designated representation at all, even though US 183-A would also run well within the Austin city limits. As the legislation currently stands, an RMA can build a road in Austin over the objection of City Hall or Austin citizens, as long as that project is included in CAMPO's regional-transportation plan, which is hardly a safeguard, as you'll see.

As a concept, the RMA was troubling enough to people who thought the traditional Texas system -- each county pays its own way -- was as it should be. Whatever the Central Texas RMA turns out to be, it represents a major shift of power away from Austin and even Travis Co. into a "regional" entity whose accountability to the affected citizens is tenuous at best. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if in 2005, during the next mayor's term, the Lege takes yet another swing at the RMA in response to regional political imperatives and Austin's perceived failings and misdeeds.

The CAMPO Sandbox

Ditto with the long, drawn-out effort (six months, at least, so far) to expand CAMPO to include all of Travis, Williamson, and Hays counties -- and, provisionally, Bastrop and Caldwell down the line, to match the official Austin metro area -- and adjust the membership of its powerful board accordingly. The CAMPO board is made up of your elected and appointed leaders, including Will Wynn, the council's Johnny-on-the-spot wherever things "regional" are concerned. (Wynn also chairs the Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council and is a key player in Envision Central Texas.)

For years, the CAMPO board has been tensely and closely divided between urban (i.e., Austin) and suburban interests, with the oft-mercurial Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, who chairs the board, pushing this way and that. Sometimes Austin wins, sometimes Austin loses. Under a larger and more "regional" scheme, Austin would always lose, or so Austin fears; that's why the power of an RMA to build out the CAMPO plan without Austin's consent is such a pressing issue. So City Hall has now panicked and put the once commonsensical issue of CAMPO expansion on the slow track.

Regardless of where the CAMPO board members live, though, the group has always been dominated by the state -- every single local legislator has a board seat (except for Sen. Jeff Wentworth, who used to be part of both CAMPO and its San Antonio equivalent but now serves only on the latter). Even Sen. Steve Ogden has a CAMPO vote, and he lives in College Station, for Pete's sake.

To my knowledge, no other MPO in the state or in the country is so thoroughly dominated by, or hostage to, political power. Indeed, the federal laws that enabled CAMPO and its kin had quite different goals -- to de-politicize transportation investments that are much bigger and take much longer than any political career (even Barrientos') and to allow decisions to be made locally, on the ground, by people who know the lay of the land and have to live with the results. In Central Texas, these are not goals of transportation policy; they are fantasies, or perhaps heresies.

And you know why? Because the Lege and the suburbs and the Average Austinite all long ago concluded that City Hall can't be trusted to do the right thing about traffic, because Austin is itself hostage to a different, and to them unpalatable, political agenda. Whoever the next mayor is, he will have to confront the consequences of that unpleasant reality. The candidates may bluster now about the importance of the issue, but when the rubber finally meets the road, they will have to convince the powers that be that City Hall is important enough even to get a seat at the table. end story

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