Austin @ Large: The End of the Roads

The toll plan takes us down the right path, but there's still a long way to go

Austin @ Large: The End of the Roads
Illustration By Doug Potter

Let me start off by apologizing to those readers who felt my column last week went over the top – that it was mean and personal and in poor taste. This was not my intent, and it appears other readers understood that, but still. I have no strong opinions about certain local leaders' personal attractiveness, and I realize full well that the clash over toll roads is between philosophies and constituencies, not individual players. I do feel, strongly, that the toll road battle has two fronts, not just one, and that any tactical alliance between progressives and road-warriors is misbegotten. I've heard too many claims over the last three months by the conservative opposition that progressives should vigorously oppose, not accommodate. But no, it's not personal.

But "over the top" seems to be the designated locale for much toll road rhetoric, so I must be in good company. It's been a long time since I've heard so much total bullshit so passionately defended as "fact" in a public debate, at least on the local level. But this doesn't really surprise me, having covered transportation as long as I have. There is no subject where people's perceptions of what is true, or what is right, are so thoroughly distorted by their own needs and choices and circumscribed frames of reference.

As a whole, I've found that citizens understand a lot more about planning, or policing, or environmental protection, or fiscal policy than decision-makers often presume; even the most NIMBY neighborhoods are pretty good about considering their hot-button issues from perspectives other than their own. But on transportation, most people, most of the time, really don't get it nearly as much as they think they do. Unfortunately, they bridge with anger the gaps in their understanding.

This applies to me, too. For example, if it were up to me, Capital Metro would spend more than it does, and most of what it has, on high-frequency inner-city bus service, because that's what would best meet my needs. I don't necessarily feel "entitled" to have those needs met, but I spend a lot of time on the bus and next to none on South MoPac, and I've chosen – for reasons that have a lot to do with transportation – to live and work in the urban core. So my perspective reflects that.

Even after years of covering this beat, I'm still at least partially convinced that this should be a compelling mandate from a regional perspective, especially if we want to encourage more people to make the same life-and-work choices that I did. Obviously, some leaders among the anti-toll contingent – which would like to strip Cap Metro of those revenues to pay for road projects now slated for tolling – have a completely different point of view, which to them is likewise self-evident and "true" because it meets their needs. So any decisions to the contrary must be idiotic or corrupt.

It's easy to fire off the tribal flame-thrower here, but I've found that most people – regardless of their color or class or political persuasions or ZIP codes – have a hard time seeing more than one square inch of the very big transportation elephant. Unfortunately, this is not a "fact" many people are willing to believe.

Demons, Right and Left

Now, on toll roads, my loyalties are clear: I don't think that the dire impacts and consequences predicted by anti-toll conservatives are really so dire, or the injustice they think is being perpetrated here is really so unfair. Cap Metro collects enough tax revenue to operate its entire existing system and then some, but I still have to drop two quarters in the fare box. The city of Austin has paid, or is paying, for its surface streets with tax revenues, but I still have to pay a fee on my utility bill to fund ongoing street maintenance (which is a "user fee," and not a tax, only in the most abstract sense).

Why are highways different? Why is it so outrageous to toll existing road miles – which, as has been so often pointed out, the plan just adopted by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization does not propose? (It depends on what your definition of "existing" is, I guess.) And if the "double tax" argument fails, then what, exactly, is the conservatives' problem with this plan? It offers more local control, not less, than the status quo; however "unaccountable" the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is, it's a hell of a lot more accountable than the Texas Transportation Commission. And why are the protesters so sure that the alternative to this plan would be new free roads for all, rather than no new roads at all?

The progressive side, on the other hand, projects consequences that really would be dire, if they were inevitable. But as often as it's been explained to me by people whom I trust and respect, I still don't get the inexorable connection between the just-adopted road plan and the horrors of untrammeled sprawl. If we're going to take seriously the ostensible mandate of Envision Central Texas – that we as a region accommodate twice as many people on roughly the same amount of developed land as we now have – then we must increase the capacity of the infrastructure that currently serves that land. We need not double the size of the current road network, and the toll road plan does not propose doubling it. But nor can we bridge the entire gap with transit systems and more responsible land use, as essential as these things are.

Look, it's no secret that there are people in this town who would like to roll out Toll Road 2.0 at the earliest opportunity – perhaps next spring, when the latest incarnation of CAMPO's long-range regional plan comes up for adoption. But that is a separate decision that can be made on its merits – or, in my view, the lack of them – at that time; if those road warriors had the political, institutional, or financial support to build a bigger road network, they would have asked for it. Despite the large price tag, the CTRMA plan is really a fairly modest proposal, already constrained by the strength of the progressive cause.

If the CAMPO 2030 plan proposes a bunch of new lanes in places where they, and attendant development, should not go, it should be rejected. It is not inevitable that approving the CTRMA plan will lead to an unsupportable CAMPO 2030 plan. We can add enough capacity to support current needs and future density consistent with ECT (particularly east of I-35, where most of the plan's new lane miles would go, though you'd never know that from the Southwest-centric debate on the subject), and can bring the regional highway network to a long-term stopping point. Only by moving forward with something like this – limited, equitable, focused on the current urbanized area – can we finally get to the end of the road wars. We don't need any more than this, but we need this. If there is a way to build roads without sprawl, this would be it. We don't know because we've never tried it.

But I keep getting cajoled and harangued by progressives whose positions reflect equal measures of received wisdom (roads create sprawl, QED), hypothetical fears (gasoline price spikes will make the whole toll-financing scheme go bust), and conspiracy theory (the CTRMA and CAMPO can't possibly be trusted).

None of the demons thus conjured are invincible, if they arise at all. And I don't think shooting down the toll road plan, really, does anything to keep those demons in check. It just prolongs this debate for years, while our mobility problems get worse and our land-use pattern grows more inequitable and unsustainable, and the chances for any solution that might actually work – roads, transit, land use – recede further into the mist. From the progressive perspective, doing nothing presents just as great a risk as doing something.

Many Miles to Go

The CTRMA is already on notice that it can't botch implementation of its plan, or go off the reservation with wild road-warrior fantasies – not because of the supposedly intimidating strength of toll road opponents, but because of the amendments attached by the centrists on CAMPO, who are now being branded sellouts for their trouble. Two of the three Austin City Council members on CAMPO who voted for toll roads – Will Wynn and Brewster McCracken – have already drafted a letter to the CTRMA calling for "complete and unconditional" effort to implement those amendments.

That means immediate progress, they say, on sound walls for North MoPac, water-quality controls on South MoPac, improving existing bottlenecks in the MoPac corridor, and other provisions in the amended plan. Without that progress, they say, the CAMPO 2030 plan, if it indeed calls for further expansions of the CTRMA system, will get a very dim reception – and, indeed, a possible effort to roll back what's already been approved.

"The first toll road is set to open in March, so we'll have an opportunity to review CTRMA and TxDOT progress on implementing the amendments before we consider the CAMPO 2030 plan" in April, says McCracken. "We also expect the RMA to engage in a public education process to unite the community and to get input from the community to continue to make the plan better."

Unlike the blanket objections of toll opponents, the amendments address specific issues raised by specific roads – MoPac, Loop 360, balance between the east and west sides. If you deal with those issues regularly as a citizen, they are anything but "window dressing." But yes, it's true that they do not, in themselves, mean the toll road plan will lead to the positive outcome I believe it could produce.

The toll road plan will not do much good – though it will not do as much harm as progressives seem to think – unless we have both a real, effective urban transit system, which means one that includes at least some measure of rail, and land-use policies (not just in Austin but around the region) that encourage density and discourage sprawl. Neither of those things is within CAMPO's purview; transit is up to the voters in November, and land use is up to the city councils and county commissioners.

Those are far more worthy uses of progressive time and energy than fighting the toll road plan, which after all seeks to finance roadways that CAMPO approved years ago. (This is one of those irreconcilable differences between the progressive and conservative protests – the right thinks these roads are already paid for, while the left wants them to never be paid for, because they think that's the only way they can stop them from being built.) So far, frankly, the progressive record on supporting Capital Metro and urban infill, when it's come down to cases, has been a bit less than stalwart.

Yes, Cap Metro's current rail vision is dinky, but unlike the toll road plan, it need not be a final step; the agency is hardly irrational for wanting to play it safe until it gets voter approval and can show success with an up-and-running line. And even a dinky line can be enough to support dense, transit-oriented development – from Leander to Robinson Ranch to Mueller to Saltillo – that will make a huge difference in showing that the ECT vision is not a load of lefty bilge, but a practical, financially viable, and popular alternative to the same old model of highway strips and suburban cul-de-sacs.

If you're going to see that model replicated in places where rail cannot or will not go – like, say, Southeast Travis Co. – then you need roads (used by buses as well as cars) to support it, which brings us back to the CTRMA plan. Right now, it's the lack of both transit and inner-city road capacity that perpetuates the land-use path of least resistance. The toll road plan does not take us backward, but it only gets us part of the way down the path we need to travel. We have a long journey ahead. n

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toll roads, Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, CTRMA, Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, CAMPO, Capital Metro, Envision Central Texas

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