Austin @ Large: Wreck on the Highway

Why the dogs can't catch the toll road speed machine

Austin At Large
So, really, at the meeting of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Transportation Policy Board on Monday night, nothing happened. Oh, state Rep. Terry Keel got into a shouting match with pro-toll witness Michael Von Ohlen, and then with CAMPO Chair Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, and then with state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, and then Council Member Brewster McCracken mixed it up with Dukes, and then anti-toll witness Sal Costello came up and called Dukes and Barrientos corrupt, and then Dukes threatened to sue him, and then Rep. Jack Stick got into it with Dukes and her sister Stacy Dukes-Rhone, and then the race card got played and a riot nearly ensued ... but really, nothing happened.

The CAMPO board shut down two separate attempts – by McCracken and his City Council colleague Daryl Slusher – to set public hearings next month on proposals to reconsider and amend, or rescind, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority's controversial toll road plan, by nearly identical votes to the July 12 decision to approve that plan. Despite McCracken's hopes and assertions, expressed last week before Monday's vote, that cracks might be appearing in the coalition, his was the only vote that changed, and the mood of the board appears not to be "fluid" after all.

Molasseslike, maybe. The CAMPO board simply shut down (via a motion-to-table from Dukes) Slusher's proposal to repeal the July vote and instead reconsider toll roads as part of CAMPO's ongoing long-range planning effort, set to culminate in April. But the board instead "postponed indefinitely" consideration of McCracken's effort to remove from the CTRMA plan those segments whose construction has already been fully funded with tax dollars – including U.S. 183 East between I-35 and U.S. 290 (i.e., East Anderson Lane) and Texas 71 East between I-35 and Riverside Drive.

And, yes, the controversial South MoPac bridge over William Cannon Drive, the epicenter of the political earthquake over "double taxation" that has motivated Costello and his allies to initiate a recall effort against McCracken, Mayor Will Wynn, and Council Member Danny Thomas, all pro-toll votes back in July. (Despite McCracken's very public change of heart, his name is still on the recall petitions that were being circulated at the meeting, although Costello and others made sure to thank him for his efforts.)


Waiting for the TTC

Now, "tabled" and "postponed indefinitely" may sound like synonyms, but Travis Co. Judge Sam Biscoe, who made the motion to postpone, repeatedly assured the crowd and the CAMPO board that he did, in fact, want to consider McCracken's proposal. But only after the Texas Transportation Commission makes its expected decision, in October or November, on whether to award Central Texas $161 million from the Texas Mobility Fund to support the local highway plan, a decision that conventional wisdom has held would be conditioned on the region approving its toll road strategy.

Of course, since July 12 – and especially since it's become clear that a lot of loyal GOP voters do not like toll roads – the state's supposed iron-clad mandate has begun to seem more malleable. In various ways, Gov. Rick Perry, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn (who, unlike the first two, has no authority over transportation, but never mind that) have all voiced their qualms about tolls. And the Texas Department of Transportation has acknowledged both that Central Texas already has plenty of lane miles of planned toll roads – the "Phase 1" projects, like SH 130, approved back in 2000 – and that the CTRMA will get state funding whether or not it gets the payout from the Mobility Fund. The agency is, however, still very vocal in its support of the toll road plan, and none of this supposed movement has been reflected in actual decisions of the actual TTC that gets to actually green-light the plan – yet.

The hope, obviously, is that it will, and that CAMPO can come back with the TTC's blessing in the winter and downscale its plans. Though the meeting was punctuated – during a time-out called by Barrientos – by some highly visible shuttle diplomacy between Biscoe, McCracken, and the firmly anti-toll CAMPO contingent – this strategy proved unamenable to the council freshman. "You're asking us to wait and hope that the people who created this problem will help solve it," he said.

Particularly controversial is the tolling of "existing" roads – a term of art that's been the subject of some debate. McCracken's proposal deals only with "fully funded" roads – as confirmed by TxDOT District Engineer Bob Daigh at the CAMPO meeting – but right now, under the law, any road that isn't actually open can be slated for tolling by an RMA, no matter how much concrete has been poured. Even roads that are open can be tolled if the commissioners of the counties that form the RMA (Travis and Williamson, in our case) so vote. But the obvious unpopularity of this fact has not been lost on state Rep. Mike Krusee, chair of the House Transportation Committee and the author of the bill creating RMAs, who suggests changes will be in the offing in the next Lege.

Krusee also sits on the CAMPO board, and there he sat, mostly mute as a stone, as his colleagues and their constituents once again thrashed and trashed his handiwork. Unfortunately, Monday's meeting once again established the sad fact that, while there may be vehement and vocal opposition, from normally unallied parties, to the CTRMA plan, there is not much community consensus on what to do instead. "I don't think this is a great plan, but I haven't seen a better one," Biscoe noted. "Perhaps we'll get one."


Agreeing to Disagree

This fact continues to be unperceived by Costello's Austin Toll Party contingent, who again pointed to their success in spamming CAMPO back in July as proof that everybody in Austin hates toll roads. (Note to Sal: Consider this friendly advice. Next time y'all come to one of these hoedowns to deliver that pitch, bring some black people. It's well established that suburban white boys don't like toll roads. We can see that just by looking at the CAMPO board. I think Stacy Dukes-Rhone's racial assertions there at the bitter end Monday night were over the top, too, but so was most everything else. But if it's true that everybody hates toll roads, and that their harshest impact will be on the poor – both assertions made, more than once, by your posse Monday night – then it would be tactically helpful to have a more diverse crew, and not just in ethnic terms, to make these claims.)

For now, the contradictions both within and between the nodes of the anti-toll coalition are still being studiously underplayed. "I never supported Daryl Slusher before, but I support him now," announced one Toll Partier to loud applause. Yet Slusher made plenty clear, as he has before, that his concerns about the plan – which he said "gets worse the more I look at it" – are not primarily related to "double taxation" and the other fiscal hackles of the Southwest commuters. Rather, he's worried about the roads themselves, tolled or "free," creating sprawl and congestion, harming the environment, and stuff and such. Hence his desire to see the field of battle moved to the CAMPO 2030 plan, where the board will actually approve how big, and where, the new roads shall be.

Conversely, the Toll Partiers reiterated their position that the roads should be built, and soon, but through a different funding mechanism, such as the creation of a supplemental regional gas tax (an idea laughed out of the Lege in previous sessions). How this would be fairer or more equitable than tolls went unexplained, though often asserted. Likewise, how a higher gas tax would not have the same negative economic effects – inflation, unemployment, rack and ruin – ascribed to tolls is apparently a mystery only understood by the anti-toll initiates. Of course, such paradoxes work both ways; the progressive anti-road argument holds both that the CTRMA plan will create sprawl and congestion, but also that the roads will go unused (both because of high tolls and high gas prices) and go bankrupt.

Slusher has argued that the fact that people on both sides of the transportation wars dislike the CTRMA plan is enough reason to kill it. Maybe so. But there doesn't even appear to be a community consensus that doing nothing is more acceptable than doing the wrong thing. Wynn defended himself by asserting that the region is in a downright crisis mode, that we're losing jobs, that people are dying on the roads because of our screwed-up transportation system. This has led to charges of selling out from his former friends on the left, who know that Wynn also supports expanded transit and changes in land use and Envision Central Texas and all the other things progressives think are more important than roads and should come first. (They are happening, of course, but much more slowly.) That ire, plus that of the Toll Party, should mean Wynn is doomed, but he clearly isn't. Troubled, maybe, but not doomed.


What Do We Want?

Much has been made of how the CTRMA plan was rushed through without meaningful opportunities for public input, under the aegis of the authority's unelected board – the usual appeals to "process" and "accountability" that underlie Austin's civic religion, and that often take the place of actual ideas or solutions. But we've now been arguing over this plan for six months, and about the CTRMA for longer than that, and about toll roads for longer than that, and about our regional transportation needs for my whole lifetime. The Toll Partiers have had enough time to, well, have a Toll Party, and mount a recall drive, and get cute T-shirts made, and send 6,000 e-mails, and embrace wholeheartedly their new identities as political activists. And on the progressive side, of course, you've got people who have devoted their lives to these issues.

The time has come to devote those energies – and the intelligence and expertise that anti-toll activists, on both sides, repeatedly claim that they have and the CAMPO board and CTRMA and TxDOT don't – to creating an alternative transportation plan that exists not in the realm of fantasy or apocalypse, but in the real political world where CAMPO lives. A cocktail-napkin version will do. Earlier in Monday's meeting, the CAMPO board approved a solution, touted as a win-win and driven by the neighbors, for the thorny problem of how to extend Gattis School Road. According to one witness, the hero of this saga was Biscoe, who after the presentation of one unpopular alternative after another, turned to the people along the route and asked, "What do you want?"

That's what needs to happen on toll roads. Simply saying, as Slusher has, that we should talk about what to do instead as part of CAMPO's regular planning process is not sufficient, since that process does nothing to create a consensus for new solutions; it simply responds to what CAMPO planners perceive as the facts on the ground. The anti-toll people need to change those facts, not just the personnel on the CAMPO board. Until they do, those dogs will never catch this car. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, CAMPO, Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, CTRMA, Texas Department of Transportation, TxDOT, toll roads, Brewster McCracken, Sal Costello, Dawnna Dukes, Daryl Slusher, Austin Toll Party, Texas Transportation Commission, TTC

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