CAMPO's $5.8B Sticker Shock

The regional transportation plan's vision is bigger than its wallet

The Central Texas toll plan's rationale was that the region couldn't fund roads fast enough. Now the price tag on all the roads Central Texans want is estimated to be $14.1 billion – about $6 billion more than transportation officials expect to have in available funding.

The main job of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is not to be a thorn in the side of toll road opponents; it's to keep a proper accounting of transportation needs noted by region's member cities and counties in order to secure federal funding. The broadest picture of that accounting is CAMPO's 25-year long-range plan, a blueprint that is continually reworked by regional planners to account for the growth and prioritize needs in the region.

Senior Planner Stevie Greathouse is crunching the numbers on CAMPO 2030 – the newest incarnation of the region's 25-year plan – and the numbers don't work. At this point, the cost of upgrading the roads in the region is pegged at $14.1 billion. The estimated revenues from the federal government are tallied at $8.3 billion. So some time between now and April, Greathouse and her companions at CAMPO must either find $5.8 billion in additional funding or trim the cost on projects like the expansions of U.S. 290 and Texas 71. The federal government won't take 25-year plans that don't balance at the bottom line.

These are the numbers that have driven the region to toll roads, and they come from fairly meat-and-potato projects, mostly the expansion of existing state highways to main-lane freeway status. No one expects Texas 71 to have intersections and stoplights in the year 2030, but between now and then, someone has to pay to pour the concrete.

CAMPO 2030 proposes adding 1,200 lane miles for the region, a fairly conservative estimate given the fact that the Texas Transportation Institute has estimated that congestion in the region has grown from 2 million hours in 1982 to 22 million hours in 2002. It also will incorporate the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority's toll road system and Capital Metro's commuter rail line if voters make that happen in November.

This long-range planning also is why road projects seem to be so far down on the horizon. Right now, for instance, CAMPO Executive Director Michael Aulick considers expansion of RM 2222 a candidate project, rather than a slam dunk, because he can look at the funding stream from the federal government and know that the dollars falling from the sky from the gas tax are finite. And CAMPO's Transportation Policy Board must make its decision on how those dollars will be used – with the caveat, of course, that those dollars may be shifted around when CAMPO creates its CAMPO 2035 plan.

Not all is lost on the funding front. The current accounting does not incorporate the toll revenues. Nor is it adjusted for the revenue contribution of Capital Metro. Still, it's likely that local leaders and lawmakers will have to have a come-to-Jesus meeting between now and April to separate the projects they want from those the region critically needs. That battle may be a lot less noisy than the toll-road squabble, but it promises to be just as painful.

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Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, CAMPO, 2030 plan, long-range plan, U.S. 290, Texas 71, Texas Transportation Institute, Stevie Greathouse, Michael Aulick, Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, CTRMA, toll roads

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