Naked City

CAMPO Gets Toll Road Weary

Toll road opponent Sal Costello finally might have something to say, but it's getting harder to find anyone on the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's Transportation Policy Board who is willing to listen to him.

Costello fought aggressively when he organized the Austin Toll Party. He rallied the troops. He gathered intelligence to allege political malfeasance. He got in the face of the Austin media, waving the banner to recall City Council members sitting on CAMPO. In essence, Costello made himself some enemies, or at least got those who voted in favor of the toll road plan to dismiss him as an extremist or, worse, one of those NIMBY guys who has little substantive to say.

But Tuesday night should have been his moment of triumph. Finally, CAMPO was moving to remove the most controversial project – the William Cannon bridge on South MoPac – from the Central Texas toll plan. But after months of bickering with the community and among themselves, board members appeared listless and bored. They got little in the way of thanks from the 50 speakers, who spent much of the night haranguing board members for considering toll roads at all.

Costello, for his part, tried to make some relevant points related to the Central Texas toll road plan. "No city in the country has shifted its daily highways to tollways," Costello told the board on Monday night. "Wouldn't it make sense to say to the CTRMA and TxDOT, let's see if your radical concept does something for congestion relief? Let's spend $500,000 of that $1.5 million you spent on marketing for some studies to see if it works?"

On that point, Costello is right. While Oklahoma and Kansas have funded entire highway systems between cities with tolls, Texas has usually funded toll roads that are alternatives to other routes. Dallas and Houston use toll roads to connect existing major freeways. Austin would be using toll roads to expand current roads, although many speakers appeared to be misinformed as to the extent of tolling. New capacity on existing highways will be tolled; existing capacity on highways will remain free.

Costello had a 15-point proposal to present to the board members and the media, and he did raise a number of points that might be worth discussing. He talked about gas tax trends and the possibility that the Legislature could consider an increase in that levy. He spoke about cost containment for the construction of Texas roadways. He talked about Texas Transportation Commission Chair Ric Williamson's mandate that all tolling backed by the state be electronic.

But Costello's comments were not met with a lot of reaction, except from Council Member Brewster McCracken, who posed some questions about whether shifting highways to tollways simply shifted the cost of maintenance from the state to the local government, creating an unfunded mandate for Central Texas. Council Member Daryl Slusher also remained skeptical of some aspects of the toll road plan. A number of key members – Reps. Mike Krusee, Jack Stick, Terry Keel, and Eddie Rodriguez – were represented by proxies on Tuesday night. Few speakers broke new ground on the topic of toll roads or even toll policy. When they did make suggestions or offer relevant questions, CAMPO's chair, Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, was quick to seize on the comments. But after two hours of nonstop white noise about getting rid of toll roads, a council aide in the audience turned around and said with no small amount of frustration, "Don't they know that we took that vote in July?"

The subtext of that comment is that CAMPO is ready to move on, or at least move on to the specifics of the projects within the toll road plan. The votes aren't there to "take back" the toll road vote, and the Austin Toll Party has yet to file its recall petition. Now it's time to see whether Costello and his group will become part of the process.

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Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, CAMPO, toll roads, Austin Toll Party, Sal Costello, gas tax, William Cannon bridge, Brewster McCracken, Daryl Slusher

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