Point Austin: They Toll for Thee

Behind the toll battle is a long and bumpy road to the same old place

Point Austin
Well, it may be time to get out while the getting is still good.

That was the unacknowledged but discomfiting subtext of Monday's Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting, although the headline items concerned the rejection of Austin City Council Member Brewster McCracken's proposal for an independent study of the plan, and the Austin Toll Party's "major" announcement that it has narrowed its recall target to Mayor Wynn, dropping (or attempting to drop) McCracken and colleague Danny Thomas from its petition campaign. The Toll Partiers, who had promised a "Valentine's Day Massacre," were pretty much reduced to random insults of the CAMPO board members and intermittent stomping in disapproval on the ceiling of the Thompson Center meeting room. It would appear that the board, with its earlier approval of minor changes to the plan (mostly along MoPac), has retreated as far as it intends to – McCracken's proposal, though supported by most of the city's representatives (now including the mayor), was easily defeated (14-8) by the votes of those representing primarily the surrounding suburbs.

Wynn's switch was effectively negated by the mirror defection from the anti-toll forces of Travis Co. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who said the prospect of further delay and therefore possible funding problems (predicted by TxDOT engineer Bob Daigh) had persuaded him to vote against McCracken's study. So despite all the noisy weeks of fuss, the CAMPO forces are visibly arrayed in a mostly standard pattern – a small group of Austin liberals (supplemented by anti-tax GOP renegades Terry Keel and Todd Baxter) holding out valiantly, and in vain, against the concrete tsunami.

The audience, although mostly in opposition, had a very different mix, including both those who would just as soon stop the bulldozers altogether (clearly a minority) and their much louder allies (the Toll Partiers), who see the highways as just dandy but balk at the "double taxation" of the tolls. Throw in the handful convinced by ACTV delusionists that the whole scheme is a sinister diversion concocted by the Dark Forces of the New World Order, and you've got an entire barracks of very strange bedfellows.

Follow the Numbers

But all this was light entertainment compared to the bureaucratic but somber justification of the entire CAMPO plan by Executive Director Michael Aulick. Aulick delivered a rapid-fire summary of the 2030 Mobility Plan, under consideration in a series of meetings culminating in a public hearing scheduled for March 14. The toll plan, he emphasized, is simply an alternative funding mechanism created "in response to changing funding conditions at the state" (that is, the Lege won't raise taxes), but the CAMPO highway plan itself is based on demographic projections that the Central Texas region will double in population – to 2.75 million people – by 2030. Aulick called that a "conservative" estimate, in the middle of a range that goes as high as 3.25 million.

Faced with that prospect, Aulick insisted, the assembled officials had little choice but to endorse as aggressive a highway program as possible. And even granting the approval of that "mobility" plan (which seems inevitable), he acknowledged that the rate of increasing traffic congestion (from suburbs to city and back again, which is all we're really talking about) would only be slowed, not actually reduced. Unless the demographers are completely wrong (unlikely – the area population has in fact doubled every 20 years for a century), that means that the car-dependent constituency already demanding more and more roads is only going to grow apace, and will be loudly demanding to know why, back in 2005, they didn't build more and more roads.

The Möbius Highway

It's almost enough to make one hope that the critics grimly predicting the moment of "peak oil" and skyrocketing gas prices are more right than wrong, and economic realities will save us from ourselves. But that's a Hobson's choice at best, since the people who will pay the most for the consequences of our poor planning are inevitably those who can least afford it (i.e., most of us). At one point, in response to a shouted demand that the entire plan be rejected, Aulick asked rhetorically, "And then how do we respond to that population increase?" "Close the borders!" came the instantaneous answer, in a moment that exemplified the simultaneous self-absorption and ignorance of much of the opposition to the tolls, as an isolated issue. Gimme what's mine, and then shut the door – and it must be those aliens (and he didn't mean Californians or snowbirds) that are ruining this eight-lane, sylvan paradise.

So I didn't envy those guys on the dais, even the worst of them, although it was easy to share the perplexity of Brewster McCracken as he asked the TxDOT experts to explain why the numbers keep changing. The experts explained patiently that the numbers keep changing because the numbers keep changing – they keep getting bigger, and we have to keep doing what we've always been doing, and pouring more concrete for even more sprawling developments that require even more concrete, because we've always been doing it.

And if you don't like it, well – there's always the highway.

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transportation, CAMPO, Brewster McCracken, Austin Toll Party, Gerald Daugherty, Michael Aulick, Bob Daigh

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