The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: High Tuition

As the Centex toll plan moves forward, Austin becomes a reluctant stepchild

By Michael King, March 11, 2005, News

A CAMPO meeting broke out at City Council last week, as Brewster McCracken proposed to have the city do what the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization had refused to do a couple of weeks ago. That is, to sponsor an independent analysis by outside transportation experts of CAMPO's current Central Texas toll road plan, to determine if it is necessary and cost-effective as designed, or might be reduced or otherwise modified in some way. McCracken found a readier audience at council – his motion to spend as much as $100,000 on the study eventually passed 7-0 (to be confirmed this week), although not without a good deal of hesitation, particularly from Will Wynn and Betty Dunkerley. Wynn in particular was concerned that the city would be paying for information he suggested could be gotten directly from CAMPO or Texas Department of Transportation staff. But the whole reason for the proposal, as McCracken argued several times, is that the information thus far provided by the state's official sources appears to be frankly unreliable. "The basic problem," McCracken said afterward, "is that we're not getting straight answers from CAMPO."

The council was a considerably more welcoming venue for anti-tollsters than CAMPO, where they're accustomed to being on the wrong side of 14-8 votes (or worse). So the natural question is, what good will a city study do? TxDOT and CAMPO, heavily weighted with highway mavens and suburban reps, have already built up a head of steam, and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority has begun setting toll rates for the planned highways, and even issued its first bundle of bonds (for 183-A). McCracken argues that whatever the RMA does, the city needs to get its own information. "I don't know why the truth is so much different from what we were told," he says.

On the face of it, McCracken is an unlikely champion for the toll backlash, since at the outset he supported the plan at CAMPO, along with Wynn and Council Member Danny Thomas (hence their targeting by the now-failed recall campaign). But McCracken has grown increasingly testy over what he sees as bait-and-switch information flowing from TxDOT, and CAMPO's willingness to roll over no matter how the terms of the deal change. "We keep getting one set of information when they want us to vote," he told the council, "and another when they get ready to move on the plan." Asked if he would have voted against the plan if he'd had this information last summer, McCracken answered, "Oh, absolutely."

That's why the original resolution McCracken brought to council was bristling with "whereases" justifying the independent study (subsequently deleted in almost certainly vain hopes of seducing funding from other jurisdictions). In brief, the resolution described revised projections in which the toll roads will cost much more than freeways – both in original construction expenses and in what they will charge drivers, the latter ranging, according to McCracken's numbers, from three to five times higher than the CTRMA represented to CAMPO, and from five to seven times higher than average toll rates across the country.

Like Building a Nuke

The name of Mike Heiligenstein, former Williamson Co. commissioner and current head of the CTRMA, was taken often in vain at last Thursday's meeting, while valiant Michael Aulick of CAMPO was left to defend the plan pretty much on his own. For his part, Heiligenstein says the RMA will cooperate fully with (but not pay for) anybody's study. And he says McCracken's numbers – which show toll rates ranging from 44 cents to 64 cents a mile on certain segments – are flatly inaccurate. Concerning financial projections, "It's like building a courthouse or a water treatment plant," he says, "or a nuclear power plant in South Texas."

For Austinites with long memories, the South Texas Nuclear Project is not the most felicitous comparison. But Heiligenstein defends the RMA's adjusted projections, which he insists are not as high as McCracken claims. "When you run the preliminary numbers, you know that data is going to get better as time progresses. We've got a little better numbers now, and we feel that the 15 to 20 cents a mile is a workable number in our region." That's still higher than the 12 to 15 cents estimated originally, but Heiligenstein says the toll opponents are arriving at much higher figures by calculating only literally "tolled" distances – and ignoring longer free segments made possible by the tolled sections. He also notes that higher construction costs, while undeniable, are an investment in "the economic engine that we're creating, to create the revenue to expand the system, as opposed to going back to the taxpayer."

All Aboard

The problem with that logic, from a local citizen's point of view, is that it makes it increasingly evident that the statewide toll plan is not really a pay-as-you-use venture, but a cash cow in the making for TxDOT, and for a Republican state government that – while refusing to raise "taxes" – is determined to force much more onerous and inefficient "user fees" down onto local jurisdictions to pay for its grandiose construction plans. As McCracken sees it, "What you've seen from the state is they cut children's health insurance and forced local taxpayers through property taxes to pay for desperately ill children in emergency rooms. They deregulate university tuition and underfund it, and force middle-class families to pick up the cost. They underfund state highways, and refuse to raise the gas tax, and force local drivers to absorb massive operational costs to operate an unnecessary toll system. They're not 'small government' – they're just downshifting it onto local taxpayers. And it costs taxpayers a lot more."

Yet it remains very unclear whether the study, however it turns out, can have any effect – or if the Central Texas toll train has left the station. McCracken believes there's significant unspoken sentiment on the CAMPO board for some kind of "exit with honor" – but if not, he defends his proposal anyway. "It's very telling how hard the state and the toll people are fighting to prevent this study. It shows you one level of value of it. A greater public knowledge of what the truth is, is threatening." end story

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