CAMPO Poised to Pass Toll Plan – Despite Uneasiness
CAMPO driving toward vote on humongous toll plan
A significant balance of the Central Texas regional tollway plan – a five-road proposal covering stretches east and west of I-35 – is expected to win passage by a wide margin at Monday's meeting of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. But will the plan's approval indicate a clear mandate for tolling or provide a continuing fount of discord for toll-road opponents?
The CAMPO vote could produce some surprises, but the current predicted vote tally – actually a vote on the region's three-year Transportation Improvement Plan – stands at 14-5 in favor. Those most expected to vote no are Travis Co. Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, Austin City Council Member Jennifer Kim, state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, Hays Co. Judge Liz Sumter, and Sunset Valley Mayor Pro Tem Jim Mills.
Three of the five are new to the CAMPO board, and their concerns are not as black and white as the ones expressed by board members in years past. Three years ago, the vote on the $2.2 billion toll plan was, ostensibly, all about the double-taxation issue (remember former Reps. Terry Keel and Todd Baxter leading the charge against a William Cannon bridge?) and, more directly, about standing with or against vocal toll-road opponent Sal Costello. Today, Costello is much more of a back-seat player, his power diminished with the defeat of anti-toller and gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn.
Meanwhile, the CAMPO board has been rebalanced and its leadership changed. And as new Chair Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, has pointed out, an intervening legislative session has proven that while Central Texans may hate the idea of tolling their way to a completed road plan, there are even more transportation leaders in the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth area who are eager to toll themselves some new road projects.
With some projects stripped from the original proposed plan, the cost of the package is now down to just under $911 million, though Texas Department of Transportation engineer Bob Daigh warns that stripping too many projects from the package could put the state's funding for the plan – intended to leverage local dollars – at risk. (See map for the toll roads up for a CAMPO vote.)
So let's look at the five who are standing against the project. As of last week, Eckhardt refused to be lumped into the "no" category but said she would have significant problems voting for the plan if she didn't get more information before Monday night's meeting, set for 6pm at Anderson High School. "My concerns about the toll-road proposal, as it's currently structured, are two-fold," Eckhardt said. "The big sticking point for me is that the plan does nothing to reduce vehicle miles traveled, and it probably enables us to expand the vehicle miles traveled per capita." A problem that size is not likely to be resolved with Monday night's vote. But Eckhardt's second concern – the fact that toll-road revenues currently can be shifted around the system in a way that makes one part of the region pay for road construction in another part of the region without reaping any benefits – could be addressed by amendment.
"One of my big concerns is that this is not a user tax, because if it was a user tax, it would benefit the users and not be used for systemwide financing," Eckhardt said. "Hypothetically, you could see toll taxes collected on U.S. 290 [East] that would be used to build State Highway 45 Southwest, despite the fact that donor commuters who paid that tax are unlikely to ever utilize that new road."
Dedicating excess revenue to the corridor where the funding originated is only one amendment to be considered Monday night. In fact, four other amendments have popped up for consideration: designating CAMPO as the final arbiter on the creation of toll projects; creating equity of maintenance for tolled and nontolled capacity, with no subsequent traffic lights being added to nontolled roads; bypassing tolling for high-occupancy vehicles and buses; and using any new revenue, first and foremost, to phase out the toll roads.
Council Member Kim's concerns are both broad and specific. For one, she questions the proposed extension of SH 45 Southwest, over the recharge zone of the Barton Springs Aquifer. She says the capacity of the proposed tollway (four tolled lanes and two free) would be much too big a footprint over the aquifer, when ridership projections show the road won't be at full capacity until well after 2030. Kim has proposed a four-lane parkway with possible reversible lanes, but the transportation agency has not taken much interest.
"This area is so sensitive. It's really critical that we do everything we can to minimize the impact of construction," Kim said. "I don't know if TxDOT has the capacity to do that, to work in an area and assess whether we can minimize the project." Would a compromise on SH 45 satisfy her enough to vote yes? "No," she said, adding she already has too many doubts about the information TxDOT has provided on projects. The agency, she asserts, has been less than forthcoming and complete, and the information presented to her is too skewed for her to make an informed decision.
Sumter, the Hays Co. judge, says no amendment is likely to change her "no" vote on Monday. She's concerned that the proposed toll-road system is too fragmented. In regions such as Houston and Dallas, toll roads are intended to serve as bypasses for clogged loops and arteries. In Austin, she says, the toll-road proposal is a hybrid, a patchwork of incomplete road projects that follow little logic. On a more pragmatic note, Sumter is opposed to the toll-road proposal at the "Y" in Oak Hill, within the Barton Springs Watershed. The proposal calls for 12 lanes – six tolled and six nontolled – and would ultimately include improvements farther west on U.S. 290 through Dripping Springs. Those improvements, says Sumter, would turn the Hays Co. town into "a place to just drive through" without stopping. "That's not our goal when we know that ecotourism is critical to the economy of Dripping Springs and the Hill Country."
While Rodriguez opposes building major highways in environmentally sensitive Southwest Austin, there are equally important concerns in his Southeast Austin district. "There is the equity issue to consider," he said. "Not only the fact that more toll lanes are in East Austin but also that an economic justice study has not been done on any of the toll projects. It is important for me to know how my vote will impact moderate to low-income Austinites."
As for Mills, of Sunset Valley, he's unhappy with the hopscotch use of the toll system's revenues to fund other projects. "My main concern is what you can do with the money they are using on this system," he said. "Can we redirect some of this money so that even more of these roads can be built as free roads rather than toll roads and minimize tolling?"
That concept runs counter to TxDOT's original funding proposal for the state's nine road-planning organizations – to incentivize more tolling by allowing willing partners to draw down more matching state funding. In fact, the whole concept of using tolls, in TxDOT's eyes, is to create a consistent revenue stream that can replace lagging gas-tax revenues. But, of course, any talk of using revenue being "thrown off" from proposed toll roads for other purposes is probably 20 years away.
"I have to agree with Commissioner Eckhardt that what we're doing is creating a two-tier system. The buzz phrase I use when I talk to people is 'creating travel-time privileges for the wealthy,'" Mills said. "It seems to me we shouldn't be ... creating a two-tier travel system. I think we should minimize the use of toll roads automatically."