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Driving CAMPO: An Interview with Kirk Watson

By Katherine Gregor, August 8, 2008, News

Kirk Watson is attempting what no one had done before.

Central Texas urgently needs a comprehensive regional plan for growth. To date, however, the multijurisdictional politics of multiple cities and counties has daunted any politician or entity trying to coordinate such an effort. If any local leader is up to the task, it's the politically savvy Watson. Since January 2007, the former Austin mayor, state attorney general candidate, Austin Chamber of Commerce chair, and now state Senator Watson has been chair of the Transportation Policy Board of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. Through CAMPO, Watson now is tackling comprehensive transportation and land-use planning for the region as a whole.

The population of the five-county region remains on track to double to 2.1 million people between 2000 and 2020. Envision Central Texas recently released a new study, its "Vision Progress Assessment," documenting the latest concerns of area residents and leaders, relevant to regional growth. Citizens identified three top concerns: improving the transportation system, the lack of planning resources, and the need for greater coordination on regional issues. "Across the board, there was a strong sense that linking economic, land use and transportation planning is essential," noted the study. "Among those responding to the online citizen survey, addressing transportation issues and congestion was viewed as the number one factor affecting the region's future."

At CAMPO, Watson has been steadily working to transform the process of regional transportation planning. Not everyone embraces the changes, but Watson's determination to reframe the dialogue has been clear from his running commentary since January at CAMPO's Transit Working Group meetings, where he facilitated creation of the paradigm-shifting CAMPO Transportation Investment Decision Tree. As a new evaluation tool for proposed transit projects, the decision tree requires an open and sequential public process: first establish project benefits, then costs, then financing. In principle, it forces individual projects to be carefully evaluated on their merits (rather than positional politics) in a broader context of regional planning for growth.

Most recently, Watson has initiated a historic shift in the way CAMPO develops its long-range, federally mandated 25-year plans. (All projects that involve federal funding or approvals must be incorporated into the plan.) In crafting its 2035 plan, for the first time the Metropolitan Planning Organization is combining land-use planning with comprehensive transportation planning. Toward that end, said Watson, they'll gather input at a minimum of four public meetings in Travis, Hays, and Williamson counties. The next CAMPO board meeting is Monday, Aug. 11, 6pm, at UT's Joe C. Thompson Conference Center, Rm. 2.102; the agenda is posted at

As Watson and the Metropolitan Planning Organization embarked upon this groundbreaking regional planning effort, we visited with the senator in his office to learn more about his underlying thinking and goals.

Austin Chronicle: How did you become chair of the CAMPO Transportation Policy Board?

Kirk Watson: It's been traditional that the state senator from this district has been chair. Senator Barrientos had been the longtime chair before me. But the way that we're selected is that the three senators – from Travis, Williamson, and Hays counties – are supposed to get together and pick one. I tease that I was the victim of a horrible partisan attack, and lost that vote. Actually, the board can elect a new chair every year.

AC: You've repeatedly stated that as chair, your mission is to put the "P" for planning back in CAMPO. What substantive changes have you led?

KW: What we started last year was a process of trying to think of transportation planning differently. That includes a thoughtful, rational, fact-based process on getting to decisions, about what ought to be put into our long-range plans and our TIPs – the short-term Transportation Improvement Program. You've seen that evolving even further with what we're trying to do with the Transit Working Group.

We're not where I want us to be yet. But I think in terms of doing a better job of planning, we are on a fast ramp-up. The staff has already done a great deal of the work on planning concepts like activity centers and that sort of thing; the needs analysis is already being done. I'll say this: I am very proud of this board's efforts to get us out of the old mode – of being just "for" or "against" something.

With our new approach to the 2035 plan, the CAMPO Board was very pleased to see that regional planning for growth is now part of everything we're doing. It will be the first time that a clear growth concept for all of Central Texas has ever, I think, been ratified – put into any public document, by any organization, other than maybe Envision Central Texas.

What I'm proud of is we're not just tinkering on the edges; we're going to make land-use planning a real part of the bible document that's the 2035 plan. CAMPO has the indirect power to shape land use, because a road has got to be in the plan to get built. It's another way to skin the cat.

AC: Why should the average citizen care what CAMPO is doing? Long-range planning sounds pretty obscure. How does that translate to people's everyday lives and concerns?

KW: Here's the good news: I think we're on track to begin doing a better job of addressing the issues that this region is going to need to address for quality of life. Clearly mobility, clearly congestion – and then those take on other things, such as air quality.

My plan is to see this MPO become much more involved in the aspect of air quality. Land use planning – you're going to see us much more involved in that. Hopefully, over the long haul, all of those things will translate into an enhancement – or at least a protection, to avoid a diminution – of our quality of life. That's important with all of the growth that we are experiencing and will continue to experience.

The bad news: Once you do the planning, do you have the tools to carry it out? Money becomes a really difficult problem, particularly when we're talking about things like transportation. My guess is the average person would say: "Yes! Plan me out of this congestion." But they would also say: "No! Don't cost me a whole lot of money."

If we don't have the tools to implement the plan, we've got a problem. We're in a 21st century growth pattern, and we're facing 19th century tools.

We can really do some brilliant planning in terms of things like activity centers. You can build really dense developments – the kind of thing that I filed legislation for, to allow better planning tools outside an incorporated city. Good planning for more dense building means you would be able to reduce maintenance costs on roads, maybe not have to have as many roads.

AC: But in the last session, the Legislature wasn't ready to pass the SH 130 legislation you sponsored. What does that tell us? Do you see that changing by the next session?

KW: Well, this crazy "hope" thing is really sweeping the nation, so I remain hopeful. We are still a ways off. My guess is that you're going to see a change in this issue about planning. The rural counties, and maybe even Hill Country-type counties – not just the traditional urban counties, like Travis County – will start saying: "Whoa! Our quality of life is going to be significantly damaged if we don't have better planning tools." I think when that starts bubbling up, you're going to see a change. But, it's going to have to come from those locally elected officials and less from urban counties. But I've got to tell you, it's an uphill fight.

AC: A criticism of the CAMPO board is that as it's gotten more inclusive of the larger region, it has become increasingly focused on suburban needs, at the expense of urban needs. True?

KW: One of the great things about this region is that it offers divergent lifestyles. Not everybody wants to live as urban as Kirk Watson, which is right near Downtown. Some people want to live rural, small town, semi-rural, suburban – and we need to be preserving that. So having voices for all of those is an important component. People living in rural or small-town parts of the region are traveling on the roadways. Hopefully, at some point they'll be traveling on rail that brings them into the Downtown area. You end up with trade-offs. It will always, perhaps, be an imperfect system, in terms of the balance. But you're trying to balance all the goals and needs of a planning organization.

AC: During the toll-road debate, we saw a clear split between an Austin-centric, urban point of view and a suburban-rural point of view. Many in Austin believe that's led to a misguided prioritization of roadways over transit. Do you see that as a problem?

KW: If we're all doing our job on the board, we're trying to make decisions for the overall region. Now as humans beings, we may not always succeed in that regard, but I think it's a strength to have a whole lot of divergent points of view and make sure they are all heard.

When you're on the board, you are supposed – to some degree – to put on your regional planners' hat. Sometimes we find it hard, but that's what it's meant to be: where you're talking about the overall regional plan, as opposed to being parochial about your specific interests.

One of the values of having those diverse points of view on the MPO Policy Board is that they can be very helpful to us, in figuring out what planning tools might meet their needs – as opposed to urban folks saying "OK, here's what's going to meet your needs." You get those divergent voices, and they become part of creating an overall regional plan.

AC: What sort of funding challenges do we face? I understand the federal regulations for Transportation Improvement Programs are becoming more exacting?

KW: Yes, in terms of how we're going to fund things. In part, I think, because of what I refer to as the ongoing "drought" that we're seeing in financing. The federal government, not unlike the state of Texas, froze its gas tax [a primary federal road funding source] in 1993. Everybody pretty much agrees that unless Congress does something, the Transportation Trust Fund is going to be bankrupt sometime next year.

If you're going to move forward on projects, they have to be part of a TIP. That's more short-term than our long-range plan: What are we getting ready to do now? You're not allowed to put something in the TIP now, unless you can say how you're going to pay for it – identify the different funding sources. To utilize funds from somewhere else, you're going to have to redo a majority of the plan.

AC: How does the kind of comprehensive regional planning you advocate differ from what CAMPO has done historically – which is basically the aggregation of projects on a list?

KW: My feeling is that, in the past, there has not been a more systemic, thoughtful approach – where you set more goals than just "getting a project on the ground." We need to be setting goals for things like: how that project plays into growth patterns, and where we want growth to go; how it plays a role in air quality; other benefits that might make a difference.

What I hope to see is exactly that – a more systemic planning process and not just an aggregation of projects. How do we get there? Both the TIP vote of last year and the Transit Working Group are good examples of ramping up to figure out how we do it systemically. And the 2035 plan will take it even further.

AC: Where does the Envision Central Texas vision fit with CAMPO's long-range planning work? In the U.S. Department of Transportation's SAFETEA-LU guidelines, the MPO is explicitly charged with "reflecting the region's shared vision for its future, including a comprehensive look at that future and alternative scenarios." Yet at a Transit Working Group meeting, you put a stop to referencing ECT – in the decision tree – as our shared vision for our future. You basically said, "It's unadopted; it's completely unofficial." Is there a need for the MPO to officially adopt a formally acknowledged, shared regional vision?

KW: Well, I personally think it should happen. Some of those who might not favor such a thing would tell you there's not a need to do it. But some people are getting ready to find themselves in a difficult situation, because we don't have the resources to be as inefficient in our planning as we used to be.

With this new approach to the 2035 plan, we've expressly laid out that we'll try to translate the ECT vision into a regional framework for land use and transportation. We're going to take extensive analysis, and input from various jurisdictions and the public, and identify key activity centers where the region should work collectively to support increased density, mixed-use, transportation-oriented development, things like that.

AC: What would you cite as examples of efficient and inefficient transportation planning?

KW: [laughs] A great example: Several years ago I was invited to Curitiba, Brazil. I asked the city planner to show me around the city. In a broad, general sense, Curitiba is a city double the size of Austin [about 1.8 million population] but has half the budget. So, they do planning differently. They have more density in certain places, they allow some high rises in different places, and they do different things with their transit. At that time, they would have loved rail transit, but they couldn't afford it.

One of my favorite lines this woman had – she said, "You know what I call the elevator in this high-rise?" I said, "No, what?" She said, "Public transportation." And then she said, "And I don't have to pay for it."

They're able to do some better planning, in part because they don't have the resources to be inefficient. Now that's changing for us, too, and not only because of the lack of money to provide roads. Remember Tevye in Fiddler on The Roof? When he's singing "If I Were A Rich Man," he wants one long staircase just going up and one even longer going down and one more leading nowhere just for show. There are some in this community that, if they were rich men, they would want one road going up, one going down, and one more going nowhere just for show.

We don't have the resources to be that inefficient. In addition, as we grow, it costs more money to provide services if we don't do certain types of planning. If we just allow it to go a certain way, that's going to come back and haunt us. We also need to make sure we're growing in such a way that you produce the tax revenue that will fund the schools. Certain types of development don't fund the schools as well as others.

AC: Exactly how do you plan to tackle the regional "vision thing"?

KW: What you're going to start seeing coming out of CAMPO, and the Transit Working Group, is a process for making decisions in a more rational way. It's now evolving. I think ultimately you'll see that decision tree utilized for all transportation decisions. Like last year, when I was telling TxDOT: "You're not going to get everything you want in our long-range plan."

I see that being a huge step forward in a rational planning process. At CAMPO most recently, we've begun to talk about the true concept of planning. I suspect a lot of the questions that came out of that decision-tree process will be the same ones we're asking as part of the 2035 process to get us to a regional vision.

I keep using the example of, "We're in a drought." In a water drought, you have to do better planning. You may have to do without certain things; you may have to make every molecule of water go further, get a bigger bang for your buck. Well, for transportation we are in a financial drought – and I don't see that ending any time soon.

AC: Let's talk about federal road dollars. Is there any leeway there that they can fund alternate transportation solutions other than roads?

KW: Yes, but the amount of money is limited. I am hopeful we are going to start seeing some differences in transportation funding. Once we get into the new year, with a new Congress and a new president, I'm going to be heavily active in advocating, trying to make sure that we have some of that spending discretion.

But first and foremost, we need to have some more money. I worry about where the dollars are going to come from. Our federal dollars are going for other things, such as the war in Iraq. We're going to have to be advocating for more transportation dollars for Texas – and for different approaches to spending it.

AC: In updating the 25-year plan, over the next year, how will the funding challenges and financing unknowns affect the ability to effectively do long-range planning? How can you plan something if you don't know you can pay for it?

KW: Look at what happened with the decision tree. There's a lot of thought before you get to the numbers. You've got to get to the numbers. But I want CAMPO to do a better job of planning before you get to the numbers. My deal last year with TxDOT was: Don't bring me nothin' that you can't really afford. Their plans were a lot bigger, and I forced them to be candid and honest – or as honest as TxDOT can be [chuckles].

But that "visioning thing" you mentioned is going to take some time. First, with all the right people at the table. I want certain things to be taken care of, so that we can focus. I think we're ready; I think we're now to that point. So far we've laid out a timeline and a process for developing the growth scenario. This will be the first time that we start putting in things like activity centers: areas where the region works collectively to support increased density, mixed-use, transportation-oriented development – things like that.

That work will become the basis for the focused scenario that will be analyzed, as part of the development of the 2035 plan. Ultimately it will have to be adopted by the CAMPO Board. Just as important, it will have to be supported by memorandums of understanding, by different jurisdictions, to be adopted by them as part of a larger regional land-use scenario.

AC: If that happens, it could have a huge impact on the future of Central Texas. What's your commitment to making this an open, public conversation?

KW: Let me say this: Regardless of how you feel about decisions that CAMPO has made, since January of '07, it has been the most public, transparent, open, accountable process that I believe has ever happened at CAMPO. And I will continue to try to find new ways to do that.

Think about it: The Transit Working Group did all that on TV? [Sessions were broadcast on public-access Channel 6.] Over a five-month period? Now there was a time when all of that would have been done in a back room somewhere. I know some people were frustrated with the length of the process. But sometimes that's what happens when you have an open and accountable process. So I'm very proud of where we are on that.

I frankly think CAMPO is on a roll right now, in terms of opening itself up and trying new things. And as we start to do real regional planning, I think that ultimately there will be a big difference for the public. Ultimately this is about preserving – and enhancing – the quality of life for Central Texans.

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