Precinct 3: Ye Olde Transportation Debate Takes Spotlight
Two candidates diverge on roads and growth in Western Travis County
Contrary to what you may have been led to believe – possibly by one of his own infamous fits of anger – Gerald Daugherty really isn't a bad guy. Even his main opponent in the upcoming election will tell you so – they've been to each other's houses for dinner and describe each other as friends. Yes, the incumbent Precinct 3 Travis Co. commissioner has been known to storm out of a room, especially if conversation in the Commissioners Court or a Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting turns ugly and gets personal. But sitting in his office in Downtown's Ned Granger Building last week, he was quite polite and reasonable – as he calmly and rationally explained why the Chronicle's criticisms of his positions on the issues are wrong.
The friendly opponent is Karen Huber. She could be described as an unlikely Democrat, except that during the latter Bush administration years, a lot of longtime Republicans have come to realize that they belong in the other party. Huber actually supported Daugherty when he first ran for and won the seat in 2002, and she participated in the Southwest Growth Dialog Process that Daugherty initiated. But she gradually found herself disagreeing with Daugherty more and more as she became active in western Travis Co. issues. Now they find themselves sharply at odds on issues key to Precinct 3, which encompasses the western half of Travis. She says she always disagreed with the GOP on the environment and now describes herself as a "zealot convert" to the Democratic Party. Dems rewarded her conversion in the primaries with a 63% win over party activist Albert Gonzales.
"Gerald believes in the free market," Huber says. "He says, 'Let the market right it.' ... When I finally decided to run, I said, 'You know Gerald, this is not personal; this is philosophical, because I don't see the free market solving the traffic problems.' ... We have to be a lot more creative than just building roads and letting growth go this direction. We have to look at some of the things like what Envision Central Texas is doing. How do we move people [without using] cars?"
Any discussion of Daugherty will begin with transportation. Before he defeated Democratic appointee Margaret Moore and recaptured Todd Baxter's unexpired seat for the GOP, he was the founder of Reclaim Our Allocated Dollars, which worked to roll back the 1-cent sales tax that Capital Metro receives and kill light rail. His elevation to the Commissioners Court also put him on the board of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, responsible for this region's transportation planning, where he could continue his pro-road crusade.
Daugherty insists he's not quite as anti-mass-transit as his record might indicate. "I voted for the creation of Capital Metro in the 1985 referendum," he says, "because we need public transit, and we need a way to pay for it with more than just fares. I don't expect transit to pay for itself. The pre-Capital Metro bus-system money was coming from the city's General Fund, and I knew if it was to grow, a sales tax makes sense. The incorrect perception of Gerald Daugherty is that I'm against public transit. I just want bang for the buck."
And for Daugherty, the bang is more likely to come from roads. At a recent candidate forum, Huber said: "As more people live further out, it costs more to get them into town. ... It's not easy, but if we keep sprawling, we need mass transit for those people."
Daugherty's response: "Getting mass transit to western Travis County is a pipe dream, because we can't get people to ride mass transit in the inner city."
When I later challenged him on this – pointing out that my inner-city bus ride to his office was standing-room-only and I rarely find myself on the mythological "empty bus" – he fought back with numbers: "After 23 years and $1.8 billion collected by Capital Metro, there is still not a much larger percentage of users. ... Less than 3 percent of residents use mass transit as their main transportation."
Huber counters that there is a reason for that. "It's hard to hop around on one leg," she told the forum. "People don't ride it because we don't have a comprehensive system, and [you] can't get where you're going on time. Great cities have good mass transit. ... I live on 71 West. I would hop on light rail in a minute. But there are no plans, not even a discussion about that. People will continue to drive if we build more roads. We don't have to build just roads."
The other great transportation issue in recent years has been toll roads, in which Daugherty also plays a central role with CAMPO. Daugherty has come under attack from anti-toll activist Sal Costello, who has dubbed him the "Oak Hill Toller" and sells thongs sporting Daugherty's face. Daugherty says his position on tolls has been wrongly portrayed, and he and other public officials have been unfairly vilified.
"I read last week that my opponent put something in writing that I was supportive of tolling existing roads," he complained. "I don't know where anybody gets off by saying that any of the 19 board members on CAMPO have ever said that they were – as a matter of fact, it's the thing that we have spent so much time trying to get people to understand that that is not the case. ... If people really thought that we were going to toll existing roads, they ought to be mad."
Daugherty emphasizes that he does support adding tolled lanes to existing freeways but that the original lanes, with stoplights, will still be free. "Maybe you just philosophically think that a road doesn't need to be tolled, regardless. Well, you know what? Probably all 19 of the board members would love the notion that we wouldn't have to do one toll road." If the money had been otherwise available from the Texas Department of Transportation or other sources, Daugherty says, "it would have been a 19-to-zero vote."
"With the funding crisis we have right now ... we need to look at all financing options creatively," Huber told the candidate forum. "We may need a few more toll roads to get out of the hole we're in. I'm not in favor of toll roads as a policy long-term, but we're in a hole with what we have to work with. ... We don't necessarily need to build roads to take care of all these cars. Part of our policy needs to be to look at the other mobility options that will take cars off the roads."
At a press conference Monday, Daugherty and the Texas Department of Transportation announced that money had been secured to repaint the stretch of Highway 290 West going west into Oak Hill so that it will now have two lanes – instead of the single lane that currently causes a huge traffic bottleneck. Huber found the timing of the announcement suspicious in that it came on the first day of early voting: "It's been put off for a long time," Huber said. "It's interesting that just today they have a solution. If it helps, then I'm all for it. Maybe we need an election every six months." Daugherty did not return a call requesting comment but told the Statesman: "This is not a political deal. This is something where something needs to be done."
Intrinsically related to the transportation issue is growth, which has radically changed the Hill Country portion of Travis over the past two decades. It's also the source of Huber's other main complaint against Daugherty. "I'm not against growth," Huber says. "We have to have growth. We want jobs, and without growth, we'll come to a halt. But we need to be responsible, and so much of the growth is tied to county land-use authority."
In Texas, that authority is very limited. "Gerald did everything he could to prevent [Hays Co. state Rep.] Patrick Rose's bill, which would have granted counties greater land-use authority, and he sent a lobbyist out against it. When an urbanizing county testifies or sends his person to testify who quotes his name and says we don't need it, it makes a difference. It really hurts the prospects for a bill."
Daugherty scoffs at the notion that he actively fought the bill or has a lobbyist on retainer. "I'm not against growth controls," he says. "I'm against imposing controls to the point that they can't get passed in the Legislature. Most counties don't want the controls. Urban counties need the tools, but how many will the Lege give?" What Daugherty says he really has a problem with are overreaches that turn the Lege against Austin. "When Save Our Springs says there is no road in southwest Travis County that they would support, you might as well set me on fire. That's idiotic."
Huber does pay Daugherty a semicompliment: "He's easy to get in touch with. He's responsive to having a meeting. But not very often does he follow through ... or really listen. ... He's just not consistent. He's not aggressive enough. He waits for problems to surface and then deals with them. We should act pre-emptively."
"When they hear accusations that I'm a do-nothing commissioner," Daugherty responds, "my staff comes unglued. I work 60-hour weeks sometimes. I'm proud of the job I've done."
If Huber fails to unseat Daugherty this time, four years from now she might have an easier shot: "I have the energy to do one more term," Daugherty says. "After 10 years, you can stick a fork in me, because I'll probably be done."