The Austin Chronicle

Developing Stories: Driving in Two Directions

CAMPO's trends vs. centers debate is shaping our future

By Katherine Gregor, November 27, 2009, News

Are Central Texans ready to drive less so that we can become a more sustainable region? Well, about half of us are, suggests a recent survey by the Capital Area Metro­pol­itan Planning Organization. So correspondingly, the CAMPO Transportation Policy Board – which decides how federal transportation funds get spread among local road and transit projects – agreed this month to pursue a long-range plan that devotes about half of its future budgets to more "sustainable" projects. (That is, projects that support density over sprawl and that create alternatives to driving – in the interest of air quality, the environment, climate action, and citizens' pocketbooks.) As logical a policy as cutting the baby in half? Perhaps. But the Nov. 9 board commitment does signal a sea-change shift for Central Texas away from our historical top three transportation priorities: new roads, big roads, and more roads.

The survey is part of People, Planning and Preparing for the Future, CAMPO's inclusive public process for developing a 25-year transportation plan. After gathering public input in the spring, CAMPO put forward three alternate concepts in the survey. It wasn't a statistically valid poll; the self-selecting respondents were reached through stakeholder meetings, the CAMPO website and e-mails, and area organizations and their friends. Critics say some questions were poorly worded, that mathematical modeling assumptions remain old-school, and that the alternative concepts offered weren't differentiated clearly enough. Nonetheless, the more than 4,100 responses gathered are launching a fresh regional mandate. If CAMPO's Transportation Improvement Program budget follows, as promised, that should yield more sustainable development patterns with more transit projects in the mix. At stake: how the region should invest some $9.5 billion in anticipated (though not guaranteed) public transportation funds over the next 25 years.

CAMPO Chair Kirk Watson has led the planning effort to publicly consider three alternatives: no build (just fix what we have), trends (keep up the sprawl), and centers (dense nodes, more transit and bicycle/pedestrian pathways). Survey responses ran about 42% in favor of trends, about 41% for centers, about 7% for no build, and 10% for other. Asked if he was disappointed that the more-sustainable-centers concept roughly tied with business as usual, Watson said no. "We're trying something new, for the first time, so I think it's a very positive first step in an unprecedented process," he said. "I think it shows the community is, in fact, getting it – that doing the same thing, just building more roads, is not getting the result we want."

Three Concepts

"Everybody is excited that they've taken the first step; this is a big deal for this region," confirmed Glenn Gadbois, a transportation consultant and longtime multimodal advocate. He said a broad range of regional organizations and all of the area's cities and counties are closely watching the CAMPO 2035 plan evolve. "Everyone who has been talking about the way we make transportation decisions in this region is enthusiastically and excitedly looking to CAMPO now," said Gad­bois. But he also said of the board's move toward a hybrid trends-and-centers plan: "This really is baby steps – it's not any landmark, paradigm-shifting change. It is a small step toward something more like the ECT [Envision Central Texas' preferred scenario] vision."

The first no-build scenario assumes that the area's steady growth continues but no new capacity is added, neither road nor transit. Whatever transportation funds the region gets would go to completing projects already in progress; after that, we simply maintain and operate the system we have. (Without funding from the cash-poor Texas Department of Transportation, which channels the federal funds Watson emphasizes, that may be our only option.) But unsurprisingly, a future in which it's even harder to get around wasn't popular.

The trends concept is basically a recipe for continued sprawl: It leaves regional development patterns up to current policies and market trends. It assumes that all $2.4 billion worth of projects in the current investment pipeline get built. The remaining $7.1 billion would go to freeways, more state highways, and arterial roadways. Minimal or no monies would be directed into major new transit.

The recipe for change is the centers concept. It strives to cluster new development in denser live-work-play activity centers in order to reduce vehicle miles traveled – and the attendant pollution, congestion, and emissions. New policies and incentives would drive future growth patterns; to get a road or rail project to serve your new development, you'd need to locate it in a designated center. Funding priorities would shift, so some of the roads now in the pipeline wouldn't get built. The monies would instead be invested in the region's public transit system (including buses and rail), as well as new arterial roads serving the denser mixed-use centers. Wat­son calls this "a nationally recognized alternative" to "get a better bang for our buck."

Cash for Centers

But, the CAMPO chair warned, "there are issues with all three of these." Dwindling federal and state dollars just aren't sufficient to keep up trends spending. And, Watson said, "we may not have all the tools we need to carry out a centers approach." The most obvious missing tool: county land-use authority, a power that area counties and groups like ECT unsuccessfully sought in the last legislative session. On the plus side for centers, the U.S. Department of Transportation is changing its own future funding formulas to favor sustainability.

Now come six months of hard work to translate a new vision into a 2035 plan and a Transportation Improvement Program that's "fiscally constrained" by real budget numbers. The board directed staff to proceed with projects that are already in the current TIP, which runs through 2011. It also endorsed use of the centers locations in a 2007 growth concept map. But the board told staff to come back with ways to dedicate about 50% of metro mobility monies (federal Surface Transportation Program – Metropolitan Mobility funds) to projects in or supportive of cen­ters through the life of the 2035 plan, which will stand for five years. Meanwhile, Gadbois said stakeholders are asking CAMPO to adjust some of its traffic modeling and other assumptions. CAMPO Assistant Director Maureen McCoy said staffers are working right now to sort projects by type and funding sources and to develop proposals; they'll report back to the board's technical advisory meeting Dec. 2. The full board meets again in January.

"For the first time, I think we're making enormous progress," said Watson. "As we get more people engaged, we're growing the public's knowledge base. We're increasing momentum for a discussion about shaping the future instead of letting it shape us." But he was realistic that the next long-range plan and TIP will reflect evolving priorities: "We're probably all going to vote on something where we have to hold our noses a little bit."

To read the full report, visit and see "Technical Report #8."

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