How does the patchwork of separate plans for the future of Central Texas fit together? No one knows.
In Central Texas, right now, there's a whole lot of planning going on. Big visions and decisions for the region's next 20 to 30 years are being created – or were just adopted – by a dizzying array of cities, counties, agencies, organizations, and community nonprofits. Road maps chosen now will determine where we end up when today's toddlers hit the work force in 2030. They'll also drive hundreds of millions of dollars in public investments, funded with our tax dollars. So it's worth making sure that we truly endorse the collective course set by all of these long-range plans. Just as we can trace our history by following the course of rivers, roads, train tracks, and power lines since the early 1800s, we can foresee the Austin area's future by following the plans for water, land use, transportation, and energy.
Yet across the fast-growing region, it's no one's job to track and analyze how well all of these long-range planning efforts align. The plans include the expensive Big Eight newly affecting Austin (see "Plans in Play"):
• the emerging city of Austin comprehensive plan,
• the adopted Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization 2035 plan,
• the emerging Austin Energy 2020 plan,
• the adopted Austin Independent School District 2010-2015 plan (and emerging facilities plan),
• the adopted Austin Community College 2011-2013 plan,
• the emerging Travis County 2035 facilities plan, and comprehensive plan,
• the adopted Capital Metro 2020 service plan, and
• the emerging Lower Colorado River Authority 2100 plan.
With so many potentially powerful plans in development simultaneously, it might seem practical, prudent, and fiscally responsible for regional leaders to call for at least an advisory cross-check. But no one has stepped up to address that need. How will the various locations that individual agencies choose (for their new water mains, schools, job training campuses, and rapid bus and rail transit) advance – or defeat – a presumed goal of growing as one sustainable, compact, connected place? It's anyone's guess. No one agency is the keeper of the plans; no one brain (or brain trust) in Austin has analyzed them collectively. (Indeed, so far as numerous reporting inquiries could determine, no single person has actually read all the current plan documents in full.) Is anyone looking across the region's long-range planning efforts and advising all the players on cross-sector opportunities or looming conflicts? Identifying collaborative opportunities for efficiencies that would save taxpayers money? The answer, said Travis County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, is a "big fat no."
The Common Costs
There's a reason for that. The current push for concurrent long-range planning is new in Central Texas – a response to our rapid growth, in becoming a metro area of more than 1 million people – so we're still getting the hang of it. Historically, there's been a strong Texas political and cultural suspicion of any public "planning" at all – fueled partly by business and monied interests cool to interference in their private-sector plans and partly by a "property rights" tradition that rejects almost any governmental regulation of private property.
But for our lack of coordination as a regional community, we pay a price. "The biggest problem arising from uncoordinated programs is that they will likely cost much more in the long run," said Kent Butler, director of the graduate program in community and regional planning at the University of Texas' School of Architecture. "We don't operate regionally as efficiently as we should," observed Sean Moran, who earlier this year left his position as director of Regional Services for the Capital Area Council of Governments (CAPCOG). Without a shared regional vision, "I think we'll start to lose opportunities for economic development," commented Joe Cantalupo, who recently left his position as executive director of CAMPO. "Everyone's screaming for greater coordination" between CAMPO and CAPCOG, he said – although Cantalupo himself doesn't see that as a catch-all solution. CAPCOG is widely regarded as a weak player in regional planning; it has not provided or roused the leadership, sense of urgency, or funding necessary to forge decisive regional solutions. (A subcommittee of its board members is looking at the issue now.) Cantalupo did concede that without coordination, "you always run the risk of tripping over each other. You can have two very well-meaning, capable organizations that develop plans that work at cross purposes."
Eckhardt cited three big risks of unconnected long-range plans: wasted opportunities, wasted resources, and wasted money. "We have an abundance of natural assets," she noted, "that are quickly disappearing due to a lack of planning and coordinated effort."
Asked for specific examples of the problem, Envision Central Texas board Chair Travis Froehlich (whose day job is chief strategy officer for the Seton Family of Hospitals) points to the region's failure to collaborate on a corridor plan for State Highway 130. "Though there was some effort to encourage coordinated land use planning and other collaborations early on," he said, "not much actually came to fruition." Butler points to the fact that the city's Austin Water utility is building an expensive new water treatment plant (Water Treatment Plant No. 4) on Lake Travis – just a jet-ski ride away from where Brushy Creek Regional Utility Authority is building its own, separate new water treatment plant, "all with little or no coordination." That missed opportunity to work collaboratively translates to big increases in water rates, he said, particularly straining households struggling with poverty (which include 19% of Travis County's children).
The two projects also reflect burgeoning regional (and statewide) competition for resources, especially water. It's difficult to get competing communities to collaborate on long-range planning if they (rightly or wrongly) perceive a direct conflict in their interests. The risk, said Butler: "Over time, the cost and reliability of municipal water supplies is likely to become more precious, less secure, and much more expensive."
Cantalupo noted that Austin, for most of the past decade, ranked as the nation's No. 1 most traffic-congested midsize city. In 2009, the Texas Transportation Institute ranked Austin as a large city instead; we're now tied for No. 10 in that category for traffic congestion by annual delay per traveler (29 hours/27 gallons wasted). "If we could turn back the clock 20 or 30 years and had figured out a way to work more closely together, and coordinate, would we have wound up better on that?" Cantalupo asked. "I believe that it would have helped."
Eckhardt pointed to our region's recent failure to be optimally competitive for millions in federal funds; she said we've lost out on federal stimulus money, U.S. Housing and Urban Development funding (low-income housing), Department of Transportation TIGER grants (transformational transit), and Department of Justice Byrne grants (juvenile/criminal justice and drug prevention), "because we could not compete with other areas sporting a higher degree of intergovernmental coordination."
If other planning efforts fail to support the CAMPO 2035 Regional Transportation Plan, a big first step toward advancing compact regional development over sprawl, said Cantalupo, "we're going to wind up spending more time in our cars. The price we pay individually is losing time – time with your kids or doing things you enjoy, like reading a book or going for a walk."
The Status Quo
In Texas, no one single entity has official authority to link planning across jurisdictions and issues. While other areas of the country benefit from regional planning entities which have both power and money, we have no such animal. Instead, Central Texas relies on an awkward constellation of three quasi-governmental authorities to promote regional thinking and action – CAMPO (federal authority for transportation planning, with power and funding for five counties), CAPCOG (voluntary 10-county association, with some federal and state funding for individual programs and plans), and Envision Central Texas (voluntary five-county nonprofit, with no official power).
Many interviewed praised ECT for leading the thinking on regionalism. "The ongoing dialogue this group initiates is really pretty unique," observed Doug Allen, interim president/CEO at Capital Metro. (On Sept. 10, ECT will host the third of its 2010 regional forum series, this one called Getting the Biggest Bang for Our Buck: Can We Improve the Way We Grow in Central Texas?) But the 2004 ECT vision was never officially adopted by any other entity besides itself. Like a common-law marriage, it's now treated as real simply because it's been around so long. The nonprofit has struggled to stay relevant; it suffers from funding reductions, a tiny staff, and a too disparate board that ducks advocacy. Like CAPCOG, ECT hasn't proved equal to brokering agreement on one unified region plan, which addresses the interdependence of pressing issues – what's now termed "sustainability."
Agency staff and elected officials interviewed all took care to point out that, while their long-range plans may not be fully coordinated, their organizations do communicate and work together all the time. Austin City Council Member Chris Riley noted that as an elected official, he serves on the boards of Austin Energy, Capital Metro, CAMPO, CAPCOG (and its Clean Air Coalition), and the Texas Municipal League; that leads to some natural cross-pollinating. "There's always nuts-and-bolts interaction, which takes place outside the context of the long-range plans," he said.
Belinda Powell, strategic planning manager for Travis County, cited efforts to ensure that the county's Downtown campus master plan advances the urban design goals of the city's Downtown Austin Plan, as well as city and Cap Metro plans for transit and strategic mobility. ACC spokeswoman Alexis Patterson said the college is tuned in to plans for future rail transit: "It's a factor in many of our recent acquisitions (rail alongside the Leander, Highland Mall, and Kyle properties and in proximity to the Elgin land)," she said in an e-mail. Joey Crumley, planning supervisor for AISD, cited the school district's community outreach as it develops its first comprehensive facilities master plan. And Cap Metro's Doug Allen pointed out that all major transportation studies occur through CAMPO's annual Unified Planning Work Program, which is "intended to foster good regional coordination on various planning efforts." In addition, he said, "We have an informal group of representatives at an executive level from CAMPO, Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, the Texas Department of Transportation's regional office, Cap Metro, and the city of Austin that meets monthly to coordinate and dialogue on transportation."
From Conversation to Coordination
Yet for the most part, long-range plans and master plans remain isolated in organizational silos. It's a problem even within single organizations. Neither the city of Austin nor Travis County has compiled an internal directory – or even maintains a complete list – of its own departmental long-range and master plans. (The city's comprehensive planning staff began compiling one recently, after the city was unable to produce a list for this article.) Austin is developing a comprehensive plan, but its scope is the city and its extraterritorial jurisdiction – with just a best-guess look at the larger region. In following the public process for the comprehensive plan, Butler said he's become "keenly interested and concerned" about the need for "a more integrated and unified planning process" across departments. For example, he said, "The opportunities to integrate water and electric and roadway planning are immense."
"There is a need for regional thinking," asserted Garner Stoll, the staff lead on the city of Austin's comprehensive plan, as an assistant director in the Planning and Development Review Department. "Envision Central Texas started that dialogue. But it never got past the vision level. The ECT vision was very important, and it had a major influence. But it never translated into implementable plans."
Now, he said, "It is real important to reconcile the plans. But maybe even more important is to have a system that causes the plans to actually be implemented. That seems to be lacking from regional planning in Texas. The housing market, the economy and job growth, natural systems and environmental issues – none of that pays any attention to municipal boundaries."
Cantalupo agreed. "You can look at the CAMPO plan, city of Austin comprehensive plan, any plan – what it's going to boil down to at the end of the day is whether people who are responsible for implementing it carry it out," he said. "We're just sort of trusting. ... To a certain extent, we've just sort of depended on accident and luck to be sure that these things can get done. I don't think we can do that anymore."
Several officials and observers suggested a structural solution: Consolidate CAMPO and CAPCOG. The North Central Texas Council of Governments (which is also the region's metropolitan planning organization) was frequently cited as a positive model. Riley said that on a chamber of commerce visit to Phoenix he was favorably impressed by the Maricopa Association of Governments – another MPO-COG. (Both regions have successfully built regional rail transit systems – advanced by their councils of government.) Las Vegas and Reno also have strong MPO-COGs.
So far CAMPO (which has more money and power) has been cool to the idea of a merger. But Betty Voights, executive director of CAPCOG, said she's been advocating a first step of co-locating for a while. The COG has minimal staff or funds to do broad regional planning, she said; it is funded only to do single-issue strategic plans for economic development, air quality, solid waste, emergency communications, homeland security, and criminal justice. But Voights cautioned that "two-thirds of my board is rural, from outside the area that's concerned about regional planning. Frankly, that may be why the MPO doesn't want us and why they don't push us into a bigger role."
Rural counties and towns in Texas have tended to view suspiciously any planning efforts that originate from urban areas. Yet in our region, they also look to Austin and Travis County for protection from encroaching, unplanned development and its consequences – like gravel pits, traffic, and environmental degradation. Meanwhile, CAMPO board members each have tended to advocate for their jurisdiction's separate interests rather than acting as stewards for the region as a whole.
CAPCOG veteran Sean Moran, who now teaches at ACC, said that while few will argue publicly against consolidating the two groups (and perhaps ECT as well), in private they protect the status quo. According to Moran, the real problem is internal resistance: "Look at who was providing oversight to those plans – county judges, [Sen.] Kirk Watson, a whole list of people. They like to have influence over a process," he said. "So that's your obstacle – it's going to change the landscape, as far as who has influence and power and who does not." He added: "They're not motivated, because it will change the landscape not only for the boards but for the staffs as well. People fear change."
Moran believes the idea of a merger has merit, however. "If they were to become one organization, the territory issue would instantly be gone. You would see a lot of consolidation and coordination naturally occur if you could get those organizations under the same roof." (There's also a practical barrier: The city of Austin provides the MPO with leased offices at One Texas Center, and its staff doesn't want to move to the rather depressing space shared by CAPCOG and ECT, far from the center of town.)
Moran suggested a way to push through the resistance: Bring in an outside consultant to objectively assess the advantages and downsides of a joint MPO-COG and report them publicly. "If the business community and its leadership said, 'We want to make sure we're getting the biggest bang for our buck,' that would do it," said Moran. "If we really look at it and decide it's not for Austin, then fine – that's an intelligent decision." Voights said she was amenable to the idea: "I'm willing to open up my books to look at it and figure it out."
Like others, Stoll pointed to Oregon (particularly the Portland region) as a model for integrated regional planning. According to national transportation consultant Paul Bay, "Albany, New York, has done an exceptional job; San Diego, Sacramento, and Salt Lake City regions all do an above-average job."
Stoll said the Denver region, where he formerly worked, may offer a more realistic middle-course model for Central Texas. The Denver Regional Council of Governments (affectionately known as "Dr. Cog") serves as the regional planning commission for the Denver metro area. In 2000, it helped ratify the Mile High Compact, a voluntary agreement among Denver metro area cities and counties to manage growth throughout the region by adhering to a collective quality-of-life vision and set of principles. Helping DRCOG get it done was the Metro Mayors Caucus, a cooperative alliance of the mayors of 39 cities and towns (urban, suburban, and rural). According to the caucus website, the metro region's elected officials collaborate on "providing leadership and creative solutions on some of the most challenging issues in our region" that require collective action "and cannot be effectively addressed by any one jurisdiction acting alone." Stoll credited the caucus with advancing numerous progressive growth strategies. Recently, they've been working together on Complete Streets policies to encourage multimodal transportation.
In Austin, Mayor Lee Leffingwell is working to simply organize a first step: a joint presentation of various regional plans. The mayor's office hopes to host it in August or September; Leffingwell has asked for the city's Channel 6 to tape, broadcast, and archive the presentations. Said Leffingwell: "We want to be sure these different agencies are working together and with area governments so we have a coordinated, regional answer to our long-range issues." A series of PowerPoint presentations does not a regional plan make – but it's a start.
Leffingwell said he's been meeting with mayors from the five-county area; he currently has no plan to convene a formal group like the Metro Mayors Caucus. But perhaps it's an opportune moment.
"It's a very exciting time, with so many planning efforts going on," observed Powell. "It does afford us an opportunity to collaborate on a cohesive future vision."
Meanwhile, the local group Liveable City has been working on a field guide to Austin-area planning efforts. It focuses on the city of Austin, ACC, and AISD. Board Member Mark Yznaga, who also serves on the Austin Comprehensive Plan Citizens Advisory Task Force, said the final interactive guide (with policy points, contact information, and critical dates) will be posted at www.liveablecity.org. "This was developed after we understood the large number of important planning and policy issues that were going forward in this short time frame," he said. "In our mind, these are the years that will change Austin's future."