January 4, 2007
Much could be gleaned from a Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce task force report released last week on the governance of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Transportation Policy Board, not the least of which was what went wrong when it came time to debate the region’s toll-road plan.
The fact that state Sen.-elect Kirk Watson chaired the task force is a good sign that the group would focus on process, which is not always as sexy as headlines on Watson’s proposed six-month delay on the toll-road vote or the recommendation to reduce the number of members on the governing board. One of Watson’s strengths is bringing all sides together to build a consensus, and consensus is something almost everyone would agree has been lacking in many CAMPO board discussions over the last couple of years.
The chamber’s report made a number of recommendations to improve the deliberation process: Reduce the number of state lawmakers on the board (many, like Sen. Steve Ogden of Bryan, rarely attend anyway); decrease the use of proxies, and don’t allow those proxies to vote; create an ombudsman position to facilitate responses to questions raised during public hearings; and strengthen the Technical Advisory Committee and its role in the deliberation process.
Michael Aulick, executive director of CAMPO, was on hand at last week’s chamber news conference. A post-conference discussion on process with Aulick, who is intentionally neutral in most CAMPO road debates, focused a lot on accurate information and how the board can get that information to make solid policy decisions.
To make a final decision on the toll-road plan, Aulick says the CAMPO board needs more conclusive evidence on either side of the toll-road equation. First, the board needs to grasp the actual extent of the current funding shortfall to complete the state’s proposed road system. And, second, the board needs to understand what revenue from the toll roads might mean to the region; specifically what revenue from tolls could build.
Getting good, clear information on the issue is difficult. For instance, a recent Governor’s Business Council report touted an indexed gasoline tax to pay for additional roads. What most newspaper reports missed, though, was that the gas tax was intended to close the gap between toll roads and overall need, Aulick said. That gas tax is only a fraction of the fully anticipated road need for the eight major urban regions of the state.
And then there’s the impact that such reports have on the board. Since board members have seized on information like media stories on the Governor’s Business Council report, it’s been hard to untangle the facts, no matter how much effort CAMPO staff makes. What CAMPO needs, Aulick says, is a technical advisory committee that is fully versed in the various components of state and federal funding, who can build trust and provide guidance to the board on overall revenue issues.
Once need is established, the other end of the equation is revenue and how much revenue is needed in the region. Austin City Council Member Brewster McCracken has talked about a toll-road proposal that mixes free roads, managed lanes, and tolled lanes. The bottom line on that debate is: Just how much revenue does the region need?
Every road in the region’s CAMPO 2030 Plan is in a different place, financially: Portions of U.S. 183 and SH 71 are funded. The frontage roads of U.S. 290 are funded but not the main lanes. The lanes of Highway 71 West out to Dripping Springs and beyond, as well as 290 East and Loop 360, are not funded at all. The regional road plan will be a decision on what roads should be tolled and, just as important, what the revenue from those roads could fund in the region’s future road plan.