December 3, 2009
State Sen. Kirk Watson, whose dual roles as chairman of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board and vice chairman of the Senate transportation committee have made him something of a Central Texas transportation czar, will step down as CAMPO chair next month.
Then, some months later, Watson, an Austin Democrat, and fellow CAMPO board members state Reps. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, and Diana Maldonaldo, D-Round Rock, likely will leave the 20-member board. Watson, in a Nov. 30 letter to his fellow CAMPO board members, said eliminating legislators from the board “would make CAMPO more what it’s meant to be — a locally driven group that is closest to the needs of the region and its communities.”
The service of legislators on the boards of metropolitan planning organizations, federally mandated agencies that oversee transportation planning for metropolitan areas, has been an issue for years. The CAMPO board, in fact, included as many as 10 legislators in the years before Watson took over in January 2007. One of Watson’s first moves after assuming the chairmanship was to change the board’s membership and jettison most of those legislative spots.
Metropolitan planning organizations’ main duty sounds arcane: preparing and approving 25-year transportation plans and then updating them. But the role is critical: Any transportation project using federal funds, which almost all projects do, must be in the approved plans. CAMPO, in other words, doesn’t build roads or rail, but no one else can without its go-ahead.
The boards of some planning organizations in Texas have no legislators on them, instead seating a mix of county commissioners, city council members, transit agency staff and Texas Department of Transportation representatives.
As CAMPO chairman, Watson presided over a controversial vote in 2007 authorizing five more toll roads in Central Texas. None of those projects have been built, and only one — an expansion of U.S. 290 East — is poised to happen anytime soon.
The board in 2008 hired a new executive director, Joe Cantalupo, who has gotten high marks for his leadership.
Watson helped create a “transit working group” of CAMPO board members and members of the public to examine proposed transit projects and steered it away from rushed approval of an Austin streetcar plan and toward a more rigorous process to analyze such proposals.
Watson, in his letter, said he will step down as chairman after the board’s Jan. 11 meeting. He and the other legislators likely would stay on as board members for some months as the board membership is rejiggered to include voting members from Bastrop and Caldwell counties. The board currently has members from Travis, Williamson and Hays counties.