September 10, 2007
A public hearing is coming up tonight. The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, a group I chair that plans Central Texas transportation projects, will listen to your thoughts on, among other things, the proposed improvements to five regional highways.Of course, I’ve only been chairing the CAMPO board for eight months now. But it seems to me that there’s a lot different about what’s on the table now compared to what CAMPO was considering as recently as a year ago. Here’s a partial list:1. Not one inch of existing road capacity would be tolled under the plan we’ll be considering. Only the new, unbuilt road improvements would be considered for tolls, and that’s only because the region can’t afford them without supplemental income.2. Drivers who choose not to pay a user fee would end up with essentially the same driving experience to the one they experience today .3. The projected revenues will stay with the road that’s generating them and pay for the improvements to that road. Under this plan, tolls would not be levied with an eye on just how much money they could raise, and funds aren’t being set up to collect excess revenue for some undetermined project at some point down the line.4. The plan has been scaled back to a truly bare-bones proposal that represents only what Central Texas most desperately needs, and only what it can afford. This, in other words, is far more modest and conservative than the earlier Phase II Toll Plan that the CAMPO board killed the night I became chairman.5. There’s a moratorium in place against privatization of public roads. I voted for that moratorium and will continue to work to assure these public highways remain in public hands even after the moratorium.6. There has been more public input and involvement than ever before. CAMPO has been meeting almost weekly to study these issues. The agency formed a task force that met publicly in the spring and summer to put together a policy framework that’s now helping CAMPO and the public evaluate these decisions. Stakeholders in the Oak Hill area went through a mediated summit process to help the Texas Department of Transportation design a highway. And CAMPO has held four public meetings in addition to Monday’s hearing to collect public input on these projects. So I can report to you with enormous satisfaction that, whether you like or dislike these projects, your voice is being heard.7. A year ago, a number of people – including me – hoped the legislature would set a more responsible gas tax rate that would do what that tax is supposed to do: pay for Texas roads. Instead:
I will continue to work hard for additional transportation funds in the next session, but the message is clear: if we want to solve our problems, we have to do it ourselves.But, when all is said and done, I think the biggest difference today is that many more people understand that our mobility financing challenges require us to have a financial pie with more than just one ingredient. In other words, the financing package that will pay for something as costly as a highway improvement will need money from more than one source. That’s okay; it’s consistent with the way we pay for a variety of things The truth is that CAMPO is no different from any government, family, or individual trying to balance a budget by utilizing different sources of money and keeping costs down.In the same way, bus and rail providers, airports, and toll road agencies all pool user fees, tax revenues, and other monies to fund their budgets – as do parks, hospitals, utility providers, and virtually every other government service that charges a fee or sends a bill. Even the most extreme opponents of bus companies would hesitate before suggesting that it be funded entirely through user fees. Nor would anyone risk the viability of our health system by proposing the same for hospitals.As people really understand this much more transparent and accountable proposal, they are truly understanding the choice we face. We can use the alternative available to us to start fixing our traffic problems, or we can do nothing but choke on traffic as population and economic growth makes it an ever-bigger problem.I wish that wasn’t the choice, but it is, and wishing isn’t making it go away. That said, I deeply appreciate your interest and your contribution to this regional conversation. I’ll see you on Monday.