February 26, 2007
I wanted you to know about a very interesting – though incredibly challenging – meeting of a task force I wrote about last week that’s studying our region’s transportation issues and financing options. On Friday, the group took a look at programs and policies that determine how we predict the growth our region will have to accommodate, and how we gauge the effects of the decisions we make. The process is known as “modeling.”First, the CAMPO staff walked us through their current modeling process. One of the interesting points, I thought, was that CAMPO doesn’t assume a new road, such as State Highway 130, will by itself alter a region’s growth patterns. Part of this is federal law: CAMPO can’t project that people and jobs will locate where they otherwise wouldn’t – whether or not there’s going to be a road there – because those projections could be used to justify the road. It’s a bit of a circular argument, but it makes sense if you worry (as I do) about using population projections to justify projects we don’t really need. Still, we all know that major new projects such as SH 130 are fraught with opportunities and challenges for this region. We must live by the rules that federal and state officials give us, but we can’t live our lives as though these sorts of 19th Century tools are the only ones available to us. The rest of the meeting was devoted to presentations by modelers at the University of Texas. It was, to say the least, complicated – I personally experienced some unpleasant flashbacks to Algebra II. And some of the ideas the professors presented were quite radical. However, I think the session was a valuable demonstration to the Task Force and the community that we have a lot more options on mobility and financing than we generally think we do. We’re limited, I think, only by our imaginations and our pocketbooks. Such intellectual and policy freedom isn’t a huge help right now, as we’re still getting our arms around this region’s transportation needs. But I do hope that the task force – and the people of Central Texas – will never again believe transportation officials when they tell us we just can’t do something. Also, I think this kind of thing helps us see that there may be processes we can work through to evaluate transportation decisions. So much of the transportation discussion is couched in black-and-white, either/or. There may be – in fact, there are – tools that can be used to make better policy decisions beyond an all-or-nothing context. My experience is that most policy decisions have at least some shades of gray. This task force is trying to figure out how to make good decisions – or at least better ones – using all of the factors at our fingertips. This is our system. This is our future. So, let’s make it ours.