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CAMPO discusses possible Cap Metro expansion

Tuesday, August 12, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

Discussion at last night’s Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Transportation Policy Board meeting came back to the most popular issue of the day in Texas transportation: money.

Last night’s meeting was a quick one, chaired by County Judge Sam Biscoe because Chair Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) was away at a transportation meeting. Most of the topics that drew discussion were those that dealt with money: the actual cost of Capital Metro expanding its service area; how the state’s metropolitan planning organizations would handle future federal funding cuts; and the review of funding formulas to provide equal allocation across the state.

CAMPO did not name a new representative to the Capital Metro board of directors. Biscoe, who chairs the subcommittee on the issue, said the group had narrowed its list of candidates to four. Those four will be interviewed on August 22, and the committee expects to name a candidate that same day to fill the open slot on the board filled by outgoing Chair Lee Walker.

The liveliest discussion came from Capital Metro’s proposal to possibly expand its service into areas that are not currently in the transit agency’s tax base: Hutto; Round Rock; Cedar Park; and Pflugerville. Chief Development Officer Doug Allen presented some scenarios for outlying towns to pay for service.

The board was split along two lines. Austin’s sales tax provides the majority of Capital Metro’s tax base, so it wasn’t surprising that Cap Metro critic Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and Council Member Lee Leffingwell wanted to make sure that those who benefited from the service paid their fair share. Would the tax base be subsidizing the outlying areas? Daugherty asked.

“Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” asked Daugherty.

If Capital Metro did intend to pursue such a strategy, it should be able to provide some kind of line-item projection that showed whether or not the fees and fares charged to outlying cities would capture the cost to the transit agency.

Allen noted that Capital Metro’s outlying park and rides – the ones with express buses — show that between 40 and 50 percent of the users come from cities beyond the service area. That led others on the panel, like Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt and Hays County Judge Liz Sumter, to note that bringing an outlying area into Capital Metro’s service base could capture more revenues.

Kyle, for instance, is on record saying it is in favor of Capital Metro service and would be willing to pay for the actual cost of service to get an express bus into Austin. The town understands the cost of the bus service. And, in the case of Round Rock, that bus service could deliver commuters to a commuter rail station, providing more ridership for the region’s new rail service.

No vote was taken on the issue after the presentation.

During the executive director’s report, Joe Cantalupo noted that the CAMPO staff were participating in two efforts spearheaded by the Texas Department of Transportation: one group devoted to a discussion of how to deal with future rescissions, or cuts, to local funding; and another group convened to review the formulas the state uses for disbursing discretionary federal highway dollars.

Two significant questions had been raised during the rescission discussion, Cantalupo said. First, how much flexibility should the state be asking the federal government for in terms of being able to determine which types of money should be coming back to the state? And, second, should certain types of program money be protected? For instance, should the point be made that bridge maintenance funds should be the last to be touched during cuts?

A formal presentation should be ready for the board to consider in September.

On the formula issue, the point has been raised by MPOs that some regions are picking up counties outside their geographic boundaries and skewing funding. Some are calling for funding only the transportation region designated by the governor.

Cantalupo noted the formula discussion was likely to favor the Houston-Galveston Area region. While Central Texas has grown fast, the Houston-Galveston area has grown even faster, he said, regardless of which figures are used.

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