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CAMPO frustrated by TxDOT’s ever-changing funding numbers

Tuesday, November 10, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Chair Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) appears to like nothing less at a CAMPO Transportation Policy Board meeting than an announcement from the executive director that funding for any transportation category is, once more, a moving target.

Combine that with the possibility that the calculations for a funding category are questionable, and it can make for a painful and rather frustrating discussion among the policy board.

At this moment, CAMPO does appear to have $4.27 million in Surface Transportation Program – Metropolitan Mobility (STP-MM) funds to distribute. That’s down from October, when the number presented to the board was $4.5 million. But county leaders on the board were less than satisfied with the Texas Department of Transportation’s explanation for how funding was prioritized and used.

These projects to be funded under the STP-MM category were expected to be “ready to go,” and leaders from Wimberley and Hays County were more than ready to testify to the local residents’ willingness to start a bike-pedestrian project between Wimberley and Woodbridge that has been in the works for at least four years.

“We’re ready to get to work,” Wimberley Mayor Tom Haley told the board. “The county has worked hard. The city has worked hard. We thank you for your commitment to our region, and we appreciate your support.”

Other prioritized projects on the list included a ramp on Interstate 35 at River Ridge, plus sidewalks on Parmer Lane and an improved bike crossing on Loop 360.

The CAMPO board, however, wasn’t quite ready to take a vote, uncertain what could and should be backed out of the letting capacity. Even the effort of CAMPO staff to try to recalculate the letting capacity, based on the ability of the local jurisdictions to put up a portion of the project costs, ended up in some confusion.

“One of the frustrations I have with this is the ever-changing numbers,” Watson told his board. “It’s been four years of frustration now.”

Watson sent representatives of TxDOT, which is the arbiter of the formula, back to the drawing board to consider what the proper prioritization should be, with some extra clarification of the bike-pedestrian aspects of each project, at the request of Council Member and cyclist Chris Riley. All road projects must devote 15 percent to bike-ped.

The board spent some time jostling over alternatives. Could some projects be approved and not others? Would a delay until the January meeting put any of the projects in jeopardy. After some discussion, it was decided the vote could wait until January, without the need to call a meeting for December. CAMPO typically takes off the month of December.

Hays County Judge Liz Sumter made the motion, with a second by Mayor Lee Leffingwell. A caveat was added that if the numbers did not change – and the letting order did not change – the prioritized projects would go forward as planned. Sumter said she would prefer not to hold up construction on projects for no reason, and allow construction on the ready-to-go projects to begin before January.

Earlier in the day, after a two-hour workshop on potential options for the CAMPO 2035 plan, the CAMPO board agreed to devote 50 percent of STP MM funding toward activity centers. That rather-modest investment pushes the region toward one more opportunity to incorporate planning principles into the preferences of road construction. Those who are tied to more traditional methods of funding are likely to view the choice with some skepticism, wanting to know just how far planning principles will push transportation priorities. Specifics on transportation priorities – and how activity centers will be encouraged – will come back at future meetings.

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