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CAMPO members step back from regional planning

Tuesday, October 11, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

Monday’s CAMPO Transportation Policy Board meeting was proof that as soon as local leaders take one step forward in the name of regional planning, they’re just as likely to take two steps back.


Members of the regional planning board had, at one point, appeared to agree that they approved of regional goals to reduce congestion and encourage town centers. They sent the Technical Advisory Committee off to prioritize along those lines, with some balance between town center and general projects.


The amount in question was about $75 million in STP MM, or Surface Transportation Program – Metropolitan Mobility, funding. Local leaders on the full board were far from happy with the committee’s discussion, especially Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long and Hays County Commissioner Will Conley, who said the proposed arrangement left him with practically no funding for local road projects.


“If you look at the list at the very back, there’s a very consistent pattern,” Conley, who represents the Wimberley area, said of the documents presented to the board. “County governments are getting hosed in this process.”


Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe, who chaired the meeting, did not consider that a fair characterization. After the meeting, he said that regional and road projects, when combined for each county, probably reflected a fair picture of funding.


Long was so concerned that she brought forward new options for the board to consider, ones that were deemed “geographically balanced.” It was added to a laundry list of various options for consideration, which presented the full Transportation Policy Board with up to 11 options for further consideration.


The option preferred by the Technical Advisory Committee, Long noted, broke out in uneven percentages: 26.5 percent of funding for studies; about 32 percent for transit and rail; 27 percent for bike-pedestrian projects; a total of 9 percent going to the HERO roadside assistance program; 2.35 percent going to a set-aside for Bastrop County; 3 percent for additional CAMPO staff; and less than 1 percent for individual roadway projects.


The original agreement was roughly half going to regional projects and half to general projects. Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt repeatedly questioned Long’s tallies, saying that she did not want percentages put on the table as fact without having a chance for the entire committee to review Long’s tabulations.


At the Technical Advisory Committee, the TAC preferred option got a vote of 8-6. Long’s balanced geographic option got a vote of 7-7, providing no clear answers.


Mayor Bob Lemon from Cedar Park could find little to support in the push toward regional projects. His city, Lemon said, was already mapped out and this new option was not one that would benefit his residents. Afterwards, central city supporters scoffed at the notion, noting that Cedar Park residents benefit plenty from projects that bring them to work in downtown Austin.


As is typical of Biscoe’s leadership of the board, he put the easy votes on the table first: The full board agreed to approve the Prop 12 bond projects already voted on at the Texas Transportation Commission, smaller projects in areas such as San Marcos, Lockhart and Wimberley. They also agreed to carve out $5.7 million to spend on improvements to the Loop 360 bridge and set aside a total of $2.2 million in support for road rebuilding in fire-ravaged Bastrop County.


The group stalled on recommendations to expand CAMPO’s staff. While the TAC had been fairly supportive of the additional four staff members, more conservative members of the Transportation Policy Board balked at expanding the planning group’s staff by 25 percent, especially if that was to be funded with money that could go to regional road projects.


Executive Director Maureen McCoy insisted she intended to replace the federal road dollars with planning dollars as soon as new census numbers would cover additional support in a year. If that did not occur, McCoy said the jobs could be scrapped in future budget cycles.


Georgetown Mayor George Garver asked, and board members appeared to agree, to send McCoy with instructions to prioritize her position requests, either cutting her request in half or justifying how the additional positions would simply replace and reduce outside consultant fees already in recent budgets.


As for the $75 million or so in federal STP MM funds, discussion of how to put options on or off the table just appeared to unravel as the discussion progressed. The group finally agreed to an aptly scheduled Halloween work session for the board to land on some kind of compromise.


No doubt, no matter how the vote ends up, some will consider the outcome more trick than treat.

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