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CAMPO votes to reduce Travis County representation on key panel

Thursday, September 15, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County residents will have a smaller voice in regional transportation planning after a vote on Monday that County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said for her was “a dark night of the soul.”

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Policy Board approved a streamlining of the Technical Advisory Committee, reducing its membership from 33 to 24.

That plan was cooked up by a CAMPO subcommittee led by Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long. Board Chairman Will Conley commissioned Long to lead the effort back in February after a staff proposal in 2015 gained no traction.

In April, the subcommittee conducted an anonymous survey of TAC members, mostly transportation and planning officials from CAMPO’s constituent entities. The results of that survey, obtained by the Austin Monitor on Tuesday, show that 14 of the 18 respondents were unhappy with the size of the committee. Several more indicated that the TAC’s discussions have recently focused too much on policy rather than technical considerations.

In a jab at the size of the Austin and Travis County delegations, one member wrote on the survey response, “If we are going to have a City of Austin and Travis County staff meeting every time we meet, why have a TAC?”

Under the new TAC bylaws, the total number of seats representing Travis County communities is dropping from 10 to six. The city of Austin will fill three of those seats, and both the county and Pflugerville will each get one appointee. A rotating city with a population of less of 50,000 will pick the final appointee.

Meanwhile, Williamson County jurisdictions will send five representatives to the TAC, including one from the county and one each from Round Rock, Georgetown, Cedar Park and one more smaller city.

Three members of the public railed against the plan before the board members began discussing it. Longtime transportation activist Roger Baker called it a “step backwards” and criticized CAMPO for already being “heavily skewed to the suburban areas.”

Another activist, Jay Blazek Crossley, delivered to the board members copies of a study he had released earlier in the day that targets disparities in representation at CAMPO. Crossley found that Travis County residents make up 57 percent of CAMPO’s six-county population. However, only 45 percent of TPB members come from Travis County communities. Under the new TAC bylaws, the representation on that committee will now be 25 percent.

The report also points out that CAMPO’s board and committees do not reflect the racial and gender diversity in the region.

“To some extent, those are sort of canaries in the coal mine, displaying that something’s wrong,” Crossley told the board. He urged the members not to approve the plan before them and instead to head “back to the drawing board.”

Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea seized on concerns about transparency also raised by the public.

Long told Shea that the intent was not to hide the TAC meetings from public view. She said she would be open to Shea’s request to clarify that the meetings will remain open to any resident wishing to attend. Shea also pushed back on the disappearance of a state requirement to send to the TPB the TAC’s meeting notes.

“If the point of the TAC is to get technical advice to the policy board, I should think we would want to have those notes sent to us,” Shea said.

Long explained that the TAC would provide recommendations on given issues and that the board could request a minority report from TAC members who dissent on those recommendations. The new bylaws are a means of simplifying the existing rules, she said.

“Part of the discussion that we had was trying to get to a place where technical people could come and exchange their ideas, quite frankly, without threats of retribution from people on this policy board when those people don’t vote the way they’re instructed to vote,” Long added.

That comment drew a pointed interruption from Eckhardt.

“These sorts of allegations that are levied and allowed to go unchecked, I don’t think are appropriate,” she said. “I believe the underlying issue here is a belief that somehow the Travis County delegation dictates from a political standpoint how they want their technical advisers to vote.”

Conley downplayed Eckhardt’s concerns and said that the concerns over the draft bylaws were superfluous. “I think a mountain is being made out of a molehill here. It’s not very complicated,” said Conley.

In the end, Shea was the lone vote against the item, and Eckhardt was the sole abstention. Afterward, the judge explained her decision to the Austin Monitor. She said, “I did work on the subcommittee, and I didn’t want to completely toss out the process.”

Eckhardt said that the findings in Crossley’s report were “startling” and lamented Travis County’s waning representation at CAMPO.

“We are seeing a growing population of renters, a growing population who have a transit expectation, a growing population interested in a centers approach to development,” Eckhardt said, referring to a planning strategy that emphasizes the clustering of development into town centers. “And that interest, although it represents, by population, more than half of the CAMPO region, has an influence that is actually shrinking on the Transportation Policy Board and the TAC.”

Map of the 2040 Regional Transportation Plan Road Project with Centers courtesy of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.

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