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County commissioners to write ‘harsh’ letter reprimanding CAMPO planning process

Tuesday, April 14, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

After considering asking for a delay, the Travis County Commissioners Court agreed not to obstruct the scheduled adoption of the 2045 Regional Transportation Plan. Instead, the commissioners intend to communicate their displeasure with the planning process through a letter they will approve at today’s meeting.

On April 20, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization will consider cutting $600 million from planned transportation projects across the six-county region, after giving only two weeks’ notice about the projects that will be deferred.

The CAMPO board came under heavy criticism at its April 6 meeting for a lack of transparency in its project selection and the way in which this decision came before the board. Nevertheless, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told the Commissioners Court at its April 7 meeting that when she spoke with CAMPO Chair Cynthia Long, the two agreed that further delaying the vote could have negative consequences.

Eckhardt explained that the 25-year transportation plan is intertwined with the $4.3 billion expansion project for Interstate 35. That expansion project entails reallocating $600 million from CAMPO, which Eckhardt said would require a “haircut” for some of the county’s planned projects and could be negatively affected if voting deadlines aren’t met. The Texas Transportation Commission will vote on whether to allocate the funding to undertake the I-35 project at its April 26 meeting.

In total, 31 projects in Travis County are selected to be pushed back to an indeterminate date. The projects include the $1.8 million construction of the Northern Walnut Creek Trail from Lamar Boulevard to I-35; the $26 million interchange between State Highway 71 and U.S. Highway 183; the $59 million widening of Ranch to Market Road 620 from four to six lanes between SH 71 and Oak Grove Boulevard; and the $5.8 million separation lane for the MetroRail Red Line and North Lamar Boulevard. (A complete list of the projects can be found at the end of this article.)

All five commissioners expressed their dissatisfaction with the plan. “To call this a poor planning process would be an insult to poor planning processes,” Commissioner Jeff Travillion said.

Commissioner Brigid Shea called it a “wretched process” that “rewards bad behavior and unprofessional products.”

Commissioner Margaret Gómez called the planning process a “tug o’ war.”

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said that while the process needed more transparency, there was nothing “sinister” about the way in which it unfolded.

While the commission briefly expressed the will to request a delay in the process, Eckhardt spoke against taking that route in order to allow the commissioners who sit on the CAMPO board to advocate against the plan with a vote of no confidence. She explained that she does not expect a motion to delay will prevail at CAMPO.

Despite Eckhardt’s stance that it’s essential to meet the deadline for adopting the 2045 plan, she was not confident in the contents of the plan. Likewise, she said that there was not sufficient opportunity for the public to provide comments on these project changes and as a result, “the earliest draft is becoming final.”

CAMPO is hosting online open houses on April 14, 15 and 16 to collect public input prior to its special called meeting.

County staff posted comments in the backup noting that a delay would cause only minimal disruption. “While there are consequences associated with missing the federally required 2045 plan May adoption deadline, we are convinced that the consequences of a few months’ delay will not be severe, especially given the current circumstances.” These staff comments were issued before CAMPO set the date for its special called meeting.

While Travis County commissioners will not inhibit the Transportation Board from moving forward with the item on April 20, Eckhardt said the Commissioners Court will reconvene this week to vote on sending a “harsh” letter to CAMPO staff detailing the shortcomings of the process and how it can be improved. Commissioners voted unanimously to return with a letter at today’s meeting for a final vote.

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Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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