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Commissioners discuss CAMPO’s forecasts for the future

Friday, January 7, 2022 by Willow Higgins

At a recent Urban Transportation Commission meeting, the executive director of the nonprofit Farm & City urged the commission to keep Farm & City’s concerns in mind when it comes to transportation planning around the region.

Jay Blazek Crossley raised two main issues with the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s regional planning process. The first, he said, is that Austin’s representation on CAMPO’s Transportation Policy Board is disproportionate to the size of the city. Travis County and the city of Austin combined have eight seats on the 22-member TPB, while representing over half of the CAMPO region’s population.

“An important note here is that the federal infrastructure bill requires MPOs to think about this problem and … consider equitable representation. It doesn’t require them to do anything about it,” Crossley said. “And so I believe that the city of Austin representative should ask CAMPO to consider equitable representation.”

City Council Member Paige Ellis sits on the TPB and is the chair of the city’s Mobility Committee.

“Although the city of Austin is just one of dozens of Central Texas municipalities represented by CAMPO, we are by far the most populous, and both our elected officials and our (Transportation Department) staff strive to ensure Austinites’ interests are prioritized appropriately in CAMPO decision-making,” Ellis told the Monitor in an email.

“While there can be competing interests of cities or counties with varying population sizes, the role of the TPB is to evaluate those needs and reach consensus on the priority of the projects that have been submitted,” she added.

Crossley’s second point was that there is a systemic issue with transportation planning. Every time a regional transportation plan is made, there is a regional growth forecast to boot. But the growth forecasts are often flawed, and the state demographer has a tendency to underestimate urban county growth and overestimate suburban county growth, Crossley said.

Because of these forecasts, some planning further develops suburban sprawl, according to Crossley, which can increase car dependency and traffic congestion issues. Farm & City wants these concerns to be taken into account in regional planning and asks for a more flexible planning process. The group has developed multiple growth models that consider different possible futures for the region, depending on how it grows and demographics evolve.

“I think the city of Austin should work with regional partners to do a better job here,” Crossley said. “And I think the Austin Council members and mayor who are on the CAMPO board can ask for a much better process, and it’s reasonable to work together to figure out how to do this.”

Ellis shares concerns about a more car-dependent and less transit-oriented future, but made note of the difficulty in forecasting certain behavioral patterns, like working from home or decreasing the number of cars owned by a single family. She says tighter collaboration between the plethora of transportation and planning entities in the area can help move projects along that support Austin’s transit and climate goals.

“I am optimistic that we are moving towards a more regional embrace of transit,” Ellis said. “I hope that as the city of Austin, Cap Metro and ATP build out the Project Connect initial investment, it will benefit the entire region and possibly attract CAMPO investment to expand the system to serve even more areas. Only by working together on regional transit will we move the needle on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. A wonderful upside is that a regional network of trains and buses will also give all our region’s residents their morning and evening commutes back, to read books, listen to podcasts, catch up with friends, or just relax.”

No actions were taken at the Urban Transportation Commission because there wasn’t a specific item or document to vote on. But the commissioners agreed that Crossley had pointed out important issues to keep in mind in the coming year, especially as the city considers how Project Connect should impact the lives of Austinites and our neighbors in the region.

“If we are picking themes for the year, institutional structural change is way better than a bunch of Band-Aids,” UTC Chair Mario Champion said. “So I applaud the initiative to say, let’s try and figure out some institutional change.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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