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How CAMPO stacks the deck on road planning
By Roger Baker * September 7, 2001

Last Wednesday, I went to the CAMPO office and picked up my Sept. 10 CAMPO meeting agenda packet, which has the backup details of this Monday's 6 pm CAMPO meeting -- to be held at the northeast corner of UT campus in the JC Thompson Center, where the public may sign up to speak on any item.
 

"Thus BILLIONS of dollars worth of new toll roads in Williamson County, like SH 130, are being planned on the basis of old mid-1990's growth trends as reaffirmed by a TTI study that the public cannot see"

[The staff normally provides me with the same backup information given to the CAMPO politicians who vote. This allows me to post my interpretation of the agenda items -- on lists like this -- several days in advance of the meetings].
 
Let me focus specifically on agenda Item #7, with its key long-term planning implications for planning roads in the Austin area.
 
The backup material reveals that the CAMPO staff, in doing the new roadway plan for this area, is recommending readopting the old population and employment estimates from the previous June 2000 plan projections for Travis, Williamson, and Hayes counties -- as a basis for their new plan to be approved next year. These key numbers, however inaccurate or controversial, become the basis for all the subsequent transportation planning done by CAMPO.
 
The CAMPO planners take these population and employment numbers as the starting point and will plan roughly $10 billion of Austin area highways and transit around these totals. Through legitimizing the need for proposed roads in the plan using computer travel demand models based on these numbers, roads can get implanted in the process for official approval and eventual construction, and their need perpetuated.
 
The population and employment projections from the old CAMPO plan, now proposed by staff to be used as a basis for the new plan too, are oriented toward a high rate of sprawl-oriented growth for 25 years into the future.
 
For example, the population of Williamson County is proposed to quadruple between now and 2025, while Travis county is projected to grow proportionally much less.
 
This fact by itself implies sprawl growth that is contrary to air quality goals, but being carried forward as an unchallengable assumption from the old 2000 plan. The problem for transportation reform advocates is that these key population and employment estimates were borrowed from 1990-1996 in the boom decade, and then are used to establish a high growth rate and sprawl trend in the future. But long range demographic forecasts are some of the least accurate forecasts that there are, similar in accuracy to long range economic forecasts.
 
It so happens that the Peer Review team was hired for $200,000 to give CAMPO good planning advice was critical of the existing population and employment projections, calling them too high for too long (CAMPO chooses the highest growth projection alternatives provided by the state data center, based on recent trends).
 
It said the following about CAMPO's growth assumptions:
 
"...The regional population forecasts are, in our judgment, too high. Further, we believe that the employment projections for the city of Austin central business district (CBD) are too low, which may cause underestimation of the level of travel demand to and within the CBD..." (see link below)
 
Nothing could better demonstrate the political nature of the CAMPO planning process than the fact that this advice from the Peer Review team is being ignored by staff in favor of numbers based on trends that follow the bad old growth habits of the 1990's.
 
Meanwhile, here is how item #7 of the agenda packet describes the update of the CAMPO plan which will be voted on Monday as CAMPO planning policy:
 
"...The Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) has also examined the CAMPO forecasts and their spacial distribution used in the last plan update. The TTI's study indicates that the population forecasts at the county level used in the last plan update are reasonable and sustainable. Staff recommends that the county population control totals used for the 2025 plan adopted in June 2000 be used again for the 2025 plan update currently being undertaken..."
 
But the TTI is a branch of Texas A & M that does research and planning on roads -- they are not demographic forecasters! (assuming that such forecasts could somehow be done accurately through some how predicting the future state of the local economy and land use patterns decades from now).
 
On Thursday, Sept 6, at around noon I called CAMPO's long range planner Daniel Yang and asked to see the TTI study cited above. He says it is Texas-wide study and is about a dozen pages and that I could come to CAMPO and pick up a copy.
 
A little later Mr. Yang called a second time and says that as a courtesy to TxDOT, who contracted the TTI study being used by CAMPO as a basis for planning, that he would need to get the approval of TxDOT on Friday morning.
 
On Friday about 2 pm, I call again and he says that the TxDOT planners are having a 1:30 meeting where they will discuss the issue of release of the TTI study, and that he will call me back at 3 pm. Then he calls about 3 pm and leaves a message that indicates I will need to get special permission to see the TTI study via an open records request filed with TxDOT's public information officer.
 
This will naturally delay my access -- and all public access -- to the assumptions used as a basis for the the TTI study until long after the new policy based on the study has been approved by the CAMPO politicians on Monday.
 
Thus BILLIONS of dollars worth of new toll roads in Williamson County, like SH 130, are being planned on the basis of old mid-1990's growth trends as reaffirmed by a TTI study that the public cannot see, before the resulting policies are adopted in the new federally sanctioned CAMPO plan.
 
Everyone familar with the politics of Texas roads knows in a vague way that roadway planning is corrupt in Texas, and that the road building process is really based on the politics of land speculation using roads as a publicly funded welfare subsidy for private land development interests.
 
No single fact could better illustrate this situation than the fact that politically powerful attorney Pete Winstead is director of the Texas Turnpike Authority, seeking to accelerate the building of Texas toll roads -- while being simultaneously head of the privately funded Real Estate Council of Austin, a real estate development lobby group.
 
But also, as I have shown above, the whole CAMPO planning process is arranged to come to certain conclusions meant to perpetuate the justification for proposed roads serving the same development from plan to plan, no matter what changes in growth patterns or the current state of the economy. These land investments require TxDOT's publicly funded roads as a subsidy. Whether enough public funds actually exist or not, and no matter the effect of sprawl on air quality goals in our non-attainment area, the politically influential roads survive to be planned and built.
 
Once the deck is stacked by the good 'ol boys of Texas, it stays stacked.




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