Corrupt Roadway Planning

By Roger Baker * June 19, 2003 

Bikers love to get together and advocate something simple that they understand like takebacks of a few million of CAMPO's bike funds a year, but meanwhile TxDOT is robbing the public of billions on road scams, and in the long run also crippling all efforts of our region to shift from alternatives to the automobile, whether bikes or transit or anything else. Humans like simple solutions to simple problems. The problem is that among the biking community there are not a lot of intellectuals who like to study these issues in depth and then collectively fight the important, rich Republicans in suits to any degree matching the true importance of the ripoffs involved. Which feeble opposition on issues never reported properly by the Statesman then only encourages even worse ripoffs by the road warriors.
I will argue that even if the biking community manages to preserve the 15% of STP4C money that CAMPO has previously set aside for bike and ped projects (which should be a no-brainer in a city about to go into non-attainment), the real threat is from a thoroughly corrupted transportation bureaucracy, extending down from Governor Perry who appointed Bob Tesch to head the newly created RMA, with god-like road-building powers to build new highways using borrowed money, with the support of Williamson and Travis Counties.
The best proof of that the process is corrupt was on Agenda Item #4 of the June (9?) CAMPO meeting at which a Mr. Simmons of TxDOT advised CAMPO to plan on the basis of future needs rather than financial constraints as part of Simmon's comments the proposed Metropolitan Mobility Plan recently unveiled by TxDOT, as its new proposed planning policy for the eight major urban areas of Texas. Bob Tesch of the RMA spoke right after Mr. Simmons as part of the same CAMPO agenda item #4. They were the two public officials invited by CAMPO to comment on this item.
The federal law governing MPOs like CAMPO clearly calls for the long range planning process to be financially constrained by plausible sources of revenue, but here we have TxDOT telling CAMPO to plan as if money were not a limiting factor. Since TxDOT is seriously strapped for cash, and can guarantee CAMPO only about $27 million a year (whereas the Ben White/IH 35 interchange will cost about $175 million as one single project!), it is obvious that TxDOT is really telling CAMPO to plan imprudently on the basis of money they don't have.
I believe the implied sea of red ink of local revenues compared to the need (if you assume that suburban sprawl will continue) is what is really causing CAMPO to prepare to raid the traditional STP4C set-aside for bike and ped projects. TxDOT is committed to building more than $3 billion in toll roads like SH 130 to handle future projected demand, mostly in Williamson County.
Whereas local planners are spending no less than about $ 3 million on planning for Envision Central Texas, that planning effort has no legal authority to do anything other than make recommendations. The ones with the legal power are TxDOT and the newly authorized Regional Mobility Authority, which can issue debt to build its own new toll roads to supplement TxDOT's billions in new toll roads. The whole plan is crazy, and to see why, you need look no farther than California where the toll roads are in big trouble because the projected growth did not materialize to generate the projected toll revenues. With the collapse of the high tech boom, and nothing on the horizon to replace it as a source of regional growth, we have a similar situation in Central Texas facing the toll roads already committed by TxDOT, with any additional roads built by the RMA with borrowed money being equally risky.
Trying to stop a political steamroller isn't easy, but here is my political analysis of the best way to do it. The RMA board was chosen to enact an agenda, the agenda being that the money needed to build the big new roads as usual to facilitate suburban sprawl has run out, but not the political power of those who want to perpetuate this wasteful pattern of growth. The two biggest lobbies pushing the road building are the private road builders more and more contracted by TxDOT to build private roads (their lobby is the Association of General Contractors) and the private land developers -- both for whom roads are a form of publically funded welfare.
Worse than that, TxDOT is urging the RMA to shift the financial burden of borrowing money to speculate on this pattern of growth onto the local RMA level, having exhausted TxDOT's ability or desire to keep gambling on future growth and toll revenues with the state's money.
I think Tesch was installed directly by Perry, and believe he is a team player without much of a moral conscience, highly opportunistic but not stupid. Lieberman is both rich and smart and probably has more vision than Tesch and maybe some moral principles. The rest of the RMA board are predictable lower ranking political hacks who will follow the lead of Tesch and Lieberman. I'm sure there are other unseen forces like real estate interests and the road contractors who pack the RMA meetings, but Tesch and Lieberman are two power points that count.
If there is any way to slow down the process, I would suggest meeting with these guys and say we see your agenda pretty clearly, and the implications are a disaster for this region by direct analogy with the toll roads of California. In fact we regard the case for a future county-financed toll road financial disaster as being so predictable, that we intend to start squawking about it publicly and loudly. With the result that sometime within the next decade the county voters will likely put a bounty on your heads, and make your good names show up in the history books as blue ribbon examples of how not to risk the County's credit rating on crazy real estate schemes tied to roads.
History involving roads and real estate and optimistic groiwth projections is now positioned to repeat itself. As you may recall, Barnes and Conally got Ed Wendler to change the old state road district law so they could build the Southwest Parkway, which Travis County then had to bail out and finish (in fact they started this road at both ends and built it toward the middle so Travis county would be forced to finish it!). The Williamson County road districts were termed financial "black holes", which were redeemed with County help only by the resumption of rapid regional growth from Dell, etc. This time, with the high tech bust, there is no longer any source of regional growth on the horizon to make the billions in TxDOT toll roads already committed pay off, to say nothing of the matching toll roads that TxDOT wants the RMA to fund and build.
Worst of all, world oil production is about to peak, may be peaking now, and will certainly peak within the decade, whereas the bonds for toll roads extend decades into the future greatly changing the economics of future transportation to the disadvantage of toll roads. (Note how well the marketplace predicted the current natural gas problems despite such oil and gas warnings for years like those on the ** website. By the time all these three or four shoes drop, the RMA is hoping that the real estate served by the roads will have been sold and the current RMA board will be forgotten, whereas you want to make sure the RMA debt they issue stays hung around their neck like the proverbial rubber chicken

Your main power in stopping the RMA steamroller is in reminding the RMA board leaders in advance of the fact that you are prepared to do WHATEVER IT TAKES to help the average citizen and voter remember just who on the infamous RMA board were responsible for creating a predictable financial disaster -- far worse even than Ed Wendler's road districts of the mid 1980s. -- Roger

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