Perfect Storm for Austin Transportation?

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Roger Baker
Roger Baker
Roger Baker
Roger Baker

The announcement that Capital Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) Executive Director Joe Cantalupo is leaving to go back to his old private consulting firm after only two years may be a telling sign. This comes only a few months after Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin), a smart and persuasive politician who supported many toll roads, stepped down as chairman of CAMPO and was succeeded by Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe.

Depending on how you might define a perfect storm, when you look over the recent news and transportation funding situation, it is getting hard to find grounds for optimism. It seems wherever you look—federal, state or local—the Austin area is facing worsening transportation funding troubles. Let us count the ways.

TxDOT is almost broke

Funding prospects look bleak for the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). State Senator John Carona (R-Dallas), chairman of the Texas Senate Transportation Committee, and Senator Watson co-authored a February 6, 2010, article, “Gridlock in roads policy,” published in the San Antonio Express-News that stated the entire state gas tax will soon need to go just to maintain TxDOT’s existing roads.

Given the worsening shortfalls in gas tax revenue and the poor economy, TxDOT overestimated its revenue by more than $100 million in 2009. Together these factors caused TxDOT’s total revenue to decrease by more than $105 million from Fiscal Year (FY) 2008 to FY 2009. (See “Recent Performance Results“ chart.) (This link is no longer functional.)

TxDOT is doing what it can to shift responsibility for funding and construction to the local level via toll roads and pass-through tolling. Meanwhile, TxDOT is falling behind in road maintenance. In its “Pavement Condition” chart, TxDOT indicates that the agency is striving to improve the condition of state road surfaces while neglecting the infrastructure that really needs to be rebuilt.

A note on the chart states: “With its current resources, the department has only been able to address surface repairs to the highway pavement. However, an aging infrastructure requires sub-surface structural repairs that current funding cannot accommodate….”

Capital Metro in crisis

The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission recently released a scathing report on Capital Metro. The four major criticisms were that the agency has failed to failed to manage its finances responsibly, has excessive in-house transit costs, has been negligent in managing rail safety, and has not listened to its stakeholders.

The Summary that introduces the report states: “Capital Metro faces a crisis that could threaten its ability to maintain current services unless the Board takes immediate action to shore up the Authority’s finances. In anticipation of building passenger rail, Capital Metro accumulated more than $200 million in reserve funds, but did not responsibly manage these funds. The Board took on financial liabilities without setting aside money to pay for its commitments, and did not adequately consider the long-term financial consequences of its decisions. At the same time, the Board did little to rein in the high costs of its basic services, and greatly underestimated the costs of developing commuter rail. Now, with little money left in reserve and sales tax revenues down, Capital Metro’s overspending cannot be sustained….”

Ominous shift to local road funding

Given the growing scarcity of mostly gas-tax money, the reaction from road promoters has been to try to push the road funding burden down to the local level. Since local governments are struggling to meet other traditional needs, this certainly raises interesting policy questions.

Given budget limits, should local governments like Travis County concentrate more of its limited funds toward Texas Constitution-mandated lifeline services such as assistance for the elderly and indigent? These services increasingly compete for funding against building new roads to serve future development favored by TxDOT and its traditional Texas allies of politicians, road contractors, and land developers. Roads projects could become an unfunded mandate.

“As a region, we’re going to have to address the fact a little bit more deliberately that local governments are contributing more to the regional transportation system,” CAMPO Executive Director Cantalupo said in an April 13 presentation to the Pflugerville City Council, Community Impact newspaper reported on May 7. “It really is a change in how we’re going to be funding the transportation system as a region.”

“What’s interesting is that local governments don’t have any of the ability or the tools [needed to fund regional road projects],” Cantalupo said. “The legislature has been arguing for three sessions now about whether to give local governments the option to raise money for transportation….”

Central Austin jammed at rush hour

This situation should come as no surprise. Nobody can figure out how to deal with I-35, which is at the core of Austin’s congestion problems. Given an inability to tear down the buildings around I-35 to widen our busiest highway, the most plausible solution in the congested core city area is to add fleets of buses or rail, which of course runs up against serious money limits.

On January 18, Austin on Two Wheels, the online magazine of Austin cycling culture, reported on Austin’s Climate Protection Conference, held that month in Austin. The report stated, “…[C]ity staff finished the first transportation analysis of Austin in nearly 20 years and found while in the urban core the number of jobs increased by 20 percent and number of residents increased 118 percent, the capacity for cars increased 1 percent. With this circle of constraint in the downtown/Capitol/University of Texas core that is the heart of our region’s economic engine, we are at capacity for car traffic. If we want to drive more economic growth via jobs, residents, and density, we have to figure out different ways of moving people other than single occupancy cars.”

Non-attainment to trigger tougher road planning rules

A lot of CAMPO planning in recent years has been centered on keeping the Austin area from exceeding the federal ozone limits, which would require tougher federal transportation planning standards.

With the recent announcement of new lower federal limits set at 70 parts per billion, reported by Community Impact newspaper on January 7, it appears that Austin will soon be declared to be in nonattainment. Thereafter, justifying big new roads based on a projected increase in commuter travel tied to suburban sprawl development will likely be viewed with federal disapproval.

“Central Texas is currently on the edge of nonattainment,” said Eva Hernandez of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “The tough part is that the number of areas that are nonattainment in Texas are going to double.”

If the new rule becomes a standard this August, the EPA will require the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to prepare and submit an implementation plan that must drastically reduce ozone pollution, the report stated.

Feds skeptical of Austin planning

Austin is just not very good at cooperative regional planning. It appears that that is the word that has gotten out, as a recent visit by a federal planning official indicated.

The Austin Chronicle reported on May 14 about a visit by Shelley Poticha, senior advisor for sustainable housing and communities for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“We’re going to be looking at partnerships,” Poticha stressed. “We’re asking you to work collaboratively, at a regional scale, across jurisdictional lines, and even with the state.”…

”We are looking for regions to tackle the really tough stuff,” she continued. “Communities and applicants that step forward with honest assessments of problems and needs will be rewarded.”

She also indicated that getting one of the planning grants would greatly enhance Austin and Central Texas’ chances of getting follow-up project grants, such as the proposed plan to pursue federal funding for rail transit, the Chronicle reported.

Where does this leave us?

Senator Watson recently commented about the unfavorable TxDOT audit (a sort of a report card mandated by the Texas Legislature) that just came out. He said that TxDOT needs to be rebuilt after stripping it down to its engine. He supplied a rough vision of radical change, but with endless details left to fill in.

The sad truth is that you probably can’t get to where Watson wants to go without raising taxes and fees for that which used to be “free.” And the state is politically dysfunctional in its transportation policy right now. Policy can’t easily be reformed on the state level, because of a strong lobby of special interests often tied to road contracting and real estate. They resist environmental and reform pressures on both the local and state levels. The most recent problem added to this mix is that TxDOT may need to cut another 10 percent on top of the previously requested 5 percent to help balance the projected $18 billion gap in the Texas biennial budget.

If we were to rebuild TxDOT from the ground up in a sensible way, what should it look like? As radical as it seems, we may need to start with just what we are certain we can locally afford, and probably also plan on maybe having less than that. The kind of urban growth you do get with growth but not much in the way of new roads or rail is probably urban densification: crowded, cheap housing served by crowded buses and lots of bikes and congestion.

Playing by federal rules is something the influential Texas road lobby and sprawl development investors have always hated to do, from the local level right on up to and including Governor Rick Perry. Almost all the Texas state funding trends are dismal, so it looks like we may need to really do the sort of cooperative regional planning advocated by the federal official cited above. This is in return for getting back the shrinking gas tax revenue we send to the feds, who then redistribute it to reward the good or powerful states.

So far as local transportation funds are concerned, both locally and nationally, the ball is increasingly in the federal government court’s. It really is a question of whether the progressive thinking (certainly as judged by Texas standards) of Ray LaHood, U.S. Secretary and Transportation, prevails on the federal transportation level in response to the developing energy crisis and funding crisis.

As a sign of what may come, we currently see the federal EPA strongly challenging the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality regarding state air quality standards. This same federal resolve could easily spread to other federal spending policies. The new world of economic reality demands that we shift away from building roads as usual, like it or not.

Roger Baker has been an Austin transportation reform activist since the early 1980s. He is a founding and advisory board member of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA.