We look at the water-blind politics of Central Texas growth planning, and the developer-friendly role of regional transportation planning group CAMPO.
Second of three.
You can evade reality, but you cannot evade the consequences of evading reality.
In “Can Austin survive the current Texas drought? Part 1,” we looked at various symptoms of the current Texas drought, which is actually the eastern side of a mega-drought extending throughout the Southwest from Texas to California. We have seen how Texas water politics, bad water law, and climate change denial is leading to urban versus rural conflict over water, as state population grows while the state gets drier.
In Part 2, below, we take a closer look at the water-blind politics of Central Texas growth planning. CAMPO is a regional transportation planning planning group for the region around Austin. They are now drafting a federally sanctioned long range master transportation plan for Central Texas in 2040, as they are required to do every five years to get federal money. In various ways, including its federal authority, CAMPO planning has become the dominant planning force in the Austin region.
CAMPO growth planning basics
AUSTIN, Texas — Lets jump right into an important core problem. The truth is that the $2 million 2040 CAMPO plan not only can’t work, but it can’t even come close to working. It really amounts to Gov. Rick Perry-style land development policies, unfolding on the local level and operating by means of federally required transportation planning. As things now stand, the new CAMPO 2040 plan is shaping up as a suburban sprawl developer’s paradise-in-the-making.
First of all, the new CAMPO plan can’t work because the water won’t be there, a planning deficiency that CAMPO has sidestepped by ignoring all water constraints on growth in all their planning (more coming on the water science in the next article in this series). Maybe there will enough water to survive, given a considerable lifestyle change, but not enough to attract the waves of young professionals sought by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.
The CAMPO Policy Board began their planning by voting on where people are going to be living a quarter-century from now.
The CAMPO Policy Board began their planning in June 2013, by voting on where people are going to be living a quarter-century from now. The Board voted to more than double the 2040 population in the six-county CAMPO area from about 2 million to 4 million, while putting about 70% of this proposed future population increase in the counties ringing Travis County. This planning mandate amounts to a blueprint for extreme suburban sprawl growth, roughly tripling the current populations in both Hays and Williamson Counties.
Recently, CAMPO voted to base the planning on the assumption that there would be about $32 billion in revenues from all sources available for transportation by 2040, up from the $28 billion that CAMPO had assumed in their previous 2035 plan.
These revenue projections are demanded by the feds, but have become a kind of hallucinatory bookkeeping. The reality is that both state and federal fuel taxes are stagnant, with the long-delayed federal transportation bill still stalled in Congress. Nobody can predict the level of state and federal funds in the near future let alone in 2040, and few of the trends look good. TxDOT has a huge and persistant funding shortfall.
Here a list of planning denial factors that I presented to the CAMPO Board at their October 2013 meeting.
The continuing drama of CAMPO planning unfolds with the new CAMPO 2040 Plan scheduled for unveiling and approval in May 2015. CAMPO Director Maureen McCoy has just announced her sudden unexplained retirement, with ex-CAMPO Director Joe Cantalupo to come back as her interim replacement. No way this can be good for the planning process.
How CAMPO got to be top dog, with the power to plan Central Texas
Under federal law, every sizable U.S. metropolitan area, including the Austin metro region, has a federally sanctioned planning body called a Metropolitan Planning Organization. Austin’s is called CAMPO, for Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. The MPO has the exclusive right to vote to allocate the local share of both federal and state gas tax dollars for transportation purposes. This is by far the biggest single source of transportation money, or probably any other kind of discretionary funding, available for Central Texas, although local governments can independently plan and fund their own projects.
When the full story is finally told, it will probably be shown that billions in national and international investment capital came to roost in Austin real estate in the last decade, much of it before state and federal funds for roads got so tight, and before Austin’s looming water crisis became so apparent.
Through boom and bust, investments in Central Texas real estate have long been seen and promoted as sure fire bets due to growth. The Austin area, and especially its suburbs, have steadily and reliably grown for at least the last half a century on the basis of Texas state government, the University of Texas, high tech industry, and a cool, hip image. While all the money invested in Austin area suburban real estate, the industry isn’t about to give up its right to profit from growth and from suburban land development without a fight.
This is where CAMPO becomes politically useful. Since CAMPO has the independent political power to choose, plan, fund, and build roads to serve future development in a region, they can pretty much control the region’s future growth patterns. This is especially so when some CAMPO officials, like Chair Will Conley, also help to manage county water policy.
Since the CAMPO Policy Board has the power to choose and approve its own boundaries, the CAMPO planning area has expanded over time to include not only Travis County, but also the five counties nearly ringing Travis County. These suburban areas surrounding Austin have expanded their representation on the CAMPO Policy Board, which now has a rather unwieldy total of 20 Policy Board members, with about half representing areas outside Travis County.
CAMPO is not unlike a regional planning policy vacuum begging to be filled by private land development interests.
Without strict federal oversight, and given total de facto control of TxDOT and its funds by Rick Perry’s TxDOT appointees, CAMPO is not unlike a regional planning policy vacuum begging to be filled by private land development interests. Since CAMPO has no rival planning bodies with anywhere near its budget, but has the political reach and the federal mandate to do long-range planning and funding, which gives the CAMPO Board the power to determine regional growth in the five-county area surrounding Travis County and Austin.
CAMPO is the end result of a federally-initiated planning process that provides a lot of local control and a lot of fuel tax money, although not nearly enough to deal with suburban sprawl-induced congestion. In a city the size of Austin, there is no economy of scale with growth, ringed as it is by suburban sprawl, served by too little road capacity, and with severe traffic congestion on IH 35. Rising city costs tend to push folks outward to the lower-tax suburbs without land use planning, which increases commuter congestion.
Congestion is now so intractable that even the Texas Transportation Institute planners advising the Texas Legislature admit that trying to fix IH 35 is nearly hopeless.
Perhaps nobody knows more about Austin traffic than Texas A&M’s Tim Lomax. The transportation planning expert says Austin’s relentless growth overwhelms all potential solutions. “The technical word we use is ‘awful,’” Lomax says. “If you do all of the scenarios that we normally think of as transportation improvements, it’s still going to be awful.”
CAMPO politics close up
Austin has now lost control of its transportation planning. In effect, Williamson and Hays counties have formed an alliance in support of the suburban development interests that now dominate CAMPO policies.
They could not do so without land development goals broadly in harmony with TxDOT where the dollars coming from TxDOT at the state level are now totally controlled by Gov. Rick Perry’s TxDOT appointees. TxDOT knows how to twist arms by withholding funds at the state level, and everyone understands that, so CAMPO knows how to behave and does so with TxDOT’s blessing.
The same is true of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA). Gov. Rick Perry appoints the head of the CTRMA, an independent state agency comprised mostly of developer interests that plan and build Austin area toll roads as “public-private partnerships.” Not a lot has changed since 2005, when the conflicts of interest within CTRMA were described by the Texas Comptroller here.
The mostly-Republican developer alliance between Hays and Williamson Counties on the CAMPO Policy Board can usually out-vote the less organized but more liberal and environmentally conscious Policy Board members from the Austin City Council and Travis County.
Around Austin, the land development community’s political interests are largely expressed by the Real Estate Council of Austin, a group which exercises its deliberately low-profile political influence to help its members profit by perpetuating Austin’s growth boom.
The Real Estate Council of Austin, Inc. (RECA) is a member-oriented organization committed to economic development and real estate-related issues in one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. It is a nonprofit corporation (501 (c) (6) created January 15, 1991.
The Hays/Williamson County suburban sprawl alliance is led by the mostly soft-spoken and politically agile CAMPO Chairman and Hays County Commissioner Will Conley. He is usually politically supported by the outspokenly and unabashedly pro-development Cynthia Long representing Williamson County.
Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty can be even more outspoken than Long in opposing environmental regulation. Daugherty is aggressively leading the effort to build the proposed SH 45 SW toll road over a very environmentally-sensitive part of the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. The plan now is to use state and local money to evade federal environmental regulations.
Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, supports the Hays/Williamson suburban sprawl alliance in close and important votes.
CAMPO’s Vice Chair, the typically terse Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, supports the Hays/Williamson suburban sprawl alliance in close and important votes. It could be said without much exaggeration that Conley, Long, and Leffingwell are a central part of one seamless political alliance as we may gather here.
“Chairman Conley has shown energetic and responsible leadership over the past year in planning the transportation and infrastructure future of Central Texas, and I look forward to working with him in the year ahead.” — Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell
“Will Conley has proven himself a leader on transportation issues and shown great skill in working with stakeholders throughout Central Texas to meet the region’s future needs. I’m glad he will continue to lead CAMPO during this time of growth and change.” — Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long
When CAMPO began its 2040 plan in June 2013, they decided to more than double its population by 2040 by choosing to adopt the highest of the future county population scenarios available from the Texas State Data Center. The decade from 2000-2010 had a high growth rate for Hays and Williamson Counties. By projecting these trends 25 years into the future they got the numbers they wanted.
About 70% of this future population increase is to be not only outside Austin, but also outside Travis County, which amounts to an extreme level of car-addictive suburban sprawl growth. Public transportation can’t serve this type of dispersed suburban population very effectively.
A primary reason motivation for CAMPO planners to assume $32 billion for the 2040 CAMPO plan is that it allows almost every land investor to have their cake and eat it too, at least on paper. This sum of money may be the result of hallucinatory bookkeeping, but it is a reassuring vision. All money to build the roads to serve this future growth is anticipated to be supplied at public cost, as is providing the infrastructure needed to supply water.
Video: Austin Mayor Leffingwell key to removal of environmental protection
In this video clip we see Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell supply the swing vote to successfully remove “climate protection” and “greenhouse gas emission” from the concerns of the CAMPO planners in drafting the new 2040 Transportation Plan.
The 23 minute video clip #10 is titled “Draft goals and visions for the CAMPO 2040 plan.” The item dealing with removal of the climate concerns starts at 13 minutes and 39 seconds into this clip.
The entire discussion and the decision to delete climate concerns ends 17 minutes into the clip. Austin City Council members Sheryl Cole, Chris Riley, and Bill Spelman argue for and subsequently vote to retain these 2035 Plan climate concerns as metropolitan planning factors when doing the 2040 Plan. The vote ends with CAMPO Chair Will Conley, and Vice Chair Lee Leffingwell, voting with a narrow majority to remove climate protection and greenhouse gas as planning considerations from the new 2040 CAMPO plan. — R.B.
Next week: “Can Austin Survive the Current Texas Drought?, Part 3.” Having seen the huge amount of sprawl development being planned by CAMPO for Central Texas, we will look more closely at what the climate scientists are saying. We will contrast the 2040 CAMPO plan’s approved population and county distribution, with what the climate scientists are telling us to expect about Austin’s future water supply.
[Roger Baker is a long time transportation-oriented environmental activist, an amateur energy-oriented economist, an amateur scientist and science writer, and a founding member of and an advisor to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA. He is active in the Green Party and the ACLU, and is a director of the Save Our Springs Alliance and the Save Barton Creek Association in Austin. Mostly he enjoys being an irreverent policy wonk and writing irreverent wonkish articles for The Rag Blog. Read more articles by Roger Baker on The Rag Blog.]