…which clearly isn’t the way Mayor Leffingwell sees it, since he cut me off during the CAMPO meeting.
AUSTIN — I make it my regular habit, as a hobby and eccentric peculiarity, to speak at the CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) meetings held the second Monday each month at the Thompson Center, at the northeast edge of the UT-Austin campus.
The CAMPO Policy Board is comprised of 20 Central Texans, mostly politicians, who are federally granted the right to determine how Austin’s federal, state, and local transportation money gets spent, including a shrinking portion of state and federal funds. While funding is more and more a local responsibility, the rules remain federal, generating interesting politics.
The meeting rules allow anyone to sign up to speak for three minutes at the start of the CAMPO, meeting under “Citizen Communications.” Anyone can talk about anything not specifically on the agenda, if they call in and register to speak and submit supportive digital media before the meeting.
I usually sign up to speak on “Long Range Planning Considerations,” since that can cover almost anything. I use this little window of opportunity to discuss CAMPO’s rich reserve of foibles and planning deficiencies. If CAMPO’s shortcomings ever got to be worth anything, I figure I’m nearly first in line to get rich selling them. Meanwhile I like to keep in practice through persistence in trying to follow transportation politics.
Things at CAMPO now appear to be a mess.
Things at CAMPO now appear to be a mess. The future travel demand model is bogged down with 800 area mostly road projects, far more than it was designed to handle. CAMPO director Maureen McCoy resigned a few months ago (under political pressure, some say). A previous CAMPO director, Joe Cantalupo, now with a private engineering firm, has been brought in on an emergency basis as acting director. With little fear of losing his job, and since nobody else knows the ropes, Joe has gotten pretty candid about how dysfunctional the CAMPO planning has now become, as he revealed at the May CAMPO meeting.
Every county wanted to get in on what seemed like possibly free road money, so they clogged up the modeling software with over 800 CAMPO project submissions, with the result that it crippled the travel demand software model and its analytical capabilities.
As a prize-winning example of the group’s planning challenges, the CAMPO Board voted in 2013 to proceed to develop a $32 billion (!!!) 2040 transportation plan. The CAMPO 2040 Plan proposes to handle double the current population of Central Texas in 2040, while putting 70% of the future growth outside Travis County, all without taking our regional water supply into account in any way. The cost of this CAMPO planning is about $2 million a year. I have covered that previously here.
Since three minutes isn’t much time to deliver a speech, I usually draft a monologue to go along with my PowerPoints, and send CAMPO a link to the file for the minutes.
The Mayor takes issue
At the May 12 CAMPO meeting, I signed up to speak on Project Connect’s rail proposal, according to my own take, but I didn’t quite get through reading my five points. Mayor Leffingwell cut me short at about point four. As chair of the meeting, he said he disagreed with about everything I had to say. You can listen to an audio clip of my interaction with the Mayor over our unresolved $1.38 billion dollar Austin rail alignment disagreement here.
Mayor Leffingwell said he disagreed with about everything I had to say.
At the end of my comments, I advised people to follow the rail issue in The Rag Blog. You are reading that now.
The political strategy of bundling roads as a vote sweetener into one big light rail-dominated bond package was covered well by Ben Wear in the Austin American-Statesman (May 5, page B1): “A side of roadwork on urban rail bond?”
Here is a clip with Lyndon Henry — who was then joined by me — interacting with the Project Connect planners unhappy with a complex and unorthodox planning process, one that seems designed to come to Project Connect’s preferred conclusions, by being heavily biased toward hypothetical growth rather than current conditions.
They admit that the future development zoned along Riverside Drive could not materialize without rail. These very high growth projections thus seem to make rail on Riverside more of a preordained necessity than a real planning choice.
For further documentation on this topic, you can go to Lyndon Henry’s Austin Rail Now site for evidence that a Lamar-Guadalupe alignment is greatly preferable to the Project Connect proposal.
Disclaimer: For the record, I have been a strong advocate of light rail, on strong corridors and well-integrated with buses, for more than three decades. I believe we have to get the growth politics out of both road and rail planning to maintain a livable city, and to be fair to current Austin residents and taxpayers. I am also a member and supporter of Our Rail, which strongly advocates a Lamar-Guadalupe corridor alternative on the November bond ballot.
The proposed Austin light rail plan, as I see it
1. The recently proposed light rail system runs to the east of UT and the Capitol. This is along a weak and largely residential corridor. Meanwhile, the best opportunity to develop a big ridership, and to solve current problems right away, is to put the rail to the west, along the highly congested and transit friendly Lamar-Guadalupe corridor where only buses are now proposed. Buses can’t handle the numbers that rail can.http://www.projectconnect.com/connect/sites/default/files/Central%20Corridor%20Urban%20Rail%20Recommendation%20050214.pdf
2. The Statesman has reported that Project Connect’s estimated cost of the corridor to the east is $1.38 billion, an exceptionally high cost for light rail. There are claims the feds MIGHT pay 50% of this cost. However, the FTA funds are not there; the FTA will be totally out of money toward the end of this year.
…Funding for surface transportation programs is set to expire this year. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Highway Trust Fund will be bankrupt by the end of September. It estimates the mass transit account of that fund could run out of money by the end of December…
Without federal help, this system would put a big tax hit on Austin residents, likely $100 or more per year, every year. Austin seems to be in the final stages of another high tech bubble with soaring living costs, and horrible traffic due to unregulated sprawl development. Quite enough by itself to scare away relocations, assuming we had the water. The last thing Austin needs is a big tax increase for a gold-plated transit system serving a weak corridor.
3. The bond proposal for this rail system is pretty stinky. The system seems to poll badly, so the latest plan is to tie it to a smaller bundle of roads as a vote sweetener, to make the rail bonds more attractive. Except the planners can’t find the road projects that most people want badly enough to overcome the rail bond negatives.
Why are the politicians supporting Project Connect’s proposal backing rail along such a weak corridor?
4. Why are the politicians supporting Project Connect’s proposal backing rail along such a weak corridor? I believe the real reason is revealed when we see rail corridor promoters predicting 15,000 future jobs in the health care industry, tied to the Dell medical training complex and the University.
…You have to attract a lot of people living downtown and while you have a big base of people living there now I think you want to get a multiple of what’s there, because there’s going to be 15,000 new jobs related to the medical center alone…
Since IH 35 and Red River cannot handle the new travel demand that these jobs imply, the Project Connect planners were forced to justify rail to handle this projected demand. In fact, the hypothetical future growth numbers along Riverside could not happen without rail, as the Project Connect planners have stated. In effect, the Project Connect planning assumptions demand rail, based on projected growth.
5. To choose a rail corridor with future medical and health care jobs as a major justification is risky planning. Treating medical training and bio-med technology as a cash cow for future growth is quite likely to fall short of expectations.
…Now that news of oversize healthcare profits and salaries have entered the public psyche, a healthcare jobs gold-rush is officially on . Thanks to the healthcare bubble’s continued expansion during the Great Recession, healthcare has been one of the few industries to add jobs (nearly 1 million jobs) greatly softening the recession’s blow (until the healthcare bubble pops, that is). As much of rest of the economy continues to downsize, healthcare’s share of employment just hit an all-time high  as signs of a healthcare employment bubble have become apparent .
The recently soaring popularity of almost nursing careers now means that new nurses are oversupplying the market, a sharp reversal from the supposed nursing shortage of several years ago. Even health information technology is likely in a bubble  as health IT is now officially the “hottest” job for college graduates . While the US Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that the healthcare industry will add 4 million jobs through 2018 , with half of the 20 fastest growing occupations being in healthcare, this assumption is simply unrealistic and assumes that healthcare costs can keep rising unabated without a popping of the massive healthcare bubble as healthcare becomes unaffordable for more Americans every year…
Read more articles by Roger Baker on The Rag Blog.
[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. ]