Roger Baker : Austin’s New Transportation Plan Throws a Few Curves

Bumpy road ahead?
Austin’s new long-range transportation plan

By Roger Baker / The Rag Blog / March 23, 2010

The background

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) recently unveiled its new 2035 long-range draft transportation plan; “People, Planning and Preparing for the Future: Your 25 Year Transportation Plan,” plus a separate appendix with important details. (The page citations below are from these documents, either Pl=Plan or App=Appendix.)

This long range plan is the result of a federally mandated planning process required of all large U.S. metropolitan areas. The federal rules mandate that CAMPO’s long range plan will be updated every five years.

The incentive for local areas to do these long range plans is to get back part of the 38 cents a gallon or 44 cents on diesel that Texas collects. Of this, Texas retains 18 cents per gallon for gasoline and 20 for diesel and sends the rest to Washington. TxDOT has control over most of what is left, but a quarter goes to schools. This is due to a deal the road lobby cut after WWII to help make the Texas fuel tax politically bulletproof, plus they put it into the Texas Constitution, for good measure. Griffin Smith wrote about that in Texas Monthly.

On the federal funding level, the fate of the big new federal transportation funding bill, the successor to the current “SAFETEA-LU” legislation, is bogged down in Congress, with periodic emergency extensions.

Nobody can accurately foresee all the unknown implications of federal level political policy and how that could affect CAMPO’s funding and planning rules. Funding may strongly shift to favor transit. The long range vision of the CAMPO plan is based on speculation about federal funding decades from now. The truth is that we can’t predict federal funding next year.

Meanwhile, the Texas Legislature, no friend of TxDOT these days but generally opposed to taxes, seems very reluctant to raise the gasoline tax, even by a little in a poor economy.

TxDOT’s gas tax revenue, its main source of funds, is stagnant, which is no surprise if we see the sharp drop in national driving over the last few years.

December 2009 Traffic Volume Trends: Moving 12-Month Total on All Highways.

Looking at this chart, it is not hard to draw the conclusion that, in the current world of hard times and the decreasing affordability of driving, it would take an. economic recovery to revive U.S. gasoline consumption. Most families have no easy alternative to driving their existing cars on existing roads.

TxDOT is claiming to be broke in a year or so, its options limited to no more new big roads at all, due to the rising cost of road maintenance, as Texas Senate Tranportation Committee Chair John Corona explains:

When it comes to transportation, Texas is broke. The state can’t afford the infrastructure it needs to keep goods flowing and our economy thriving, let alone accommodate future generations. Stop doing nothing.

Today, the state’s transportation revenue is almost equal to the maintenance costs for our current system. Texas can barely maintain the roads it has, let alone build new ones.

TxDOT is actually in the toll road business (the CTTP) and frankly has a lot of unknown future debt obligations on its books. TxDOT District 14, the Austin District, extends considerably beyond the CAMPO planning area, but the other counties are sparsely populated and not suburbanizing like the Austin area. There are future TxDOT obligations through pass-through or virtual tolling payback guarantees in Williamson and Hays Counties. Apparently, according to the way TxDOT set up these deals, TxDOT’s local pass through obligations depend on the future growth of VMT, even though travel on area roads has been flat for most of the past decade. Somebody takes the roads-built-on-credit hit in case the projected traffic doesn’t materialize.

If Texas driving recovers, the Texas fuel tax could recover. But how likely is that? Perhaps not very likely with the current jobless recovery. Texas is among many states facing a funding crisis. Given average consumer debt, long term consumer spending revival prospects are not so hopeful either. Given this situation, it seems plausible that Texas gas tax revenue already might have peaked forever.

Meanwhile, on the federal level, the fate of the big new federal transportation funding bill, the successor to the current “SAFETEA-LU” legislation, is bogged down in Congress, with periodic emergency extensions.

Nobody can accurately foresee the rules that will govern federal transportation funding in the new environment and how that could affect CAMPO’s planning. The long range vision of the CAMPO plan is based on sheer speculation about federal funding decades from now, when the truth is that we can’t even predict it for next year.

The politics of travel demand forecasting

Let us assume you are a transportation planner trying to avoid getting into the crossfire that comes with Texas road politics. You have a strong incentive to look for ways to have your cake and eat it too. In the context of severely limited road and transit funding, something has to give. It appears that the path of least resistance is road maintenance.

The maintenance portion of the total is now proposed to be slashed from 22% of the old CAMPO plan down to a mere 6% in the new one. The new plan indicates more funds at some point for pedestrians and bikes. Does this make sense in the context of poorly maintained roads?

The new plan is a carryover product of the recent Sen. Kirk Watson era, when the Real Estate Council of Austin and the Chamber of Commerce were heavily involved in lobbying for roads to serve hopeful land development and banking interests; such land development is historically how a big part of money has been made in the Austin area.

During the last several years, responsibility for funding major toll roads has shifted from TxDOT to the CTRMA. The latter group was appointed by Rick Perry to speed up road building through creative financing, meant to leverage ever scarcer state road funds. This even as recissions, or take-backs of previously promised federal funds, have stalled many projects.

CAMPO was told by the CAMPO Policy Board politicians, who make such decisions, to use the old 2006-2007 sprawl trend demographics for their long range planning. With the future problem to be defined in this way, the CAMPO planners are proposing to cluster suburban growth into growth centers to make the old development trends more affordable.

State transportation policy under Gov. Perry is to encourage local bodies like the CTRMA to do what TxDOT used to do. They can issue tax fee bonds and in general wheel and deal lots better than a stodgy old state agency like TxDOT. TxDOT remains subject to a lot of old state laws, even while it now contracts out a large part of its funds to large project-hungry, and politically active road contractors. Like Zachry Construction.

The prevailing majority of CAMPO politicians wanted certain things like lots of new roads in the new 2035 plan, meaning the total road spending only decreases a little in the new plan from 44% to 41% (but the categories change; freeways + arterials = roadways).

The CAMPO Policy Board wanted lots of transit, but without a very secure way to fund it. At any rate, the transit cost part of the total proposed pie expands from 32% to 45% in the new CAMPO plan.

Lone Star Rail.

Well-informed sources indicate that one reason that the Austin area hasn’t gotten much federal transit money lately is that the CAMPO area isn’t speaking to the feds with one coordinated regional voice. Perhaps this is because Round Rock is planning one rail transit system, Cap Metro is planning another, Austin is planning a streetcar rail system with bonding now delayed, and Lone Star Rail is promoting its own regional commuter system.

There is no doubt that the poor economy has contributed to the national and local peak and a decline in driving in recent years. The poor economy has taken over from high fuel prices and congestion to help discourage increased driving in Texas, as well as nationally.

The new plan perpetuates recent suburban sprawl growth trends. But now with the goal of encouraging the high density clustering of development, in such locations as highway strip malls in the towns surrounding Austin, and at existing edge cities like Round Rock.

In general, the plan authorizes the building of a lot of roads ASAP, while most of the transit waits until the proposed funds appear. The new CAMPO plan, and its short range approval companion, the TIP, are heavily biased toward spending on roads in the early years, especially for Williamson County. Williamson County claims it can get the credit to issue and pay back $4.1 billion in road bonds on its own. Accordingly, it submitted a long very list of roads to be eligible for matching funds, compared to Travis County.

Because a lot of the future funding is so uncertain, the CAMPO plan is important largely because of what it authorizes and makes eligible for federal private and state funding within the coming three year TIP, assuming that these funds are available.

Looming problems

Due to a combination of congestion, energy cost, and a depressed economy, travel behavior has become just as unpredictable as future funds. It does seem clear that there is a trend in the U.S. to try to drive less. Left unclear is why this trend would facilitate suburban clustered center growth rather than core city infill development, where the public maximizes residential density to get closer to the major employers. We need more recent data to justify our assumptions about the geography of future employment trends.

It does seem sensible to require all metropolitan area planners in the USA to periodically do a long range plan, like the CAMPO plan, in order to get the federal gas money back. The problem with this is that there isn’t actually a requirement that the resulting plan must work very well, even on paper.

The new 2035 CAMPO plan is a blue ribbon example of this kind of planning deficiency. The following is a list of what I see as major shortcomings of the CAMPO 2035 plan. Appendices are provided at the end for easier referencing and documentation.

  1. Revenues are likely way too optimistic, in accord with loose federal rules — Appendix A
  2. 2035 demographic projections are based on the 2006-2007 construction boom — Appendix B
  3. Congestion would become far worse than it is now — Appendix C
  4. Little track record or support data for the preferred clustered growth “Centers” scenario — Appendix D
  5. Road maintenance is planned to fall precipitously — Appendix E
  6. Little environmental plan impact — Appendix F
  7. Peak oil mentioned but not incorporated into the planning — Appendix G
  8. Planning is blind to recent driving trends, due to aging, economy, congestion, fuel price, etc, — Appendix H
  9. Heavily front-loaded to favor expansion of Williamson County roads — Appendix I
  10. Highways today; transit someday — Appendix J

If the CAMPO plan being recommended by CAMPO staff is fully implemented, using every possible source of transportation funds that can be reasonably anticipated, what would happen?

The CAMPO model predicts that if its plan is fully implemented, Austin area residents will experience much worse traffic congestion than we see today, double the severely congested roads with about three times the daily driver delay to half an hour. CAMPO’s previous long range plans have been a stretch in terms of optimism, but the new plan breaks new ground in both its financial optimism and the poor end results predicted.

CAMPO’s previous 2030 plan was projected to cost about $23 billion. CAMPO’s new 25 year plan assumes almost $27 billion in income and spending, which means roughly keeping spending level after inflation over the past five years. The feds require that the envisioned long range expenses be matched with somewhat plausible revenue sources. CAMPO’s “preferred option” anticipates spending the maximum amount that optimistic expectations could generate.

CAMPO’s future revenue projections in the new plan have managed to retain most of their previous optimism. This is despite a lot of recent economic changes that have mostly reduced transportation revenue.

Demographic projections 25 years in the future are used to define the future peak hour commuting demand that the plan attempts to meet. At issue is whether it it is wise to do that by spending so much so soon, in accord with a plan that puts a lot of the spending in the early years while shifting the funding burden to local government.

There is not much evidence that the scattered suburban centers proposed by the plan, essentially denser, more walkable satellite cities, are a good fit for recent land development trends that seem to discourage suburban development. The availability of utility services and retail shopping are a big factor influencing the development potential of the proposed suburban growth centers. Can Manor thrive as a toll road crossroads, but without an HEB? Should the public underwrite this “centers” concept at the expense of the central city?

One can assign hypothetical future commuter trips to bus or rail to help handle future commuting numbers arising among edge cities like Cedar Park and Kyle and Manor. Based on experience elsewhere, the transition from well established car-centric commuting hubs like Kyle or Round Rock to different kinds of walkable development destinations will not be fast, easy, or cheap.

Increasing congestion has been weighing against driving through many US suburbs during the last decade. Suburban roads are overcrowded, not due to bad planning, but largely due to the inherent nature of trying to widen and fund the road capacity needed to serve an ever-expanding urban perimeter. Commuter roads based on leveraging public debt have become public subsidies to stimulate sprawl, profitable to influential and well established land development interests.

Transportation planners can view suburban commuting on congested roads strictly as a time penalty, but it is more than that. Every minute of time they spend commuting drivers must be on the lookout for unanticipated hazards on crowded roads that require full attention every second, even among elderly drivers. Austin area freeways like IH 35 reached peak hour saturation long ago, and now they experience frequent and unpredictable delays. Increasingly driving is stressful and people avoid it.

With the past growth pattern of expanding layers of suburbs added over decades, new suburban commuters drive ever farther and through other suburbs. The cost of providing enough road capacity for new layers of growth goes up as something like an exponential function of the core city’s radius.

The way the CAMPO planning process is currently headed, the policy is to try to keep building those roads with a lot of political support. SH 290 E is a toll road being built over stages with stimulus funds; it is now being managed by the CTRMA rather than TxDOT.

SH 45 SW, proposed as a new toll road over the Edwards aquifer, is in the plan as a proposed and supposedly fundable toll road. The reality is that it is struggling just to scrounge a few million dollars in planning funds; the CTRMA has said that it would probably not be bondable as a greenfield toll road.

The biggest threat: Soaring fuel prices

The one factor that seems most likely to scuttle the new CAMPO Plan, is the likelihood of much higher oil prices within the five year time frame of the new plan.

Higher gas prices began to inhibit U.S. driving starting in about 2003. By mid-2008, an unsustainable commodities price bubble, led by oil, was underway. Rising commodities prices plus a global finance bubble culminated in a global recession and precipitated a global economic crisis that persists.

Record fuel prices revealed the world’s maximum oil production in mid 2008 to be about 85 million barrels per day at that time. If the U.S. economy eventually recovers enough to accommodate a resumption of past driving behavior, then the oil market will surely have to tighten up, which will spike fuel prices and inhibit any increase in driving. Oil producers probably cannot keep global oil production above 92 million barrels a day no matter what the price, which sets the stage for another tight oil market and another price spike. Depletion will again overtake the maximum global oil production that even very high oil prices can deliver.

The first two issues encompass the balance of new oil supplies and declining production from existing oil fields. Here the report suggests a fairly specific time frame when significant additions of new production to the world’s oil supply is likely to end. The report says time is around the end of the current year. From 2011 on, the relentless drop in production of just over 4 million b/d from the fields that are currently producing about 85 million barrels a day will be just barely balanced with production from new projects through 2014. After that world production will go into decline.

In other words, the world’s ability to keep increasing its oil production will come to an end this year after 150 years of more or less steady growth. While new production from projects such as those in the deep waters off Brazil and the Gulf of Mexico will continue, these projects are five to ten years away from significantly adding to global production and likely will be overbalanced by the 4 million b/d annual drop in production from existing fields. New production will, of course, slow the pace of global oil depletion, but will not be enough to allow for global economic growth.

The Oil Crunch.

The British report, “The Oil Crunch”, is one of the clearest windows we have on the global liquid fuels future; it says we have a MAXIMUM of five years left before driving gets really expensive, worse than in mid-2008. How would this added driving cost increase affect travel demand in Texas, where vehicle travel demand is already pretty much flat?

If this report on energy is accurate, a lot of our shrinking supply of discretionary tax dollars are likely to be locally squandered trying to handle unlikely future traffic, while furthering a financial commitment to encourage sprawl development. If the anticipated toll revenues do not materialize, any resulting tax free municipal revenue bond default could undermine the Austin metropolitan area’s development potential.

If our readers would like to comment on the current draft new 2035 CAMPO plan before it gets changed or approved as policy by the CAMPO Board, comprised mostly of local politicians, there are a number of public hearings scheduled in the near future. Here are the times and locations.

Appendix A; Clearly short of Funds

Federal law requires CAMPO to develop a Financial Plan that
documents how the improvements called for by the Long
Range Plan are affordable within the revenues “reasonably”
expected to be available in the region. — App p 98.

However, no matter what the law says, there is not enough money to do what the planners regard as a good job, as the CAMPO planners admit:

CAMPO estimates that just over $26.7
billion in Federal, State, and local
revenue will be available to build, operate, and
maintain the regional transportation system
between today and the year 2035.
If regional growth and revenue trends
continue, we will fall considerably short of
addressing the transportation needs that have
been identified. (Even assuming the region
works to better integrate land use and transportation
by supporting centers.) The region
will need to pursue additional sources of
Federal, state and local funding to build on
the projects and programs identified in the
Plan. — Executive Summary, p 15

The proposed funding is highly optimistic. The Plan assumes a shift toward local funding like tolling and bond debt, as opposed to the past pattern of state and federal funding using the gas tax. More than 75% of the future money spent is assumed to be provided locally. — App p 08

The plan “assumes innovative finance to expedite projects and programs” — Pl p 92

“The projects included in this plan are affordable within the
revenue that is reasonably expected over the life of the plan.
However, the projects and programs fall considerably short
of addressing the full extent of transportation need that has
been identified through the planning process. CAMPO will
work with its regional partners to pursue additional sources
of Federal, State, and local revenue, as well as innovative
financing to expedite projects, and may amend the plan to
include additional projects and programs in the future.
Appendix 2 provides a description of the array of innovative
funding sources that could be pursued.” — Pl p 92

Even the intention to apply for potential future grants is counted as a plausible source of “Innovative Revenue” for CAMPO planning purposes:
LSTAR Innovative Revenues
The Lone Star Rail District has provided an estimate of the
funding that they have already secured or intend to pursue
for implementation of the Lone Star Rail Project Connecting
Austin and San Antonio. In addition to fares, the estimate
includes the following:

  • STP-MM Funding (through the SA-BC MPO): $20 million
    (already awarded)
  • Local Funds from Rail District Member Jurisdiction:
    $356.4 million
  • FRA Funding Programs(HSIPR): $136.0 million
  • Federal Appropriations: $18.00
  • Federal Reauthorization: $145.0 million
  • State Rail Relocation Fund, TxDOT: $241.5. — App p 25

Appendix B; Old growth and job trends used

The future travel problem the CAMPO plan is trying to solve is actually based on old trends from the Austin suburban growth boom era of 2006-2007.

The location and growth targets for these centers were based on a regional dialogue that CAMPO convened with the public, regional partners, and regionalexperts throughout 2006 and 2007. This dialogue led to the identification of a desired network of mixed use activity centers that were embodied in the “May 2007 Draft CAMPO Growth Concept. — Pl p 18

It is not clear that the new population distribution, see App p 110, has changed much from CAMPO’s previous long range 2030 plan; the population densities shown on the maps in the 2030 and 2035 plans are expressed in quite different ways, making a good comparison difficult.

Besides the issue of the future population distribution, there is the related issue of the magnitude of this increase. The Austin area population is proposed under the new CAMPO plan to more than double to 3.2 million. TxDOT just officially added Bastrop and Caldwell Counties to CAMPO, joining Hays, Travis, and Williamson counties, which were already in the CAMPO planning area.

The Texas State Data Center recommends that good long range planning should preferably use the .5 growth scenario for long range projections:

The One-Half 1990-2000 Migration (0.5) ScenarioThis scenario has been prepared as an approximate average of the zero (0.0) and 1990-2000 (1.0) scenarios. It assumes rates of net migration one-half of those of the 1990s. The reason for including this scenario is that many counties in the State are unlikely to continue to experience the overall levels of relative extensive growth of the 1990s. A scenario which projects rates of population growth that are approximately an average of the zero and the 1990 2000 scenarios is one that suggests slower than 1990-2000 but steady growth.

Instead, the CAMPO planners used a considerably higher rate of increase than that recommended. In accord with the sprawl development assumptions incorporated in the previous CAMPO plan; the counties surrounding Travis are proposed to continue to get a much bigger share of future growth than the more central Austin, or Travis County. Here are CAMPO’s projections:

2005 Est. 2015 2025 2035
Travis 896,800 1,105,000 1,318,000 1,555,300
Williamson 330,700 473,300 702,700 1,026,500
Hays 126,200 189,200 271,600 371,200
Bastrop 69,500 102,300 149,200 215,500
Caldwell 35,400 50,100 65,300 82,100
Total 1,458,600 1,919,900 2,506,800 3,250,600

2005 Est. 2015 2025 2035
Travis 536,900 707,200 843,500 1,026,500
Williamson 101,500 165,700 253,000 400,300
Hays 41,000 66,200 97,800 137,300
Bastrop 12,000 20,500 34,300 58,200
Caldwell 7,000 10,500 15,000 20,500
Total 698,400 970,100 1,243,600 1,642,800 — App p 102.

It probably goes without saying that the current employment trends, which were a primary factor driving past growth in the Austin region, are now less favorable to growth. Jobs are still being created, but the workforce is increasing even faster, so that unemployment in the Austin Round Rock San Marcos MSA increased from 6.5% to 7.6% from Jan. 2009 to Jan. 2010.

Nobody can say where CAMPO’s large projected increase in future Williamson County jobs will come from; the vision seems to be based more on land development politics and past trends than anything else.

Appendix C; Congestion

CAMPO’s 2035 congestion map shows widespread rush hour congestion on most major roads. — App p 46.

Here are some numbers that tell the story.

The percent of congested roads will increase from 12% to 26%.
The Vehicle Hours of Delay Per Person during 24 hours would
nearly triple from .12 to .31 hours. — App p 41.

Of course the standard road lobby catechism says there is an obligation to fight congestion by building and widening roads. What is actually happening is that we are using relatively shrinking public money, or even worse public debt, to subsidize profitable but car-addictive land development. Congestion is by its nature self-limiting; it resolves itself over time. Congestion and the free market market play a beneficial role by generating a strong natural limits incentive for the public to shift land use patterns that favor more tax efficient urban infill with a higher population density.

Appendix D; CAMPO’s Preferred Growth Scenario: Edge City Clusters

The CAMPO planners looked at three scenarios: ‘no build’, ‘trends’, and ‘centers’. In other words the following three alternatives.

A. Do nothing,

B. Try to finance sprawl infrastructure as usual,

C. To cluster sprawl more densely in the edge cities surrounding Austin. This was approved as CAMPO’s preferred alternative.
“Preferred Scenario
The preferred scenario that is included in the draft CAMPO
2035 Plan assumes:

  • Implementation of all projects included in the current
    Transportation Improvement Program,
  • Implementation of mixed use activity centers throughout
    the region
  • Implementation of locally-funded projects as prioritized
    by project sponsors
  • Implementation of additional high priority regional
    projects.” — Pl p 32.

Numerous national studies have shown that higher density, mixed use development oriented around public transportation can help us get more for less by reducing vehicle miles traveled on the regional roadway system and increasing transit ridership. Over the last several decades regional transportation planning bodies around the country have had success encouraging movement toward this pattern through various initiatives.

The CAMPO 2035 Plan assumes that the region will work toward implementation of a network of high density mixed use centers oriented around the transportation investments included in the CAMPO 2035 Plan.” — Pl p 17

Missing is documentation that CAMPO’s preferred clustered sprawl scenario is an economically viable growth scenario. A big expansion in vehicle travel like cars and buses would be required, in contrast to the current tendency to cut back on per capita travel in the Austin area.

Appendix E; Severe road maintenance cuts

Let us compare the projected future costs pie charts in the new 2035 plan versus the previous 2030 CAMPO 25 year plans.

Here are the 2005-2030 CAMPO spending projections from the old 2005 CAMPO plan:

  • Roadways 44%
  • Transit 6%
  • Transit Operations 26%
  • Other/Bike Pedestrian 1.9%
  • Roadway Maintenance 22%

These are the new spending 2010-2035
projections in the 2010 CAMPO plan, Pl p 08

  • Freeways 15%
  • Arterials 26%
  • Rail 8%
  • Transit Operations 37%
  • Other 2%
  • Bike Ped 2%
  • Roadway Maintenance 6%

TxDOT Dist 14 maintenance costs are now about $182 million per year, mostly contracted with private companies, but this is proposed to drop greatly in future years.

Appendix F; Little attention to environmental constraints

Here is CAMPO planning in theory:

“Wise investment in our future demands a foresighted plan that balances transportation, land use and natural resources” — Pl p 05

Yet the CAMPO planners have historically usually favored minimum compliance with federal environmental law. The CAMPO planners have chosen 70 parts per billion, the highest ozone level that the feds are said likely to approve. Sen. Kirk Watson has even advocated that CAMPO keep the current goal of 75 parts per billion.

CAMPO area greenhouse gas emission (CO2), from a near doubling of vehicle trips, is projected to increase from 24,000 tons per day in 2010 up to 33,000 tons in 2035. — App p 64.

The CAMPO planners have not taken future water supply constraints into account in their planning process, especially the future water available for Willamson County.

Appendix G; Peak oil mentioned

The new 2035 plan is refreshing in one respect. It is no longer in denial of peak oil, it mentions it on page 45. The problem with this is that acknowledging that a problem exists is easy, but this falls way short of incorporating a plausible peak oil response scenario into the planning process. The study of peak oil is well advanced, we are probably peaking now according to many experts, so where are the numbers or key links needed to continue this important in a realistic way?

Global demand for oil shows no sign of decreasing; the
earth’s endowment of oil is finite. Large reserves of oil
remain, but will become more costly to extract. Fuel costs
will rise over the long-term, with short-term fluctuation
based on changes in demand and disruptions to the supply
system. Limited supplies and the high cost of petroleum are
especially problematic for the transportation sector because
the majority of motor vehicles, aircraft, trains, and ships
have no ready alternative to liquid petroleum fuels.

Many communities, including the city of Austin, have peak oil
preparedness plans. The city of Portland’s plan, for instance,
calls for a 50 percent reduction in total oil and natural gas
consumption over 25 years. Reductions of that size will rely
heavily on efficiency and conservation in transportation
systems, land use, and infrastructure development. Agencies
such as CAMPO and plans such as the 2035 Plan will be
critical to creating the kind of transportation system that
supports such reductions in consumption. — App p 45

Appendix H; Blind to recent driving trends

The plan is pretty much blind to changing demographics, income levels, and fuel prices, insisting that future residents will retain their old driving habits despite current trends to the contrary.

Forecast Methodology: Funding forecast developed by CAMPO
and assumes that the proportion of Austin’s population who
are low-income and welfare recipients will remain the same
over time. Forecast assumes that the rate of increase in the
annual authorization on a national level will be equal to the
compound rate of increase in authorization based on data
available in the SAFETEA LU years. The forecast assumes
that the Austin area will continue to receive 0.297% of the
funding available at the national level.

“Travel Behavior
The CAMPO Travel Demand Model, which is used to simulate
future trip-making in the region, includes mathematical
assumptions based on current travel behavior. Some of the
variations described below are factored into the CAMPO
model based on standard modeling practice and empirical
data; however, the model is not sensitive to all variations.
In particular, the travel behavior assumptions used by the
CAMPO model are not sensitive to the behavioral impacts of
micro-changes in land use or changes in age and ethnicity
over time.” — App p 116

Appendix I; Heavily favors Williamson County Roads

The plan is a prescription to transfer the road and transit funding burden to local debt. In the case of Williamson County, this means $4.2 billion of local bond debt. The current situation in some ways resembles a frontier land rush, with many of the future roads envisioned to supply Williamson County, which anticipates its billions in road bonds to be potentially issued in the near future, unlike the relatively more modest Travis County proposals being offered:

Travis County
Forecast Methodology: Funding forecast provided by Travis County based on issuance of approximately $100 million in bonds every five years, adjusted for inflation.

Williamson County
Forecast Methodology: Funding forecast provided by Williamson County based on issuance of $4,123,895,000 in transportation bonds and $130,000,000 in developer contributions over the life of the plan. County has documented that this amount is within their current bonding capacity and would not result in an increase in County tax rate. — App p 24

Appendix J; Highways now; Transit someday

The 2035 CAMPO plan is full of roads and toll roads seeking funding approval, with $2.7 billion proposed for roads during the first ten years of the 25 year plan, but only just $600 million in the last ten years. It is not clear how this emphasis on approval of lots of spending for roads as soon as possible differs from business as usual. The state and local arterial spending shows similar front loading on road spending. Local funding for arterials is also concentrated in the early years with $1.9 billion proposed during the first decade, but only $1.2 billion for the final decade. Rather heavy spending on passenger rail of just over $2 billion on the next 15 years is assumed, but this appears to be largely based on “innovative finance” for funding. Express bus service, largely commuter buses to the clustered suburban centers, is proposed to expand dramatically in the future from a mere $54 million in the first ten years to nearly half a billion in the last ten years. Meanwhile, maintenance spending for roads and bridges is proposed to decline from $618 over the coming decade, then shrinking to $557 million the last decade of the 25 year plan. — App p 10

[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 Association and the Save Barton Creek Association. Mostly he enjoys being an irreverent policy wonk and writing irreverent wonkish articles for The Rag Blog.]

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9 Responses to Roger Baker : Austin’s New Transportation Plan Throws a Few Curves

  1. CCespedes says:

    Thanks for publishing this substantive and well researched article just in time for us to use the material for public comment on the CAMPO 2035 Plan. TxDOT has a kinder/gentler face this year, but it sure looks like more of the same old game – yesterday’s projections propping up unrealistic scenarios for tomorrow – until something gives.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I can’t imagine the time and energy necessary to research and prepare this article. Thank you Roger – I hope you get the wide audience you and this important topic both deserve.

  3. Janet Gilles says:

    This piece seems to ignore the little known fact that Bond Elections more than the gas tax fund road maintenance. Less than six percent of citizens vote, so the public remains unaware of this major use of our sales tax dollars. This is why the smart cities prefer density, which pays for itself, rather than sprawl, funded by sales and property tax.

  4. Anonymous says:

    We seem to be mired in developer and speculative interests influence rather than a thoughtful plan for preserving resources and habitats or for developing more sustainable community methods. As we move to alternative fuels and density growth, we are also moving toward a baby bust once the boomers retire, less workers. New road are not so mucht the true need as improving the ones we have to flow more functionaly.

  5. jon boyd says:

    As always, great work. As many challenges as the Houston region has, I don’t envy central Texas. We have an intra-urban light rail plan, and Austin is building commuter rail to Leander.

    Texas is way oversubscribed on roads with no plan for significant change. Chairman Carona knows the fiscal situation, but he seems to see this as a revenue problem rather than a problem with the objective of adding road capacity.

  6. RogerB says:

    In response to Janet;

    Actually, a large part of the total money spent by TxDOT goes to road repairs, and this is mostly funded by gas tax. Since TxDOT maintains a lot of Austin area roads, their financial situation makes a big difference to the local picture. The recent numbers for both construction and repair work for TxDOT District 14 can be seen here. Note the number of projects that are listed as unfunded:

    Meanwhile, it is true as Janet says that County roads and Austin roads are often built with bonds. Austin has recently bonded street maintenance, which SHOULD be paid for out of current revenue instead of future bond debt.

    It is inherently bad policy, IMO, for Travis County to collect property taxes from the majority living in dense development inside the city, and then spend it all for roads outside the major city limits. Much county bond money is for roads calculated to encourage low density sprawl which evades city taxes. This fact undermines the more sustainable economics of core city developmnt, while encouraging land speculation.

    This is yet another indication of the benefits we would see if Texas somehow had metropolitan area government in our quite heavily urbanized state. This is, however, a political stretch, since Texas has been ruled since the Civil War for the primary benefit of its landed gentry; it practically takes an act of God to change the state constitution.

  7. ramsey wiggins says:

    Would that Cap Metro had grabbed the Lone Star commuter route. It actually might get some ridership. Not many people trying to get from Cedar Park to East Austin at six in the morning.

  8. James E. Therrault says:

    As usual, another great post from Roger who probably knows more than the rest of us regarding matters of transportation in the Austin metro area.

    I just infuriates me that our public officials have little in the way of responsibly administering the public trust. Out-of-control borrowing will make future generations less empowered to govern their destiny.

    What to do about it??? I’m not sure but I sure hope that someone figures it out…

  9. Marc says:

    This is a plan for the future known as Austin’s new long-range transportation plan. This is latest news for me.

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