Thursday, November 10, 2005

"This process is only worthwhile if the public trusts the outcome."

A halting start for toll road panel

Critics fear review of next set of turnpikes has been co-opted by supporters.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2005

The box lunches, at least, came with no toll.

But carrying the weight of almost two years of toll road turmoil, an ad hoc committee formed to oversee a study on the controversial issue struggled through its first meeting Tuesday.

The group of mostly elected officials haggled through a lunchtime get-together -- politely -- over everything from who would co-chair the committee to whether to hire someone to do the humdrum work of setting up meetings and distributing agendas.

Underlying Tuesday's hair-splitting is the charge, made by anti-toll activists originally but echoed by some officials Tuesday, that what was originally envisioned as an independent review of Austin's second wave of proposed toll roads has been co-opted by the people who conceived and pushed through that toll road plan last year.

The fear is that the coalition of local governments that pitched in $350,000 to do the study could in the end produce a dead-on-arrival report.

"This process is only worthwhile if the public trusts the outcome," said state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, a member of the steering committee.

The study, Strama said, needs to be "not just a ratification of what's already been decided but rather a meaningful exploration of what's best for this community."

Central Texas was first introduced to what's known as the Phase 2 toll road plan in April 2004.

At that point, three toll roads were already under construction, and two were in the planning stages. All of this first wave of turnpikes were completely new roads cut through farm and ranch land.

What distinguished the Phase 2 plan of seven roads -- later cut to five -- was that it envisioned turning several existing highways interrupted with stoplights into expressways that would have toll charges on the main lanes and free frontage roads.

And it included three roads already under construction with gasoline tax dollars.

The plan was approved by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board, which is made up primarily of elected officials, in July 2004, but that only fueled the controversy.

Austin City Council Member Brewster McCracken, a CAMPO board member who voted for the plan, later had second thoughts.

McCracken conceived the idea of having the City of Austin do a $144,000 study of the Phase 2 plan, examining the underlying data and assumptions and perhaps proposing alternative ways to get the roads built.

The City Council hired Charles River Associates, now known as CRA International Inc., a Boston company, to do the study.

McCracken then began discussions with some toll road supporters about expanding the scope of the plan to, at least to some degree, dispel the idea that it would be "only a hatchet job," as McCracken put it Tuesday.

To expand the study, McCracken and others managed to secure promises of another $200,000 from Round Rock, Williamson County, Travis County, Hays County and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. That last agency will ultimately operate the toll roads.

The steering committee has representatives from all those governments, as well as Strama and state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, the driving force behind the Phase 2 plan.

McCracken and Krusee will co-chair the steering committee, which has the mission of overseeing the Boston consultant.

The study could take as much as a year to complete, during which time nothing is to be done on the Phase 2 projects that would lock them into being toll roads.; 445-3698
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