Thursday, December 21, 2006

"The level of mistrust among key players in the CAMPO organization is staggering."

Watson calls for delay in toll vote

Senator-elect's suggestion comes as chamber issues report calling for CAMPO changes.

December 21, 2006

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

Kirk Watson, soon to be a state senator and a member of a board that guides Central Texas transportation decisions, wants that board to delay for six months a decision on the area's second wave of toll roads.

Watson, an Austin Democrat succeeding longtime state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos in January, will be one of eight new or nearly new members of the 23-member Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board. Given that influx of inexperience, as well as a recent report indicating that increasing the state gas tax with inflation could eliminate the need for tolls on some roads, Watson said that CAMPO needs to step back.

And, as it considers further action on toll roads in general, Watson said, the CAMPO board needs to make sure "the people of Central Texas are treated like valued constituents, not just resources to be harvested."

Watson's recommendation, shared in a Wednesday e-mail with CAMPO board members, comes as a Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce task force prepares to issue a report today calling for major changes to CAMPO. Watson was chairman of that task force.

The 58-page report says the "level of mistrust among key players in the CAMPO organization is staggering" and recommends trimming the board to 18 members. That reconfigured board would have just three legislators instead of 10 and would include two new members representing small cities. Changing the board would require the governments in the three-county CAMPO area to amend their agreement.

"I think a smaller board is a good thing because it's become unwieldy," said state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, a CAMPO board member and the chairman of the House Transportation Committee. "And some members clearly have not been interested in actively participating."

The report also recommends several mechanisms for easing factional divisions between urban and suburban board members and building trust between the board and CAMPO staff members.

"These changes hopefully will bring about a functioning body," Watson said Wednesday. "The truth of the matter is, if CAMPO is doing its job well, people aren't going to notice it."

CAMPO has been quite noticeable the past 30 months or so.

Under federal law, federal transportation funds can't be used on a project unless that project is in CAMPO's long-range transportation plan. That plan sets out which projects will be done over the next 25 years and how to pay for them.

The toll road issue flared to life in Central Texas in the summer of 2004, when the CAMPO board, with just a couple of months' notice, voted 16-7 to allow seven key roads in Austin to be built or expanded as toll roads.

That was to come on top of a first wave of five toll roads already under construction or planned. The CAMPO board later sliced two tollways from what became known as the Phase 2 toll road plan.

Because of delay and a technicality in the federal planning process, the toll road issue is once again before the CAMPO board, which is no longer as enthusiastic about tollways.

Funding for the five projects on U.S. 183, U.S. 290 and Texas 71 in East Austin and the U.S. 290-Texas 71 confluence and Texas 45 Southwest in Southwest Austin has expired since that 2004 decision. The board has already delayed for months reinstating funding for those projects.

That vote had been expected to occur as soon as February.

Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, a CAMPO board member, said he's ready to follow Watson's lead on tolls.

"The only person who can probably lead us out of this morass we're in probably is Kirk, because he hasn't been a part of it to date," said Daugherty, a Republican. "There is no question we can't be expected to weigh in on this thing right away."; 445-3698

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