Monday, January 29, 2007

Sen. Kirk Watson takes on the 'Straw Man'


Stopping area toll roads doesn't mean a free ride

January 29, 2007

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin
State Senator

Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

In the final analysis, anything that helps people move through a region — be it a road, rail, or bus — is nothing more than a tool. And, as with a hammer or power saw, if you aren't protecting the people using it, or you don't know what you're building with it, then you're better off never picking it up at all.

For some time, I've been recommending that the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board shelve a vote on the Phase II Toll Roads. CAMPO is our region's primary transportation planning group, and its board of elected officials named me chairman.

That night, the board unanimously accepted my recommendation to pull down the Phase II plan.

The Phase II decision wasn't about winners and losers. There can be no winners when traffic saps the freedom of Central Texans, or when leaders fail to address the problem in an open, accountable way that treats drivers as valued constituents.

Instead, this decision offers all of us a blank slate upon which to plan our transportation future. We must take advantage of this action, reject polarizing rhetoric, and come together to prepare for our future – identifying tools we'll have, how we'll use them, and what we'll create with them.

Traffic congestion in Central Texas is a major problem, and it's getting worse. To imagine the future, I think of an important constituent who isn't driving yet — my son, Cooper.

Cooper's in sixth grade. Before he's out of high school, we'll have 159,000 more people — two Round Rock's worth — on Central Texas roads. When he's only a junior in college, we'll have added 324,000 people — another Williamson County. So when we talk about transportation challenges, we're not talking about unseen generations. We're talking about us. We're talking about now.

This task demands a comprehensive regional transportation plan that includes new roads, public transportation, and passenger rail — and effective planning.

These different pieces should work together to improve our lives at a price we can afford. They should form a blueprint for our region's prosperity and quality of life.

I will work, as CAMPO chairman and as the vice-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, to help the region craft a comprehensive plan that's supported by, and that protects, the people it's meant to serve. We should never be faced with a transportation policy that does less to help the public than to tax it, or that treats commuters as little more than resources to be harvested.

While I look forward to hearing creative transportation ideas in the coming months, let me be very clear: I won't support a transportation policy that's less than completely open and fully accountable to the people of Central Texas. One of the lessons of the past several months is that "don't ask, just tell" policies — about tolls or anything else — cannot and shouldn't work.

But reality requires action. We must stop talking about "free roads," as if there ever were such things. Any tool we use, any road we're on, costs money from some source. We can't simply oppose things or divert attention from problems with slogans or personal attacks. Our citizens are too smart to let half-truths, untruths, innuendo and conspiracy theories define our future. We don't have the time and shouldn't have the patience for unaccountable ideologues distorting our present or jeopardizing our future.

And we can't pretend that a single tool — be it more roads, new trains, or nothing — is going to solve anything by itself.

Already, I believe, we're moving in the right direction.

I recommended and the CAMPO board has endorsed a process that should leave the organization more functional, accountable, responsive and strong. And I've formed a task force of local leaders and national experts to evaluate ways we build and pay for our transportation systems.

But there's no monopoly on good policy.

So, together, let's get this issue right. Let's evaluate our substantial traffic problem and talk about the comprehensive transportation system we need, want, and must pay for. Then, let's build it, for us and those who are coming after us.

This conversation is vital to our region's future. Think of it as the opposite of a traffic jam — if you don't get on this road, the rest of us can't get anywhere.
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