Monday, December 24, 2007

"Perry-backed legislation in the 2003 and 2005 sessions that essentially created the Texas toll road revolution...created a lot of enemies."

2007: Toll devolution, rising transit costs and broken Krusee control

December 24, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

There could be a tendency to think of 2007 as an interregnum in Central Texas transportation, a comparative lull between 2006, when toll roads first opened here, and 2008, when the area will see it first commuter train service.

But that would be wrong. The year just ending was rich with compelling and telling transportation news: a legislative revolution against the Perry Way; final resolution (uh, maybe) of debate over a second wave of toll roads; a tumultuous year at Capital Metro, with falling bus ridership, rising rail costs and fares that (surprisingly) did not rise; a Minnesota bridge that stunned the nation by collapsing and then was largely forgotten outside that state within weeks; and the announced departure of a legislator who had dominated road-and-rail debate.

And then there's the news we all see just beyond our bumper every day, a metro area that seems finally to have become truly and frustratingly metropolitan out on the streets. With traffic seemingly spinning out of control — despite the addition of four new toll roads in the past 14 months — the Texas Department of Transportation's late-breaking cash crunch couldn't come at a worse point.

Here's a quick look back at 2007, sort of a second rough draft of Austin-area transportation history.

Ric knocks back a Carona. This was supposed to be a nothing legislative session for transportation. Then state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, the new chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said in January that Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson really ought to be replaced. Soon after, he confronted Williamson at a legislative committee hearing, demanding a private meeting and calling Williamson arrogant. It looked like Carona was set to lead a jihad against Williamson, TxDOT and the onslaught of toll roads growing from Gov. Rick Perry's policies.

That jihad in fact happened. But others ended up leading it, and by the end of the session, Carona was speaking kind words about Williamson and brokering peace between the Perry/Williamson/TxDOT faction and legislators who wanted their hides nailed up in the Capital rotunda. That one of those bristling legislators was Jacksonville's Robert Nichols, a former colleague of Williamson's on the Transportation Commission, was truly stunning.

Actually, the energy for change mostly came from Dallas and Houston legislators, who were fronting for their areas' toll agencies that were threatened by TxDOT hegemony. The big transportation bill that finally emerged and got Perry's signature carried a ban on private toll road leases that was rife with exceptions and gave local toll agencies license to do such contracts. But mainly the new law gave those local toll agencies more control of highway building in their areas.

No, really, we're strapped. Yes, TxDOT has more than $16 billion to spend in this two-year budget cycle. Yes, it has $6.4 billion of Texas Mobility Fund money to spend. Yes, the North Texas Tollway Authority just cut a $3.2 billion check to the agency for the right to build one toll road in Collin County. Yes, voters in November authorized backing up to $5 billion in transportation bonds with general state revenue.

But that $3.2 billion check can be spent only on Dallas-Fort Worth roads, the mobility fund money is already committed to a set of road projects and that $5 billion can't be borrowed until the Legislature comes back in 2009 and allows it. TxDOT officials — looking at cutbacks in federal funds, rising maintenance needs and stagnant gas tax receipts (which are likely to get worse with stubbornly high gas prices and better fuel economy in cars) — say their other road-building plans have been gutted by the loss of fat upfront payments for those private toll road leases the Legislature stopped.

Helping make TxDOT's point: The Legislature overwhelmingly knocked down an attempt to raise the state gas tax, frozen since 1991. Carona held a news conference during the session to push for raising the gas tax. He was alone at the lectern.

TxDOT announced in late November that after Jan. 31 there would be no new construction contracts (that is, for projects not previously begun or paid for with mobility fund money).

Which led to ...

Kirk's commitment issues. Austin political leaders on the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board in October, relying on a promise of $500 million to $700 million from TxDOT, had approved a $1.45 billion program for five more toll roads. The first four to open are drawing far more cars than originally projected. A fifth Austin toll road is under construction.

That October vote was engineered by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, chairman of the CAMPO board, and he took a triple ration of abuse from toll road opponents for doing so.

So Watson was understandably miffed when TxDOT said a few weeks later that, well, maybe the Austin area is going to have to come up with that scratch on its own. This one is evolving as you read this, but one suspects that TxDOT will find a way to find the money, or at least most of it.

Tracking Capital Metro.On the one hand, Capital Metro made steady progress this year toward opening its first (and maybe last) passenger rail line, the 32-mile route from Leander to downtown Austin. Four of the six cars arrived in town this year, and (noisy) late-night testing has begun; work is well along on most of the nine stations, a rail overpass over a crossing Union Pacific line, sidings and a computerized signaling system. And the company hired an experienced contractor to operate the line when it opens next fall.

On the other hand, all this is costing considerably more than initial projections. Annual operating costs at the start will be at least double the $5 million estimate shared with voters when rail came up for a public vote in 2004. And the cost of building the line — although Capital Metro disputes this and doesn't count a number of directly related expenditures — will be at least $30 million more than the $90 million estimate.

On yet another hand, the agency remains in a labor-management quagmire, bus ridership is falling, an attempt to raise fares was shot down by community opposition, and Cap Metro says it will go into the red in the next four years. Agency leaders say flatly they can't afford to build more rail after the Leander line.

Given all that, Austin Mayor Will Wynn in late October stepped in and suggested that a downtown rail system could be partially funded by Austin. He called for a hyperspeed analysis of what to do and how to pay for it, and a rail referendum in November 2008. With Watson's help, a blue-ribbon committee of politicos, chaired by Wynn, quickly materialized and began holding weekly meetings on rail this month.

Can they meet Wynn's deadline? We'll see.

Broken Krusee control. State Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, after a relatively quiet first decade in the Legislature, made a lot of noise starting in 2003 as chairman of the House Transportation Committee. He ramrodded through Perry-backed legislation in the 2003 and 2005 sessions that essentially created the Texas toll road revolution. Krusee, along with Watson, became about the most powerful politician on the Austin scene.

But those transportation laws — and TxDOT's full-frontal application of them — likewise created a lot of enemies, and those enemies found a lot of friends in the Legislature. The result was that Krusee's control of the transportation agenda collapsed, and the Perry agenda suffered a reversal.

Meanwhile, Krusee, saddled with a reputation as Mr. Toll Central Texas and serving a district increasingly infested with Democrats, barely topped 50 percent in the 2006 election. In December, Krusee announced that he will not seek re-election next year.

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