Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"The feds told CAMPO to comply with the federal law as soon as possible, but the road lobby fears reality."

Watson waiting for answers on CAMPO spending plan

Jan. 15, 2008

Copyright 2008

CAMPO Chair Sen. Kirk Watson still is undecided whether to try to amend the organization's three-year Transportation Improvement Plan given the grave situation of transportation finances across the state.

The Texas Department of Transportation has announced wide cuts from its state budget, cuts that likely will trickle down to the region's road projects. Watson, like many others, was surprised by TxDOT's announcement. The Transportation Policy Board approved its TIP plan in October. A month later, the Texas Transportation Commission was saying the financial situation was so dire in the state that it was time to cut budgets, from the top of the agency down to the regions.

Watson fired off a letter filled with questions for TxDOT about the new information that has come forth since the TIP vote. If Watson really was dissatisfied with the answers, it would be easy enough for Watson to find the support to reconsider the TIP vote. That was clearly on the mind of some who have opposed the board's decision to approve toll roads and a broader road system than some would support.

It was certainly the thought on critic Roger Baker's mind. At the beginning of the brief meeting – the main item of action was accepting Executive Director Michael Aulick's resignation – Baker said the impending financial shortfall left the CAMPO planning process in shambles and blamed the board for not paying enough attention to its finances.

"So now CAMPO is stuck with this mess without the staff and finances needed to meet the new and stricter federal planning regulations, or even to staff its subcommittees properly," Baker said. "CAMPO's latest hypocrisy will probably be to try to delay amending the TIP to correspond with current reality. The feds told CAMPO to comply with the federal law as soon as possible, but the road lobby fears reality."

The new federal regulations that Baker referenced were changes that require new transportation plans – amendment or overall plan – to take inflation into account. For now, CAMPO offers estimates on road construction. New federal guidelines, approved last December, require the metropolitan planning organization to take inflation into account. So if a project is built in 2010, its cost must be estimated in 2010 dollars.

"If CAMPO does amend the TIP, it is true that you would have to do more honest and realistic planning, without enough staff," Baker said. "But facing reality is better than being in denial by continuing to uphold the many unrealistic assumptions in CAMPO's current TIP and long-range plan."

After the meeting, at a reception to honor Aulick, Watson said he had yet to get all the information he needed. District Engineer Bob Daigh confirmed that much is in flux at TxDOT right now when it comes to how cuts will be handled on the district level. Watson, noting the board had made the best decision with the most accurate information at the time when the TIP was approved in October, said he was still waiting on information from the state transportation agency.

"When I have answers from TxDOT, and I have what I believe to be all the information I need, then I will be able to make a decision based on that," Watson said.

In other business at the meeting, Watson said Maureen McCoy would serve as interim director of CAMPO while the search was on for a permanent replacement. Aulick, who has been at CAMPO for 15 years, will serve as a special assistant and will help ease the transition between administrations, Watson said.

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