Friday, April 30, 2010

"No matter how many assurances politicians try to give us that certain unwanted projects are 'dead,' they're not. They're just re-named..."

Exercise in futility? Public meetings solicit feedback, only to ignore it


Terri Hall
Copyright 2010

The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (RMA) just held its final public meeting on April 29, prior to drafting its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for improvements to US 281 N of Loop 1604 in Bexar County. It was the third such meeting, but many questioned its usefulness when transportation agencies at all levels of government routinely IGNORE the public feedback.

Even the Trans Texas Corridor TTC-35 project didn't truly heed the public outcry against the project since TxDOT is "shutting down" the project in an unprecedented fashion that allows them to switch from a "no build" to "build" option at a later date when it thinks the political winds have changed. No matter how many assurances politicians try to give us that certain unwanted projects are "dead," they're not. They're just re-named or placed on the back burner for awhile.

The big flaw in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and most transportation planning in Texas is that while the laws require public "involvement," they do NOT require the agencies to actually HEED the public feedback. So transportation decision-makers simply check-off the "public involvement" box and proceed full-steam ahead ramming their own agenda down the taxpayers' throats.

To its credit, the RMA is attempting to change the dynamic and try different formats to solicit feedback rather than TxDOT's standard scripted speech and its refusal to allow questions or answers. But given the significance of Thursday's RMA meeting, we still have a long way to go when it comes to valid data and public transparency.

Swiss cheese data?

Attendees were shown three options or "alternatives" to fix US 281. Two had the option of tolling (including "managed" toll lanes where the government "manages" the flow of traffic and who can access the toll lanes by varying the toll rate). The prevailing sentiment was strongly against tolling (no surprise there). The public was given some data about each, but the validity of the data and the assumptions used to formulate the data ran afoul of other data, common sense, and real life examples to the contrary.

For instance, the RMA claimed the average travel speed on US 281 in peak traffic is 25 MPH and that the average speed 30 years from now after building overpasses and two new lanes (one in each direction) on US 281 would yield a net loss in travel speed to 20 MPH. Yet, in its "expressway" alternative that also had overpasses and two new lanes, it claims the average speed in peak traffic would be 45 MPH.

The Metropolitan Planning Organization-approved (MPO) original freeway improvement plan said two new lanes and overpasses would handle the future anticipated growth for the US 281 corridor, but now the single RMA alternative that CANNOT be tolled is basically construed to be inadequate to handle the "growth."

Then, the RMA's data shows that only 25,000 less cars would use a tolled expressway (185,000) as compared to a freeway (210,000) or roughly a 12% difference. When its own traffic and revenue studies previously showed 35-40% of cars would NOT take the tolled expressway but would have to use the non-toll access roads, these figures are questionable at best. Even more suspect is its claim 86% of the traffic would take managed toll lanes versus a free expressway. When most managed lane projects around the state are doing good to see 8% of the traffic pay to use managed lanes, the differences between the RMA's projections and the reality are staggering.

Most all projected traffic on toll roads are based on what amounts to speculation. No one knows what economic factors will change in 30 years. No one knows how travel patterns, employment patterns, development patterns, etc. will change in the next 30 years. Even based on what we do know, Rick Perry's new version of toll roads are vastly underutilized due to high toll rates and resistance to tolling, and few are self-sustaining (most need massive public subsidies, including our gas tax money, so whether you take the toll roads or not, we're all paying for them!).

Cloudy at best

Lastly, the alternatives presented relied upon vague generalities rather than detail. The public found it hard to give feedback on various proposed fixes that didn't give any estimated cost, construction time, sources of funding, or proposed toll rates. It's like trying to hit a target in the dark.

So when June 2011 rolls around, when options are eliminated, and the draft EIS is revealed, we may be quite surprised at what the cat drug in and the data used to prop-up the "preferred" alternative.

More info: To view the alternatives and materials from the public meeting go here. Public comment is due May 10. Submit comments to:

© 2010

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