Wednesday, January 04, 2006

How CAMPO intends to stall reform

The following is my considered opinion, as accurate as I can make it, subject to revision in the light of new information as it comes to my attention. -- Roger

In short, CAMPO is going to stall reform by using "analysis paralysis", which I'll explain below under CAMPO agenda item #7.

I was at the December CAMPO meeting. There were probably dozens of opponents to CAMPO's toll and the TTC plans.

On Agenda item #3, CAMPO delayed the unveiling of the Environmental Impact Statement on the IH 35 Texas Transportation Corridor (TTC) plan yet again. This project runs from the Mexican border along the IH 35 corridor through SA, Austin, and Dallas to Oklahoma and northwards.

I'm guessing that might make it a $10 billion project, involving private partnerships like the Spanish consortium CINTRA-Zachry who gets some kind of long term land development controls near the road in return (reminiscent of the railroads who got grants of adjoining land in about the 1870's to encourage them to lay track in Texas).

So far as I know, this project has no publicly revealed price tag and no time schedule, only the TTA's EIS. But whatever it turns out to be, it apparently would incorporate TxDOT's SH 130 in its central portion, and extend it with private money, paralleling IH 35 to the east of IH 35.


Agenda item #5

This item which did no previously catch my attention has about $174 million in projects largely funded by "pass-through tolls" in Williamson County. This is part of a complex deal being promoted by road warrior and planner and lobbyist Mike Weaver (said to share an office with Langmore in South Austin). Pass through tolls are a really weird deal whereby the county funds the roads and then TxDOT pays them back some kind of calculated virtual tolls based on traffic counts, as I understand it.

This is a truly bizarre funding scheme, but why? My take is that Williamson County politics is under the control of the road lobby, and the group doing the deal are using Weaver as their main functionary. Meanwhile, TxDOT is on the hook to Wall Street for the billions in SH130 (CTTP) bonds already and doesn't want to assume any more Wall Street risk exposure.

So a deal emerges that uses some provision in HB 3588 written by Langmore, whereby Williamson County floats the bonds and takes the risk and TxDOT pays them back for the traffic the roads handles for 30 years or so until the bonds are paid back. This way the county issues tax free municipal bond debt, and takes ALL the credit risk.

On the other hand TxDOT risks very little, since it gets fuel tax revenue to pay the virtual tolls that roughly track the general expansion or contraction in car travel, of which the bonded roads, being "free", will probably get a good share.


Agenda item #7 concerns a report by CAMPO staff on the revision to CAMPO's planning process. This is the alternative whereby the so-called independent study of the toll roads promoted by Brewster McCracken was/is to be used as input to CAMPO from June 2005 to June 2007 to reform their planning process by looking at better alternatives to toll roads.

Nobody understands CAMPO's alternative transpo planning process now since CAMPO makes up the process as they go along. CAMPO input apparently comes from Langmore, who works closely with Krusee, and apparently now runs ECT, McCracken's 's city funded toll road alternative studies now also partly funded and controlled by the CTRMA , and Livable City.

From Aulick's Dec. 5 memo;

"When the CAMPO Transportation Policy Board adopted the CAMPO Mobility 2030 Plan in
June 2005, the Board directed the staff to:

• Participate in a 12-month study of the Phase 2 toll roads, and
• Work with Envision Central Texas and Liveable City to explore amendments to the Plan."

The firm chosen to do McCracken's new "independent" analysis with the help of the CTRMA toll road group and others is CRA International, formerly "Charles River Associates". CRA International is mostly a corporate think tank and consultant on intellectual property disputes, with no credentials that make me feel confident about hiring them to evaluate the transportation future of Austin. (I can't wait to see their toll road analysis contract!!!).

But the biggest shoe to drop was that CAMPO's analysis and modeling methodology is so screwed up that they cannot do compact city modeling that works, so its back to the drawing board.

CAMPO has thus proposed a new time line that extends to 2009 or 2010 for transportation planning that can give us alternatives to the toll roads that TxDOT is now contracting and building. In other words the reforms that were promised to be done in a year last June, are now proposed to happen in four or five years, according to CAMPO planner Stevie Greathouse's powerpoint presentation given last night.

Bottom line: It will now take CAMPO about as long to replace their $22 billion unworkable plan with a good one as it took the USA to help win World war II. In the name of including environmentalist input from every source that CAMPO feels appropriate, it might be made to take even longer to steer the ship of state away from TxDOT's approved projects. Same old same old.

What will really stop the Texas road lobby, that in Texas mirrors the power of the Bush administration in Washington, is economic reality.

The fact is that road building materials costs are going up about 15% per year. Interest rates on borrowed money are going up along with fuel costs, which should decrease the willingness of bond lenders to lend for real estate speculation using publicly funded roads.

Already drivers are altering their behavior to drive less as yesterday's Ben wear column helped to reveal. Also see the following link:

Gas Prices Changing American Driving Habits Dec. 8, 2005

Incidentally, the best estimate I have on when world oil production will peak (causing fuel prices to soar even compared to now) is within 30 months, by Chris Skrebowski, editor of Petroleum Review.

Within the next year, the housing bubble will probably deflate. A recession is likely which would focus renewed attention on rising energy costs and transportation. About half of our $2 billion a day trade deficit is to pay for imported oil; this foreign trade debt is unsustainable for more than a few years, and may cause a sharp devaluation of the dollar. In other words there is no way they can keep the road game going long enough, in my estimation, until CAMPO thinks itself capable of reforming our transportation planning process. -- Roger


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