Austin MPO running scared; delays vote on toll roads until after election!

Link to Austin-American Statesman article here.

This is beautiful! Reporter Ben Wear actually gives the Austin Toll Party credit (albeit veiled credit) for the defeat of several toll projects and the defeat of certain politicians on CAMPO. Eventually all politicians have to face the music, and when push comes to shove, they’d rather keep their jobs and do what the voters want than side with the special interests like the highway lobby at their own peril!

Vote on more toll roads delayed
Support for pay-to-drive plan may be eroding; decision not expected before fall elections.

By Ben Wear
Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Transportation officials have postponed, probably until after the November elections, what is shaping up as a definitive vote on a second wave of toll roads for Central Texas.

And evidence is mounting that the vote could be a reversal, in part or in whole, of the 2004 and 2005 votes by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board to make the roads pay-to-drive.

The precipitating event in the delay is a recent change by federal highway officials in requirements for environmental analyses. That meant environmental reports on the five potential toll roads in the Phase II plan won’t be done for several months, erasing what appeared to be a July deadline for a CAMPO board vote.

But the underlying dynamic of the postponement is political. A growing number of the 23 board members — 21 are elected officials — want to wait for results of a study before making the politically ticklish vote. A $300,000 financial review by a Boston consulting company of the $1.4 billion project won’t be done until October or so.

“Once we get the study back, we’ll need to spend several months working through the results and figuring out where we go from here,” said Austin City Council Member Brewster McCracken, a CAMPO board member.

McCracken, who joined the majority in a 16-7 vote in July 2004 authorizing Phase began to have doubts months later and pushed for the study of the plan’s underlying assumptions and potential alternatives to tolls.

For months after McCracken’s change of heart, it seemed that support for the toll road plan was holding firm. But at the CAMPO meeting two weeks ago, Phase II skeptics appeared to have found their voice.

“A consensus has emerged in the community in the two years since this plan was presented to the board,” McCracken said Monday. “And the consensus is that it is OK to toll new roads but that we should not convert existing free highways into tollways.”

The Phase II plan does not consist of pure conversions, that is, simply erecting toll facilities on an existing road without making improvements. Rather, the plan involves building one road from scratch (Texas 45 Southwest) and building tolled express lanes with free frontage roads on four other highways that are interrupted by stoplights.

Two of the four roads in that second category, U.S. 183 (Ed Bluestein Boulevard) and Texas 71 East are already under construction. The other two are U.S. 290 East and U.S. 290/Texas 71 in Oak Hill.

All the Phase II roads have generated criticism, as did two others that were in the plan in 2004 but were jettisoned after massive, well-organized opposition. And toll roads have been a factor in the election defeats of CAMPO board members Karen Sonleitner, a Travis County commissioner, and former West Lake Mayor Dwight Thompson.

But state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, a CAMPO member with a potentially tight re-election battle this fall, said the delay isn’t about avoiding a tough vote before the November elections.

“The politics of tolling have become so opaque to me that I’ve given up on trying to do the right thing politically on it,” Strama said. “I don’t want to procrastinate on this. We have to get it right from a policy perspective so we can defuse some of the tensions and antagonisms it has created. And I’m for getting it right as soon as possible.”

Strama nonetheless wants answers to some questions, such as why the plan assumes that only 15 percent of the construction money would be borrowed (with the rest coming from state and federal gas taxes) and how high a local-option gas tax (not currently allowed under state law) it would take to replace the lost toll revenue.

State Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, the House transportation committee chairman and architect of the toll road plan, said it’s too early to conclude that Phase II is in trouble. The study, he said, is unlikely to be the political magic bullet CAMPO members are looking for.

“What I presume it will say is, ‘Is there any possible way to build these roads without tolling them?’ and the answer will be yes,” Krusee said. “And ‘are there serious consequences for the future of road building if we don’t toll?’ And the answer to that will also be yes. So you’ll still face the dilemma.

“When we do take that vote, I just want to make sure everyone understands the consequences of what we’re doing.”