Local planning boards, MPOs, want bonding power!

As if the Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) aren’t in enough hot water with two pending lawsuits against them by citizen groups, now one of the state’s most powerful MPOs, the Regional Transportation Council (RTC) in Dallas-Ft. Worth, is asking for the power to finance roads by selling its own bonds like a Regional Mobility Authority (or RMA)! It’s bad enough the RMAs are un-elected boards tone-deaf to the public interest and to the citizens’ objections, but MPOs which are just as bad if not worse, are seeking the same bonding authority. The MPOs role set-up by the feds is as a “planning” not “taxing” entity.

MPOs have no business and certainly no legal authority to finance or build roads, and the RTC knows it, so they’re trying to change the law to grant themselves MORE POWER, the power to put the taxpayers’ further into debt! They also seek to gobble up neighboring suburbs into their jurisdictions, diluting smaller communities’ power over their own transportation destinies.

Senators talk transportation at annual summit
by Mark Lavergne
Lone Star Report
August 19, 2008

IRVING – Federal, state and local elected officials, transportation leaders, companies and other interests convened this week for the 11th Annual Transportation Summit, hosted by the City of Irving, to mull challenges and innovations on how to get from place to place.

The meeting of minds provided a ripe occasion for state lawmakers to discuss future policy, including those on the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, who met Aug. 12 to discuss a sizeable plate of issues. Another committee dealt with toll road issues (see Around Texas). Another Fund 6 (see article).

Among the transportation committee’s concerns:

Metropolitan Planning Organizations. The message from members of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) was not surprising: Please give MPOs more “flexibility,” i.e. more decision-making ability about where the money goes.

MPO members are often appointed by county commissioners and city council members, and are usually made up of elected officials and transportation experts who make decisions about which transportation projects to work on.

Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments Regional Transportation Council — no doubt one of the state’s longer job titles — suggested creating “metropolitan mobility authorities.” An MMA would be a statutory hybrid between a regional mobility authority (RMA) and a metropolitan planning organization (MPO). RMAs have more funding power than MPOs do.

Terri Hall with the transportation policy watchdog group Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) had issues with the idea. “What’s really troublesome about that,” she said, “is that the makeup of these boards is, I think, flawed to begin with,” since state legislators often sit on the MPO boards, which allocate federal funds, creating a separation of powers issue.

“There’s also the issue,” she said, “of having the boards diluted,” with appointees that the people have no role in choosing. “Now they’re going to try to give them actual bonding authority.”

Morris also said that it is important for MPOs not to be too numerous, saying that it would be “ludicrous” for DFW to have three different MPOs. Lewisville and McKinney each have separate MPOs from the DFW MPO — as required by law, Morris said. The DFW MPO is going after some 12 counties right now so they don’t have a bunch of MPOs planning in the same metropolitan region, Miller said.

The committee members seemed receptive to Morris’ ideas.

Said Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano): “What we’re missing in our MPO is the ability to do the same thing that an RMA might do, and that’s the funding mechanism.” But Shapiro emphasized that the authority should be given to an already existing entity, the MPO, rather than creating another layer of government on top of it.

Indeed MPOs, plus the spending power of RMAs, would essentially equal a Metropolitan Mobility Authority.

Morris suggested giving MMAs the use of toll revenue. Right now those revenues go to Fund 6, but “the region is scared to death that someone will sweep it during session,” Miller told the committee. Miller has been looking for innovative ways to ensure that the money stays in the region.

Hall, of TURF, told the committee that citizens have found that MPOs are “tone-deaf to the public, and don’t represent the will of the taxpayers any more than TxDOT has been.”

“We don’t want or need any more organizations that give political cover to TxDOT,” Hall said, “and then allows TxDOT to check the public involvement box and ignore the overwhelming opposition to tolling existing right-of-way and proceed as planned anyway.”

Hall told the committee that there are already two lawsuits pending against MPOs in the state due to flawed decision-making processes. “MPOs are not a reflection of the will of the people when hundreds of citizens have turned out to speak at these MPO boards and its toll plans two-to-one, three-to-one, in some cases ten-to-one margins, and consistently vote to toll anyway. What’s the point of public involvement if the public’s input is consistently ignored?”

“Texans are smart enough to know if we truly need this new infrastructure, how they want it financed, and what the preferred approach ought to be,” she continued. “It is abundantly obvious that the decision has already been made for us, and that’s what we’re objecting to.”

One of the lawsuits challenges the very existence of MPOs in Texas, Hall told LSR, on the grounds that no Texas law makes MPOs legal in the state. Federal law makes MPOs possible for the states, but the states must have enabling legislation, which Texas is without, Hall said.

Bus accidents another black mark on TxDOT? Recent bus accidents in Texas, notably the recent fatal one near Sherman, could provide more reason to remove vehicle regulation from TxDOT, Sen. Kim Brimer (R-Fort Worth) told the transportation and homeland security committee.

Sunset staff found TxDOT’s regulation of motor vehicles did not “conform to commonly applied licensing practices.” While staff did not recommend taking the licensing function away from TxDOT altogether, Sunset Advisory Commission members, including Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio), suggested creating a whole new agency to deal with licensing (currently done at the Texas Department of Public Safety) and vehicle regulation (currently at TxDOT).

Shapiro asked Major Mark Rogers of the Public Safety Commission to look into compiling and including on the DPS website a list of private bus companies that have been taken out of service for safety concerns.

Rogers said that was “something that we could easily do.” She also asked that DPS look further into requiring seatbelts on all buses, a measure the last legislature mandated for school buses. “I know it’s an expense,” she said, “but when you’re seeing this happening over and over again throughout the state, at expense to whom and why? Its certainly not too expensive to ask to save lives.”

Employees at TxDOT. Committee Chairman John Carona (R-Dallas) pressed TxDOT executive director Amadeo Saenz on the number of employees at TxDOT, saying fewer would provide greater efficiency.

But Saenz said that the agency already has 800 to 900 full-time-equivalents fewer than appropriators authorized. Right now he wants to keep the workers he does have in place to determine which functions the department can regionalize.

Carona pointedly asked: “So, is it fair to say that you would be prepared to release those 800 to 900 positions back to the finance committee?”

“Yes and no,” Saenz replied. He said core groups and work groups are looking at improvements that could be made to TxDOT’s technology. The goal is to be become more effective, efficient, and transparent, he said.

Billboard regulation. Margaret Lloyd, policy director for Scenic Texas, urged the members to reverse the existing law and limit outdoor advertising. Lloyd said she would like at least to see “some local control,” requesting that the Legislature consider granting “very narrow authority” to counties.

But Lee Vela of the Outdoor Advertising Association of Texas said that limiting outdoor advertisement would “suppress business.” He acknowledged that some Texas roads could be designated as “scenic” but indicated there should be standards for determining which.

Lloyd also suggested the creation of an advertising tax, saying that if billboard companies are considered a business for condemnation purposes, then they should also be treated as such for tax purposes. But Vela said such a tax, though considered in the past, never got traction because it reduces advertising spending.

Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) exhorted Vela and Lloyd to come up with a compromise on the issue, saying he was “sick of this issue,” and surmising that his colleagues were as well. “If we [the Legislature] have to solve it, everybody loses,” Williams said.

Several witnesses spoke in favor of the billboards, including representatives of several non-profit organizations who had had billboard space donated to them, saying that increased regulation would cut off a crucial advertising medium.

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