The fallout at Via from 281 vote at MPO

Link to blog here.

Once again, TxDOT is attempting to wield undue power in order to unseat the two Via Board members who sit on the MPO Board in retaliation for voting WITH THE PEOPLE on the 281 toll project. It’s their way or the highway, or in Via’s case, the highway means NO FUNDING for key mass transit projects.

Let’s play ball
By Pat Driscoll
February 14, 2007

Two VIA board members who joined a rebel faction of the Metropolitan Planning Organization board, in a recent failed attempt to derail toll plans for U.S. 281, could soon be removed from the planning board.

The MPO board, which oversees more than $200 million a year in federal and state transportation dollars, is made up of local elected leaders and staff officials from various agencies. VIA Metropolitan Transit’s board fills two of the seats and rotates people in and out from time to time.

Three weeks ago, VIA board members Melissa Castro-Killen and Sidney Ordway joined a doomed 9-6 effort led by County Commissioner Lyle Larson to kill the proposed U.S. 281 tollway.

Days later, claims surfaced that state officials pushing toll projects such as U.S. 281 were pressuring VIA as a result.

On Tuesday, VIA Chairman Eddie Herrera said it might be time to move Castro-Killen and Ordway off the MPO board, where they’ve served about a year.

Herrera wouldn’t say whether it has anything to do with how the two voted on the U.S. 281 project, but he did say he disagreed with their votes.

“At a minimum, I would have expected them to abstain,” he said. “That’s the retrospect, 20-20 hindsight.”

Ordway said that after the controversial vote, Herrera had asked him and Castro-Killen to meet with Hope Andrade of the Texas Transportation Commission.

“I said no, she can come see me,” Ordway said. “And he said, well, would you remove yourself from the MPO board? And I said no, I’m not going to resign. If you want to take me off there, you take me off there.”

Herrera, who became chairman at the first of the year, said a board executive committee that he also chairs might make recommendations to the full board in March on who should be on the MPO board.

“Usually what I like to do is ask for volunteers, he said.

Making a statement

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, VIA board members clarified how they feel about road projects, passing a resolution that says streets are crucial to bus service, funding comes from many sources and the agency supports efforts of all other transportation entities as long as plans don’t conflict with public transit.

The resolution gives VIA representatives on the MPO board better guidance on future votes, Herrera said.

“The votes could be made with that in mind,” he said. “As long as it complies with VIA’s mission.”

But Ordway, who joined Castro-Killen and the rest of the board to unanimously approve the resolution, said it simply reaffirmed the agency’s goals and would not change his vote on U.S. 281. The widening of that highway, he explained, was originally planned as a non-toll freeway.

Besides, Ordway said, two Texas Department of Transportation engineers on the MPO board also could have abstained from voting.

“But TxDOT did not abstain,” he said. “They voted, so we voted.”

Castro-Killen could not be reached for comment.

Pressure goes both ways

Part of VIA’s plans include starting a rapid bus system on Fredericksburg Road by 2012, using light-rail treatments such as dedicated lanes, transit stations and traffic-signal priority. Officials hope to sign an agreement this month with TxDOT, which owns the road and wants to build toll lanes on U.S. 281.

Also, next month the MPO board will vote to provide $28 million for the $95 million rapid bus line, which will be the organization’s most significant allocation ever for transit.

But potential pressure goes both ways, Ordway said. VIA is giving TxDOT some $10 million a year in sales taxes.

“There’s a little leverage on both sides,” he said.