An ambitious long-term transportation plan for Central Texas that incentivizes the development of highly populated hubs faces a potential detour after community leaders voted to consider distributing federal transportation dollars based on counties’ populations.
Williamson County will receive approximately $8.73 million out of $36.374 million in federal transportation dollars under the plan tentatively backed by the Capital Area Metropolitan Organization board on a 10-7 vote. Williamson County CAMPO board members will select the proposed transportation projects that will be funded in the county, and the CAMPO board will have final approval under the plan.
Debate between CAMPO board members, which mainly consist of elected officials within CAMPO’s five-county jurisdiction, intensified as they attempted to select which projects should receive federal funding. The process marked a first attempt by the board to apply policy set forth in the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan they approved in 2010.
The 25-year transportation plan requires 50 percent of federal transportation funding to be allocated for transportation projects that support concentrated, mixed-use areas, referred to as activity centers by CAMPO, and 15 percent of funding for pedestrian/bikeway projects. Federal law requires CAMPO to update its 25-year plan every five years.
Counties and cities covered by CAMPO were able to submit transportation projects for consideration for federal funding. CAMPO staff then assigned each project a score based on safety, mobility, and environmental and economic impact. The score also considered whether the project would apply for activity centers or a pedestrian/bikeway project.
The development of a transportation master plan for the City of Hutto, designing and constructing on-road bike routes and a trail system on FM 1660 in Hutto, building a continuous sidewalk along North Austin Avenue between Williams Drive and Georgetown High School in Georgetown, and widening FM 1460 to a four-lane divided roadway between S.E. Inner Loop and Westinghouse Road were among the projects that scored high enough to be considered for funding.
Objections to plan
The CAMPO proposal to fund projects based on how high they scored was delayed and then altered after objections from several board members, including Williamson County Precinct 2 Commissioner Cynthia Long, over whether the right projects were being selected.
Long and fellow board member Hays County Commissioner Will Conley proposed plans to allocate the federal money to the counties based on their population size. The plan that was initially backed by the board Nov. 14 would:
- Distribute $1.5 million to CAMPO for CAMPO programs
- Distribute $1 million to each of the five counties covered by CAMPO
- Distribute $960,000 million for a Bastrop fund that could help rebuild roads damaged by the September 2011 fire
- Distribute $16.09 million to multi-county projects that will be determined by a joint decision between counties
- Distribute $8 million to fund a freight rail bypass study for the Lone Star Rail District
- Distribute additional funding to each county based on population
- Have projects be selected by CAMPO board members from the respective county
However, allowing counties to decide how to spend CAMPO-allocated transportation dollars could create conflict with the CAMPO 2035 plan’s requirement that 50 percent of federal transportation dollars be spent on the activity centers concept, Travis County Commissioner and CAMPO Board Member Sarah Eckhardt said. She said the geographic funding distribution is a step away from the regional-oriented mindset that CAMPO is supposed to have.
“It might be within the letter of the law to do it, but it’s certainly not in line with the spirit,” she said of the funding plan.
CAMPO’s activity center-based funding approach laid out in the 2035 plan is an attempt to accommodate past and expected future population growth for Central Texas. The population of the five-county region covered by CAMPO increased by 114 percent between 1980 and 2000. The area’s population is expected to double again over the next 20 years, CAMPO Director Maureen McCoy said.
“We can not continue to afford to build what we have in the past because of our population growth,” Eckhardt said.
But Long said many transportation projects that counties would pursue with their allotment of federal funds would fulfill the vision of the 2035 plan goal by connecting activity centers.
At the December CAMPO meeting, CAMPO board members will present a list of projects from their respective counties that they believe should be funded. The CAMPO board members have to choose from project requests that have already been submitted, which include the proposed Hutto and Georgetown transportation projects.