Central Texas faces a stark future with regard to air quality, transportation infrastructure capacity and accessibility. Our region is surely headed toward non-attainment with regard to air quality. Our capacity to move people around our region is strained. And, access to transportation by the poorest among us is diminishing (toll roads, gas prices, insurance, and car payments).
According to the Texas State Demographer, the high probability is that Travis County’s population will increase by 50% by 2040. In 2005, Envision Central Texas (ECT) elegantly framed the challenge we face:
“The true questions are not ‘if’ and ‘when’ we will grow, but rather ‘how’ and ‘where.’”
Two positions mark the traditional poles of debate at CAMPO over how to meet these challenges – the “Trend” approach and the “No Build” approach. Trend asserts that the market is best suited to dictate how and where we grow. No Build asserts that our growth trend is unsustainable and we should therefore prevent any future growth. While Trend and No Build both have a certain superficial appeal, both are ultimately unrealistic, running contrary to the facts on the ground.
A third approach has emerged at CAMPO – the “Centers” approach in which we prioritize investing in roads, transit, pedestrian and bike infrastructure in already existing population centers and curtail spending on infrastructure outside those centers except for rail, rapid bus and major arterial or highway connections that include rail or rapid bus. This approach would result in population centers with:
• A richer mix of employment, housing and retail;
• Pedestrian and transit-oriented urban planning; and
• Connections to neighboring centers and the region through a range of transportation options.
All three approaches – Trend, No Build and Centers – were presented to the CAMPO Transportation Policy Board in preparation of the CAMPO 2035 Plan. While unable to completely let go of deeply held investments in both the Trend and No Build approaches, the Board did make a tentative commitment to Centers in the 2035 Plan. I support this commitment, although I recognize its success depends on an unprecedented show of discipline at CAMPO and a transformation in how the State allows us to plan our urban landscape.
Skeptics and proponents alike worry that the Centers approach cannot be applied in Texas where land-use planning and the authority to implement such plans are all but prohibited outside of cities. Trend and No Build folks opine, as ECT did in their 2005 Vision:
“How can we ensure that our growth will remain a continued source of pride, vitality, diversity and opportunity, rather than a source of congestion, stagnation, division and inequality?”
State government cannot answer this challenge. Indeed, State government is chiefly responsible for creating it by maintaining the fantasy that we are a rural state, thereby denying land-use planning and adequate transportation funding to urbanized counties. Local government can meet the challenge. But, we must show discipline and present a unified front when appealing to the State for the authority to pursue our local preferences.
If our network of local governments embrace the Centers approach, planning cooperatively and applying resources to mutually agreed upon centers within our region, we will improve our chances of accommodating the massive population growth that we expect in a manner which will efficiently use the dollars available for maintenance and construction of sufficient transportation capacity and provide access to that capacity to all within our region. The Centers approach has the additional benefits of reducing tailpipe emissions, preserving green space, improving water quality, lowering the cost of public infrastructure such as water, power, and emergency services and increasing the economic vitality of surrounding municipalities as they mature from bedroom communities into employment centers interconnected with multiple transportation options to other regional employment centers.
Success in this approach will require that CAMPO build muscle in saying “no” to the demands of the market when our projections clearly state that the current market preference cannot be sustained into the future. Similarly CAMPO will need the muscle to say “yes” to meeting the demands of growth even as some insist that future growth should be discouraged. CAMPO will need to openly and honestly weigh the effects transportation has on our natural resources and the distribution of private wealth and public services. CAMPO must become the forum at which we move beyond positions and into productive debate about mutual interests and how best to serve them. The CAMPO 2035 Plan and its tentative commitment to the Centers approach is a start. I hope to keep us moving in that direction.