CAMPO’s demographic makeup raises concerns for regional equity

Metropolitan Planning Organizations rely on advisory committees to review work produced by their staff and to make recommendations to their decision making bodies, who then have the final say on all projects and every dollar of regional transportation funds.

CAMPO, the Austin region’s MPO, has a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) comprised of appointed representatives from local governments and transit agencies. They then pass on recommendations to the Transportation Policy Board (TPB) which is comprised of regional elected officials and transportation professionals.

This afternoon at 5pm on UT Campus, there is an opportunity to review CAMPO’s performance before the federal government. If you can’t make it in person, you can submit comments via email.

Given the pervasive impact of the decisions made by these bodies, and the various interests and divisions of stakeholders, these boards must be careful to reasonably and accurately represent the region’s residents. As a conduit for federal transportation funds, MPOs are subject to Title VI of the Civil Rights act, which prohibits discrimination in the administration of federal funds on the basis of race.

Race is only one category relevant for consideration. To accurately represent the region, MPOs must also balance rural, sub-urban, and urban interests, the fifth of Americans with disabilities, gender representation, and more.

Accurately representing the careful balance of interests is a difficult challenge, but one that MPOs are responsible for and must strive to address. The simplest diversity benchmark is the demographic composition of the TAC and TPB themselves. How closely do the people on these boards reflect the region they are intended to represent?

Farm&City investigated exactly these questions for the 9 largest MPOs in Texas and for CAMPO in particular. Our findings reveal uniform disparities in racial, gender, and disability representation everywhere we looked.

Half of all people are women, but not so on CAMPO committees.

These disparities have significant immediate consequences for the region. For example, there are indications that women prioritize spending on safety and walkability more than men, and it is reasonable to believe that this would be reflected in policy decisions if women were allowed equal seats at the table. Certainly, women have historically not been adequately represented in policy making, and the City of Austin alone has a $400 million dollar need for basic, ADA compliant sidewalks.

Similar concerns hold for racial composition, urban-suburban-rural interests, and accessibility. Of the 203 people on the decision making bodies of the 9 largest Texas MPOs, we found only one with an apparent disability.

To learn more, see our reports on representation throughout Texas, presented to the state legislature’s Sunset Commission, and our special CAMPO Equity Assessment.

It doesn’t have to be this way

There are innumerable factors that lead to the final composition of these bodies. Many are out of the direct control of those who make the final decision in the pathway of deciding representation. Representative democracy, especially at a large scale, requires vigilance on the part of all involved. For example, people must vote to elect women, people of color, and people with disabilities in order for there to be the opportunity for more accurate representation on the Policy Board.

However, the present powers-that-be can substantially correct for decades of injustice and the extreme imbalance of policy making in favor of the perceived interests of non-hispanic white men. The Campo Policy Board Joint Powers Agreement ensures representation of various counties, cities, and transit authorities. It requires that each local government ensure that their representation on CAMPO committees reflects the diversity of their jurisdiction over time. Several of the cities and counties have never sent anyone who was not a non-Hispanic White male in the last five years of records that we reviewed.

The complex web of how we got here, and what can be done. Click to expand.


Reports – click to read

$480m Up For Grabs in CAMPO TIP Call

Like all Metropolitan Planning Organizations in Texas, Austin’s CAMPO develops a short-term Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) every two years that ties together all regionally significant transportation projects in an attempt at a cohesive plan that meets long term vision and goals established in the longer Regional Transportation Plan process.

A lot of the funding decision for projects in the TIP are made by TXDOT, cities, counties, or transit and toll agencies. However, CAMPO has a significant pot of regionally discretionary funds to administer through a regional Project Call. The 2019-2022 Project Call amounts to $480 million – available to meet the region’s diverse multimodal transportation needs as local leaders see fit (within state and federal guidelines).

Late last year, local governments and transportation agencies were invited to submit their proposals. Collectively, $1.5b in proposed projects ranged from moving train tracks outside of downtown Kyle to a regional Transportation Demand Management Study.

Most of submitted projects were for roadway expansions. Based on the information provided in this extensive pdf, such projects accounted for 73 of the 129 proposals.

CAMPO staff presented the Policy Board with their recommendations at the April Transportation Policy Board Meeting. Policy Board members – and members of the public – voiced concerns regarding the proportion of funding allocated to new roadways at the expense of transit, Transportation Demand Management, and other sustainable transportation solutions.

Next month, the Policy Board will amend the TIP to include the final set of projects they will approve. In the meantime, Farm&City is diving deep into the Project Call process, what was submitted, and what is worth advocating for.

Check CAMPO’s calendar for public input opportunities and send comments to [email protected]

Systemic inequity hinders the effectiveness of CAMPO’s best plans

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization has prepared a draft Regional Active Transportation Plan for the first time and the Transportation Policy Board is expected to vote on passage of the plan at its meeting tonight.

Some very excellent consultants worked on the project led by very capable staff. Together they have produced a document with important data, analysis, recommendations to improve active transportation options and systems across the region.

However, the structural geographic inequity at CAMPO seems to have hindered the effectiveness and benefit of this otherwise positive step forward. As shown in the charts above, every single metric I was able to look at from the report showed an underrepresentation of the residents of Travis County in this process and the resulting recommendations. The data is here.

300,000 more people live in Travis County than all other counties of the 6 county CAMPO region. Yet, more government staff were able to attend meetings on this plan in Williamson County alone than in Travis County.

While Travis County is shown with the most total number of miles of active transportation planned and proposed for any one county, more total miles were proposed outside the county than inside, for the area with 300,000 less people. While there are 11 projects proposed per 100,000 residents of Travis and Williamson County each, there are 19 per 100,000 residents in Hays and 35 per 100,000 residents of Burnet.

This brings potential serious concerns as CAMPO moves to add this plan into its performance measures and metrics for allocating regional transit funding, as explained in our letter sent in during the brief public comment period. We also explored the serious inequity issues at CAMPO year ago in our Special Report on Representation at CAMPO as well as in our broader Texas Transportation Equity Assessment.

While this Active Transportation Plan is a step forward and likely improves the overall picture at CAMPO, much work remains to be done for CAMPO to be able to produce an efficient, equitable, prosperous 2045 Regional Transportation Plan. To remedy similar inequity and inefficiency issues, the State of California recently restructured the voting system of SANDAG, CAMPO’s equivalent for the San Diego region. Perhaps similar broad measures are needed here.

Beware the murky stats passing by in the flood waters

In the flood of hot takes following Hurricane Harvey, much discussion has emerged around impervious surface – land that cannot absorb water and instead passes it off down the stream. Many of our libertarian friends have been espousing a set of “stats” about Houston’s impervious surface, linking back and forth to each other’s articles as proof of an apparently well known truth.

The Center for Opportunity Urbanism published a report by our well respected local adversary Tory Gattis and one of the nation’s leading purveyors of poorly done math and statistics, Wendell Cox. Like others, they cited an argument that they believe that Houston doesn’t have much impervious surface.

All of this seems to stem from a Cato Institute blog post by Vanessa Brown Calder and this “analysis” she calculated from USDA Forest Service data:

Seems pretty telling – if you are bad at math.

So we looked further into it, knowing that one of the unique characteristics of the City of Houston is its abnormally large land area, rendering comparisons of percent impervious surface most likely a dubious pursuit.

If you instead look at impervious surface per person – the amount of concrete sealing the ground shut on behalf of each one of us – a quite different interpretation emerges. We looked at the same USDA Forest Service report that it seems Cato did, but included all 20 cities in that report, not just the five that Cato deemed “similarily populated American cities” to Houston (a truly odd statement considering they chose to include a city with four times as many people and another with one sixth as many people as Houston).

The two US cities that suffered the two most costly natural disasters this nation has ever seen are also the two coastal cities with the highest rates of impervious surface per person.

Using this same data, we created the chart below which simply shows the total amount of impervious surface in each city. The people of the City of Houston have paved over more earth than any other US city studied in this report, except for the city of Los Angeles, which has us beat by 3 extra square miles, but is home to 1.7 million more people.

If Houston had instead developed at the density of New York City, it would have required only 50 square miles of impervious surface, leaving an additional 201 square miles of prairie, wetlands, and forests to soak up a little of that rain water.

This of course doesn’t mean in this unlikely alternative scenario that flood waters would stop flowing through our bayous or streets – which isn’t actually what anyone wants. It does mean that we would have had substantially less people’s homes spread across the Houston region in harms way on a substantially smaller footprint in need of protection and flood infrastructure than we did have.

The people of Houston region have extremely important discussions to have right now. We need comprehensive systems of engagement, collaboration, and planning for rebuilding the Houston region with resiliency, equity, and prosperity for all. We need free market solutions such as eliminating parking requirements – something local environmentalists have been calling for for many years. We need comprehensive, equitable regional planning and regional approaches that stop the ongoing waste of public funds and squandering of our abundance that the crony capitalism of our past has given us.

One thing we really do not need is bad math and disingenuous statistics.

[Harvey flooding image credit: Jill Carlson, Some Rights Reserved]

Decide Texas takes Seattle

I’ll be doing a very short presentation at the Congress for the New Urbanism conference in Seattle this week, giving a three minute version of the Decide Texas project and the Texas Transportation Equity Assessment.

But I’ll be unveiling something new here – encouraging folks to help us build an Nationwide Equity Assessment of American MPOs, through a Rapid Equity Assessment setup that I created.

Metropolitan Planning Organizations are really really important and most activists and many elected and public servants don’t understand how or why, even many who are working to provide better transit, safe streets, and walkable urbanism to meet the massive pent up demand for such things in America. We want to change that.

Lots of MPOs are wildly inequitable in the structures that dictates who gets the seats on the policy council making important decisions and in the racial, ethnic, gender, and geographic representation on those councils.

You can start a Rapid Equity Assessment for your MPO here.