Highways are deadly, ugly, and environmentally disastrous. They are one of several pieces of fossil fuel infrastructure that must be extensively reformed and in many cases removed to ensure our future.

TxDOT, CAMPO, and the TTC are the three organizations and political bodies that are responsible for our mess of deadly highways. TTC is a state-wide body of 5 political appointees that plans and authorizes 10 year transportation plans (aka UTPs) at a state level. These plans then get passed to TxDOT who must work with CAMPO to identify projects, funding, and finally approve plans that achieve the goals of the UTP. CAMPO approves federal funding for TxDOT highway projects. Collectively they represent a destructive, unrepresentative, and undemocratic force of will of the oil and gas industry to carve up our cities and environment for profit.

Preface: The Cost of Highways and Roads

The true cost of highways and roads is almost never discussed when it comes to budgeting within the US. The necessity of an ever larger amount of road and all their economic, social, and environmental costs are simply taken as-is.

On the economic side of the equation roads cost the average household $14,000 per year regardless of if they own a car or not. When factoring in car ownership the cost nearly doubles to $26,000 per household per year on average for the total cost of using roads. We need to ask the question of whether or not we should be paying such astronomical costs for the car economy when more affordable, cleaner, and safer alternatives exist.

On the environmental side, beyond burning fossil fuels, car tires are the second largest source of primary microplastics in our environment producing 3,962,765,390 pounds (1,797,480 tonnes) of microplastic pollution per year. The US is also the single largest per capita creator of tire-based microplastics due to how much we drive.

Texas Transportation Commission (TTC)

The first step of getting transportation built in Texas is the Texas Transportation Commission. They are a small body of 5 members appointed by the Governor of Texas. The TTC makes 10 year plans for CAMPO and TxDOT to fund and implement. According to a KXAN investigation the current appointees have “little or no prior experience”.

All five members of a commission tasked with overseeing the Texas Department of Transportation — and by extension, its troubled TxTag toll system — appear to have little or no prior experience with transportation but collectively donated nearly $1.5 million to Gov. Greg Abbott, who appointed them, a KXAN investigation found.

– Matt Grant, Dalton Huey (via KXAN; May 11 2023)

By the current Chairman’s own admission he knew nothing about highways other than being stuck in traffic.

Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Authority (CAMPO)

CAMPO handles TTC’s plans for the 6 counties it’s responsible for, secures federal funding for highway projects, and works with TxDOT to implement plans. There are MPOs throughout Texas and the US that function similarly.

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is the metropolitan planning organization for Bastrop, Burnet, Caldwell, Hays, Travis, and Williamson Counties. MPOs are federally required throughout the country in areas with a population of 50,000 or more and are required to produce a 20+ year transportation plan, called a Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), and a four-year planning document called the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).

CAMPO is governed by a 21-member Transportation Policy Board, made up of 19 elected officials and a representative from TxDOT and one from Capital Metro. The Policy Board is the body that makes decisions on CAMPO policy and decides how CAMPO funding is allocated.


CAMPO Representation

Austin’s 2022 population of 974,447 (2022; US Census Estimate) makes up 39% of the total population represented within CAMPO yet this 21 member board contains only 4 members from Austin which means that Austin’s overall voting and decision making power is significantly lower than its population size. This leads to poor decision making that negatively impacts Austin because our needs are not adequately represented.

Further reducing Austin’s influence and proper representation within CAMPO is the Transportation Policy Board Executive Committee. This 9 member board is the body that makes recommendations to the full TPB board about plans, projects, and issues. Not a single member of this committee is from Austin.

There doesn’t yet exist a movement in Austin to fix CAMPO so that it is fairly representative or so that Austin can have its own MPO. However similar efforts have been taken up in neighboring cities like the Fair For Houston initiative which passed with 65% voter approval in November 2023. A similar initiative could be done in Austin.

In addition to CAMPO’s lack of proper representation for Austin it also actively excludes members of the public by:

  • Locating their meetings at the Junior League on Texas 360 Loop which excludes anyone who commutes without a car from attending. Accessibility to this meeting will get even worse over the next 5 years due to two major highway projects on Loop 360 and Spicewood Springs Road.
  • Holding all meetings at 2pm on weekdays without an option to dial-in. Effectively excluding anyone who works a daytime job for a living.
  • Requiring all speakers to attend in person; no option to dial in to comment.

Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT)

Once plans are finalized the Texas Department of Transportation is the state’s department that creates roads for cars and trucks on ROWs that they own or have access to use. In principal a Department Of Transportation should create transportation options for all modes of transportation. However in practice and in law they spend almost all of their funding on road expansions.

TxDOT road expansions include highways as well as many regular streets within cities and towns that they also own. This means that in some cases urbanist efforts to improve certain roads are frustrated by the state’s desire to harm its people over petty grievances. Due to this fatal crashes on state owned roadways continue to rise, while on non-state roads fatalities have remained flat.

Chart showing a significant increase in fatalities on State owned roads over time Source: Austin Vision Zero Update, May 25 2023

TxDOT Funding

  • Proposition 1: Directs 37.5% of existing oil and natural gas production taxes (aka severance) to TxDOT so that “the funds may only be used for constructing, maintaining, and acquiring rights-of-way for public roadways other than toll roads.”

  • Proposition 7: Directs portions of state sales and use taxes, as well as motor vehicle sale and rental taxes to: “(1) construct, maintain, or acquire rights of way for public roadways other than toll roads; or (2) repay the principal of and interest on general obligation bonds issued as authorized by Section 49-p, Article III, of this constitution.”

    In combination these two propositions have lead to tens of billions of state tax dollars being directed towards maintaining and expanding highways and all the negatives that car dependent infrastructure brings to us and our cities.

  • Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Improvement Program: This is a federal program which says when a state fails to meet their obligations under the Clean Air Act they can be awarded funding to improve their compliance. However this bill also allows up to 50% of funding to be redirected to other highway and transportation activities. The end result being that states are able to use funding intended for improving our air quality to instead construct additional highways and roads.

    “A State may transfer up to 50% of CMAQ funds made available each fiscal year to any other apportionment of the State, including the National Highway Performance Program, Surface Transportation Block Grant Program, Highway Safety Improvement Program, National Highway Freight Program [..]”