Local leaders: Williamson County MPO unlikely soon

Recent talk of creating an independent Williamson County metropolitan planning organization seems to have died down in part due to a CAMPO funding plan that gave more local control of how transportation dollars are spent.

Desire for more control in how transportation dollars were spent in the county prompted some high-level discussions among city and county leaders about the possibility of creating a new metropolitan planning organization (MPO)—an entity that is responsible for regional transportation planning and doling out federal dollars.

Some of that talk was born out of frustration with the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which covers Williamson, Travis, Hays, Caldwell and Bastrop counties.

"I leave CAMPO meetings frustrated, and I think in weak moments, I've thought this would be easier to do this on our own," said Cynthia Long, Williamson County Commissioner and CAMPO vice chair.

However, Long, as well as the mayors of Round Rock and Cedar Park, all expressed doubts about the viability of a Williamson County MPO.

"I don't see that happening," said Bob Lemon, Cedar Park mayor and CAMPO board member, citing a recent meeting between city and county leaders. "The general consensus was that wasn't the right way to go."

Round Rock Mayor Alan McGraw also said he had "serious questions" about creating a new MPO, not only because of its effect on regionalism, but also because it would create a new list of requirements and obligations for the county.

According to DeLania Hardy, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations, a nonprofit transportation advocacy group, those obligations would include short- and long-range planning documents, regional objectives and goals, a congestion management process and a certification process through the Federal Transit Administration.

Instead, Lemon said, CAMPO needs to continue putting more decisions in the hands of the counties, as it did when it approved—by a vote of 9–8—a plan allowing counties to have discretion over their share of $36.374 million in federal transportation funds.

"The five counties and CAMPO just need to work together and come up with strategies where everyone wins," Lemon said. "And the way to do that is with local control."

WilCo public transit

However, that still begs the question of how Williamson County will address its growing need for public transportation.

The need has arisen as cities outgrow the Capital Area Rural Transportation System (CARTS), an on-demand bus service that runs in cities with populations less than 50,000. With several cities in the county nearing or already past that benchmark, leaders have been struggling to come up with a solution.

"There is a need for connectivity between the various cities in Williamson County," McGraw said.

While Capital Metro—which already operates in Leander—would seem like a natural fit to step in, that may not be practically possible. In order for a city to opt into the Capital Metro service area, citizens would need to vote to dedicate a 1 cent sales tax to Capital Metro.

However, most cities in Williamson County are already at their sales tax ceiling, typically dedicated to the Type A and Type B economic development corporations that are responsible for much of the county's growth and thus, somewhat ironically, its need for public transportation.

"Short of other communities being able to do something like that [dedicate a 1 cent sales tax], I don't see a huge expansion without a totally different way of funding public transit," Long said.

One possible model is being tried out in Round Rock, which is the first city in the county to attempt to run its own bus service. Starting in mid-2012, Round Rock officials plan to implement a replacement for CARTS.

That service will be funded in part by federal funds due to Capital Metro deciding to allow Round Rock to be a direct recipient of federal transportation funds—the first time Capital Metro has made such a deal.

As a result, Round Rock will receive about $426,000 in federal funds, Round Rock Transportation Director Gary Hudder said, about $175,000 of which will go to bus service.

The deal only lasts one year, during which both the city and Capital Metro will evaluate the system. After that, it could be extended or re-evaluated.

"Very few people realize what it takes to run a transit system and get funding from FTA," said Todd Hemingson, vice president of strategic planning and development planning and development for Capital Metro. "One of the [questions] would be, how is that working for Round Rock? They're putting in X amount of money and Y amount of effort. Or does it make sense for Capital Metro?"

Still, Lemon said he is not sure a similar approach could work for the rest of the county.

"Right now, public transportation is not looking very promising in Cedar Park," Lemon said. "I don't hear an outcry from the people in our city who say they need it."



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