Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Regional Transportation Council's chairman slowing down to speed things up

By O.K. CARTER - Star-Telegram Staff Writer - Thu, Jul. 05, 2007
North Richland Hills Mayor Oscar Trevino is only 30 days into his role as chairman of the Regional Transportation Council, but he's already discovered that leading the council resembles herding whales: It takes a while, and some whales always wander off in new directions.

Last month's vote to recommend a builder and operator of a future Texas 121 toll road, for example, was 27-10 in favor of the North Texas Tollway Authority, with some of the 10 voicing adamant opposition. Regional transportation issues rarely achieve consensus because interests and needs are so varied.

The council, part of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, is the chief planning agent for future regional transportation needs: highway improvements, toll roads, regional passenger rail and the like. The regional council's 40 members include elected or appointed officials from 16 Metroplex counties, as well as representatives from transportation planners like The T or Dallas Area Rapid Transit. Nothing big in regional transit happens without the regional council's endorsement.

"The process of getting things done in regional transportation is miserably slow, like watching grass grow," the thrice-elected North Richland Hills mayor jokes. It helps that he's also a civil engineer and highway construction expert.

It's already obvious that Trevino's style is to speed up by slowing down, giving council members plenty of time to get their say. His first meeting ran almost four hours. It's a hypothesis that long meetings equal faster projects.

"Letting members have their say and having open civil discussions may result in meetings going a little long," Trevino concedes. "But when everybody can present positions and have them openly debated, even members that don't get things 100 percent their way will know that we hashed it out and gave them a fair shake."Trevino knows that at the same time, the clock is ticking on transportation issues and speeding up projects is crucial.

A recent census study revealed that the percentage of people commuting to work in a vehicle by themselves actually increased by 2 percent over the past five years. The population of the Metroplex is projected to increase 3.5 million over the next three decades.

"More cars and people add to pollution and congestion problems," he said.

Trevino's watch as council chairman did not begin on a cheerful note. A pitch to the Legislature to allow Metroplex residents to vote on a half-cent sales tax to fund regional passenger rail was essentially ignored.

"If transportation planning moves slow, the Legislature moves even slower," Trevino said. "If you want something done in one session, you have to introduce it an earlier session. Basically, all we're asking is that the Legislature allow voters here to make that call."

Without the tax, Trevino sees no way to fund regional rail, which is why one of the top two priorities of his council term will be to organize a more focused and determined legislative lobbying effort two years from now to get lawmakers to allow a vote on a tax.

The other priority? When he hands over his gavel to a new chairman in 11 months, Trevino would love it if the tollway authority had resolved not only the 121 issue, but had also established firm timetables for toll road projects, including a widening of Texas 360 in southeast Tarrant (Arlington/Mansfield), Texas 171 in north Fort Worth and north Tarrant County, and the Southwest Parkway. He'd also like the tollway authority to pick up the pace on a George Bush Freeway extension and the Dallas Trinity Parkway project.

"It's also obvious that [the Texas Department of Transportation] is going to have to recognize that it's going to have to take care of some mobility issues without assistance from tolls, including problems on I-35, Loop 820, S.H.183 and the downtown funnel," Trevino said, though with a proviso: He favors construction of toll-funded express lanes on 820.

That's much to do with less than a year to do it.

O.K. Carter's column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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