TxDOT hearings a sham

Link to article here.

Houghton knows better. MPO staff and TxDOT staff run everything. The MPO boards have no idea what they’re voting on. Plenty of elected officials complain they can’t get their projects into the MPO plans and they have no idea how the process works. The Alamo Area MPO meets during the day in a transit center downtown (not near any of the neighborhoods where toll roads will be) with NO public parking. We’ve had people get their cars towed and get parking tickets just to attend an MPO meeting. Then they gripe the public doesn’t show up. Really?  When we have showed up by the hundreds, they NEVER once vote in favor of what the public says they want (which is no tolls). Not once in 10 years. 
I went to one of these 25 public meetings on the TTP/UTP (mentioned in the article below) and it didn’t mention a SINGLE project for San Antonio. There was barely a handful of what you could call members of the general public - it was open house style, no presentation to understand what the purpose of the meeting even was or its significance, and there were more paid PR/public involvement consultants there than members of the public.

There were MPO staff, Via transit staff, and road engineering company staffers, but I could count on one hand members of the general public. No project list was distributed, no one said where to find it, no mention of tolls anywhere, it was a joke.

They had several iPads with a custom developed app on it that was designed to persuade the public to give TxDOT more funding and then ask how they’d like to spend that additional $5 billion - transit, roads, maintenance, etc. On the poll, they actually want us to believe that more people put rail and transit as their top priority in this state than fixing road congestion, supposedly answered by just a few hundred people out of 25 million Texans. Guaranteed, they had it rigged so that transit and rail advocates told their staff to turn out and mark it as the top priority for funding. Based on who I saw attended the meeting, this is true.

If I hadn’t had the consultant standing right next to me to explain how to navigate the app, I wouldn’t have clicked the final arrow to submit my answers - it was not obvious, didn’t say ‘Finish’ or ’Submit.’ If this is how TxDOT solicits public input to supposedly approve these projects with public support, it hasn’t the foggiest idea how to do it or it’s purposely steering the public (and the road lobby and its cronies) to give them the desired outcome they want. It’s obviously the later.   

Collin County Commissioner Mark Reid complained about this process for the US-75 meetings, too. These Open house style meetings are a joke and aren’t designed to inform the public or give them a genuine opportunity to give feedback - it’s a way for TxDOT to avoid facing an angry public. Until we change the law to mandate they hold REAL public meetings, this process will continue to be hopelessly broken.

Concerns raised about transparency of TxDOT funding
By Marty Schladen / El Paso Times

AUSTIN >> As public hearings go, the one conducted Tuesday by the Texas Transportation Commission was a decidedly lackluster affair.

Even though it was intended to gather public input on $32 billion worth of transportation projects for next year, no members of the public attended the Austin session and no comments were submitted.

One member of the commission, Victor Vandergriff of Arlington, said the poor attendance is reflective of an agency that needs to improve its transparency. Among his concerns is that the hearing involved some projects the commission had already preliminarily approved — including $97 million for a trolley project in El Paso.

"This was, in effect, a public hearing on projects that we've already said we're going to do," Vandergriff said after Tuesday's session.

But the commission's chairman, Ted Houghton of El Paso, said all the projects had already been vetted at the local level.

"I don't understand the concern," he said. "I think there's significant transparency."

Because they have the potential to affect communities for decades, transportation projects — and whether residents think they have adequate say in them — can be hot-button issues.

In San Antonio last month, public rebellion against a streetcar project that was going to be funded in part with $92 million in state money prompted city and county leaders to abandon it.

Opposition to the El Paso trolley project — which would loop from international bridges Downtown to the University of Texas at El Paso and back — has been more muted. But state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said that if local leaders were presented with more choices, they'd likely would have picked another transportation project on which to spend the money.

"I really think that if the City Council knew that this could be used for something else, they'd have chosen something else," Pickett, an influential voice on Texas transportation issues, said last week.

As he sees it, the transportation commission's lack of transparency goes beyond transit projects such as the trolley in El Paso and streetcars in San Antonio.

Vandergriff agreed.

He abstained in June when the commission cast a preliminary vote to include $1.1 billion worth of projects in the state's 2015 Unified Transportation Plan.

"We learned about these projects less than 10 days before they were given to us for consideration," he said, explaining that he wasn't opposed to any of the projects, he just didn't know enough about them.

Vandergriff wants to change the public-hearing process to avoid no-comment sessions such as the one that took place Tuesday in Austin. He said he would like to see multiple sessions take place around the state so that people who might be affected can voice concerns before the commission votes on them.

"If we get that feedback, we might be able to avoid some of the backlash, like what happened in San Antonio," he said.

Houghton said much of what Vandergriff wants to do is already taking place. On July 17 — three weeks after the commission gave preliminary approval to them — 25 public meetings were held around the state to discuss projects in the 2015 Unified Transportation Plan.

The Texas Department of Transportation website describes public meetings as less formal than public hearings. They're held during a project's design process, while public hearings are held for projects that are substantially designed and awaiting final approval, it said.

In the case of the 1,300-page, 2015 Unified Transportation Plan, the commission is slated to cast a final vote at its Aug. 28 meeting in Dallas.

Houghton said the real public input comes at the local level — at meetings of Texas' metropolitan-planning organizations, which recommend projects to the transportation commission.

"Where this begins is the MPO level; the local level," Houghton said. "By the time it gets to us, it's been vetted over and over."

In the case of the El Paso trolley project, the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization first approved it 2½ years ago and reaffirmed its support Aug. 1 by a 22-2 vote, Houghton said.

The El Paso MPO consists of local elected officials. It meets monthly and its agendas can be found here.

Houghton said the commission gives great deference to the regional MPOs — especially when they put up local funds to help pay for projects.

"If Dallas chooses a project and says, 'Here's our money,' I'm surely not going to vote against it," he said.
The collapse of public support for San Antonio streetcars demonstrates the transportation commission's deference to local authority, Houghton said.

"That again is an example of local leadership saying, 'We need to go in a different direction,' " he said. "We said, 'OK.' "

State officials might solicit requests from regional MPOs, but Vandergriff said he doesn't know who in Austin decides which projects make lists of recommendations — such as the $1.1 billion worth of proposals that reached commissioners prior to their preliminary vote June 26.

"Nobody answers that," he said. "They just appear."

Houghton said that as chairman, he does not involve himself in that process.

"It's recommended by staff," he said.