The inequity of Austin’s CAMPO – and the current proposal to make it worse

The Austin region is home to about two million people, expected to grow to at least four million people before the global human population stabilizes some time in the middle of the 21st Century. The major decisions on how to plan for that growth and provide safe, multimodal access to the people of the region are made by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) Transportation Policy Board (TPB).

Unfortunately, the structure of this regional government is profoundly inequitable, resulting in the vast majority of residents of the region who live in Travis County having less representation than residents of sub-urban and rural counties.

Essentially, CAMPO functions more like a Senate – with unequal representation – than a House – based on one-person, one-vote. A resident of Burnet or Caldwell has three times as much decision making power on the CAMPO TPB than a resident of Travis County.

Today, a resident of Travis County is represented in regional decision making with essentially 7/1,000,000 of a vote, while a resident of Caldwell county is represented with 23/1,000,000 of a vote on the CAMPO Transportation Policy Board.

When we analyzed the data further, an example of how this structural inequity impacts different communities rose to the surface: that of the diminished representation of Austin’s Black community. A strong majority of the Black residents of the region live in Travis County, but the voting power of the county is the most underrepresented at CAMPO.

We have a long history of policies and practices that have put minority communities at a disadvantage – not the least of which was the placement of 1-35 through the then existing black neighborhoods. This not only created a clear demarcation between what were labeled as desirable and undesirable neighborhoods, but it also forced black families out of their homes, and the equity they had built.

Now, the CAMPO TPB is considering updating their bylaws and representation on the TPB Executive Committee. These proposed changes were discussed at the January meeting, but a decision was postponed and a subcommittee was created to consider these changes over the next several months. Several years ago, Commissioner Long pushed through changes to CAMPO’s Technical Advisory Council that similarly disenfranchised the people of Travis County – the strong majority of the region’s residents.

We can see further disparity and inequity in how communities are represented to favor the sub-urban and rural counties even further in the proposed new makeup of the secretive TPB Executive Committee.

At their last meeting, the TPB was supposed to have discussed these bylaws changes, instead the chair decided to sweep the item from the agenda, after which several members questioned whether this was allowed. The discussion went off the weeds into parliamentary procedure. But in the midst of all this, the Chair did say why she wanted to create a subcommittee to further consider the bylaw changes was to ensure balance from her point of view representing sub-urban Williamson County.

But talking about “balance” does not ensure fair representation or good decision making. The members are approaching this from the top down, as only the political entities are factored into this math, not the people, or their needs and interests.

Rather than focusing on which city or county is represented, perhaps it’s time to rethink the model to better represent all the people of the Austin region well – rural, urban, sub-urban, black, white, asian, brown, and indigenous.