Are We Witnessing The Fall of the House of Michael Morris?

For years the region has blindly followed these conjurers of data. But what happens when you lose faith in the people coming up with the data?

As Liz mentioned in Leading Off, a planned toll road connecting Garland to Greenville has sparked a statistical feud between the Texas Department of Transportation and the North Central Texas Council of Governments. Last week, when 1,500 people showed up at a public meeting in Rockwall in opposition to the proposed road, one citizen brought to light the fact that the traffic prediction numbers the NCTCOG used to justify their new toll road are dramatically larger than traffic predictions made by TxDOT. If you want to dig into how much larger they are and why, read the well-reported DMN story. What interests me is what this current standoff reveals about how our region’s transportation policy is made.

I always thought one of the big problems with the NCTCOG was its governance, and how the Regional Transportation Council, which, at least in theory, sets policy for the NCTCOG, overly represented the interests of the suburbs. The number of representatives on the RTC from smaller communities seems to weight the NCTCOG’s transportation policy towards a regional approach. But this recent fight in the ‘burbs over the NCTCOG’s proposed Garland to Greenville toll road – as well as the Collin County opposition to tolling Central Expressway — reveals a more troubling reality. It’s not that the suburbs are dictating regional transportation policy, it’s that no one is dictating regional transportation policy. Instead, the byzantine tangle of statistical models and population predictions creates a scenario in which policy makers have no option but to rely on the supposed expertise of the engineers who are driving the conversation, namely, transportation director Michael Morris and his merry band of underlings.

The problem is, not only do Morris and his crew dictate policy via  statistical models, they seem to be unresponsive to the political process that should be forming that policy. When 1,500 people show up to a public meeting, they are met with arrogance and dismissal. Now the suburbs are taking notice. In an opinion piece in the Rockwall Herald Banner, the editor of the suburban paper calls out that arrogance which has long frustrated those who believe the NCTCOG has a tin ear on urban transportation needs:

Unfortunately for us citizens, it seemed the response of NCTCOG and TTC was even more evident — they don’t really care.

And why should they? After all, the project is projected to take in $78 million in annual profits by the year 2035. With that kind of return, these folks will be laughing all the way to the bank. So yes, as uncomfortable as it may be, they don’t mind sitting through a few meetings and listening to us – the citizens – complain about the wrongful acquisition of our property.

Because that’s what liars of this caliber do. They have thick skin … they can take the abuse if it means a huge payday is on the other side.

What’s remarkable about all of this is now the traditional power base of the NCTCOG – the suburbs – seems to be turning against the organization. They are beginning to realize that what drives transportation policy is data, and what matters most is who comes up with the data. If you control the data, you dictate the policy. For years the region has blindly followed these conjurers of data. But what happens when you lose faith in the people coming up with the data? That’s what we’re seeing now. And more than any ideological dispute about how cities and regions should function, it’s the pulling the curtain back on the statistical Wizard of Oz that might really spell end of the NCTCOG’s ideological grip on transportation policy.

Is this the beginning of the end of the reign of Michael Morris?

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