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TTC promises $133 million for Hays roads

Wednesday, August 23, 2006 by

County must pay up-front costs for road maintenance

There’s no question Hays County roads need some improvements. But if identifying the need has been easy, finding a way to pay for the upgrades has been a harder problem to tackle.

Tuesday’s weekly Commissioners Court meeting shed a little light on the conundrum, as commissioners moved forward on a pass-through agreement with the Texas Transportation Commission (TTC). Voting unanimously to authorize County Judge Jim Powers to execute the agreement with the commission, commissioners took a first step towards putting the initial funding for road improvements largely in the county’s hands.

The pass-through agreement is the result of six years of discussions between the county and the TTC. Using traffic counts, the pass-through system calculates road traffic and maintenance costs, and puts the initial financial responsibility for upgraded roads on the county’s shoulders. The transportation commission has agreed that with a per-vehicle fee of $0.14, it will reimburse Hays County more than $133 million over a period of several years. According to the initial agreement, the commission will pay a minimum of $6.65 million and a maximum of $13.3 million per year until the total amount is paid off.

"If you put this agreement into perspective, $133 million coming into Hays County…is truly stunning," Bob Daigh, an Austin district engineer with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), told commissioners Tuesday.

"That is equivalent to four years of CAMPO’s (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) total mobility money for a three county area…the chances of that money coming down to this county were slim to none, and the bold actions you’ve taken will literally advance these projects by decades."

The agreement means improvements can begin in the next year or two on many roads in the county, Pct. 3 Commissioner Will Conley said. Roads that commissioners have identified for upgrading include FM 110 from McCarty Road to SH 123, RM 12 from San Marcos city limits to RM 32, and a portion of SH 21, and FM 1626 from Bliss Spillar Road to FM 2770.

The state’s reimbursement won’t kick in until the county begins actually spending money on the roads, though, which may mean many future discussions about the best way to finance the upgrades before reimbursement comes.

Among the commissioners, Pct. 2 Commissioner Susie Carter voiced the most misgivings about the plan, saying a commitment to this plan means a large chunk of taxpayer money will be spent before the state pays the county back.

But dozens of mayors and justices of the peace got up during the public comment period to support the plan that will mean immediate road upgrades, citing safety concerns due to increased traffic on small country roads.

"This is truly a public safety issue," Hays County Sheriff Allen Bridges said. "I want to encourage you to move forward as quickly as possible…every day we hold back, we’re subject to lose more lives."

Travis stalls on legal issues surrounding WTP4

The Austin City Council is scheduled to take a final vote on the Cortaña site—or the original Bull Creek site—for Water Treatment Plant 4 at Thursday’s Council meeting but Travis County Commissioners may have thrown the timetable a little further off schedule by postponing action yesterday. After lengthy morning and afternoon executive sessions which included considering some aspects of the city’s proposal to amend the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan, Judge Sam Biscoe announced at the end of the meeting that the county still had a number of legal issues.

That may hearten some members of the environmental community who told commissioners that the choice of a site for the plant should not be pit two environmentally sensitive pieces of land against each other. Cortaña is the home of five pairs of Black-Capped Vireos, which are still on the federal endangered list but are thriving in other areas, including Fort Hood.

Members of the county’s legal staff, including County Attorney David Escamilla, were on stand-by for any legal questions yesterday afternoon. Environmental Officer John Kuhl and Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Manager Joe Gieselman also stood outside the door of the executive session. Even former county commissioner Valerie Bristol, a key player in the original negotiations for the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, was on hand to watch what might happen. And Assistant City Attorney Marty Terry, who led a team from the city, was in attendance.

When the court returned after a grievance hearing, however, County Judge Sam Biscoe directed Assistant County Attorney John Hille to take "between two and four legal issues" back to the City Attorney’s Office for discussion. Then the court adjourned.

Contacted after the meeting, Acting Assistant City Manager Juan Garza said he would have to consultant with City Manager Toby Futrell about how to proceed.

Several of those attending the morning session want Travis County to push harder for the Lucas tract again as a possible water treatment plant site. Several of those attending the morning session want Travis County to push harder for the Lucas tract again as a possible water treatment plant site. The city has firmly rejected the tract, saying it is not suitable topographically. The county is currently in negotiations to purchase another portion of the tract as habitat.

Former city biologist Melody Lytle scoffed at the choices the city had offered the county: either a highly sensitive spot in the headwaters of Bull Creek or the Cortana site.

"Give me a break," Lytle told the court. "Those are the only two places this plan can get built? I don’t believe that."

Lytle said a portion of the Lucas tract was a clear alternative, one the city had discarded in prior discussions because it would require moving a road. Moving a road, however, is hardly an imposition on a project with an ultimate price tag estimated at $1 billion, she said.

A portion of the Ribelin tract also was suggested. The Leander Independent School District has a portion of the tract under contract right now for a high school. Environmentalists suggested a water treatment plant would be a far better use of the land, which is situated at the top of a hill and is not necessarily "traffic friendly."

Bill Bunch of the Save Our Springs Alliance, one of the original representatives of the environmental community on the BCP project, said that it was clear that the water treatment plant needed to be moved off of Bull Creek. Bunch said it was equally clear that the site needed additional public input and review.

Biscoe suggested early on – during the morning session when comments were taken from environmentalists – that the court was likely to take another week on the water treatment plant decision. That drew a round of applause from the audience.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Cole to join Audit and Finance . . . Although Council Member Jennifer Kim had originally wanted to serve on the Council Audit and Finance Committee, she said yesterday that she had asked Council Member Sheryl Cole to serve on the committee instead. Kim indicated that she is extremely busy keeping track of her current assignments, including CAMPO and CAPCO. Cole, a CPA and attorney, will join Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley and Council Members Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken. Cole will be able to join the Audit and Finance Committee after the Council changes an ordinance governing membership, which is expected on Thursday . . . Public Safety audit goes forward . . . At its meeting yesterday, the Audit and Finance Committee, as expected, approved a request by Council Members McCracken, Leffingwell and Mike Martinez, to initiate an audit of all the city’s public safety agencies, including police, fire, EMS and other services. Council Member Kim said she plans to ask for a study of cooperation between the Austin Police and the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. "I will bring up issues of more city-county collaboration . . . We should look for some new best practices or opportunities for collaboration or cooperation." She said she in concerned about response time and customer service in annexed areas. "It’s not so much the 2.0 officers per 1,000 staffing level, but that when I call 911, someone will be here quickly." The full Council is scheduled to consider ordering the audit on Thursday . . . Condolences to the Garza family . . . The father of former City Manager Jesus Garza, Fernando L. Garza of Corpus Christi, passed away on Sunday at the age of 86. Jesus Garza is now CEO of Seton. The senior Garza was a veteran of the Army Air Corps during World War Two and will be interred with military honors at Seaside Memorial Park in Corpus Christi following a funeral Mass this afternoon. He was also the grandfather of Julian Garza, an intern for Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley . . . Meetings . . . The Council Committee for Emerging Technology and Telecommunications meets at 3:30pm in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall . . . The Building and Standards Commission meets 6:30pm in Room 325 at One Texas Center . . . The Ethics Review Commission meets at 6pm in Room 100 at Town Lake Center. . . City’s bond rating elevated . . . The City of Austin has earned the second highest possible rating for its general obligation bonds—an upgrade indicating the city’s sound financial policies and economic good health. Moody’s Investor Services raised the rating from Aa2 to Aa1, meaning a lower borrowing cost for the city and making the bonds more attractive to potential investors. Already, the city has received Double A-plus ratings, equivalent to the Aa1 rating, from two other major rating agencies – Standard and Poor’s and Fitch Investor Services. In announcing the upgrade, Moody’s officials said "the rating reflects the City’s economic recovery after a period of weakening in the high tech sector; (its) sizeable tax base, prudent financial management practices and solid reserve levels; (its) modest debt position despite significant capital needs; (and its) favorable socioeconomic profile." . . . CAMPO to study regional growth . . . The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) will hold a news conference today to announce efforts to develop a draft "Regional Growth Concept." The concept will help guide the spending of transportation dollars in Central Texas and potentially impact Central Texans’ quality of life for decades to come. The Regional Growth Concept encompasses five counties—Williamson, Travis, Hays, Bastrop, and Caldwell counties—and would encourage the creation of "activity centers" in the region, areas where residents would have ready access to transportation, employment, recreation, shopping, and other needs. Details of a comprehensive outreach campaign, including advertisements, an online survey, and a series of public workshops, will also be outlined. The news conference will be at 10am at the Joe C. Thompson Conference Center on the University of Texas campus.

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