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Travis commissioners don’t expect many stimulus dollars for transportation

Friday, February 20, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

With the federal stimulus bill now official, Travis County commissioners have seen their hopes for additional transportation funding essentially whittled down to nothing. The writing was on the wall at a workshop last Thursday, when commissioners convened with their Coordinator for Intergovernmental Affairs Deece Eckstein and some department managers. As far as transportation projects are concerned, Eckstein said, “When we began over two months ago, we were very optimistic that there was some wonderful pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that Travis County was going to get access to. I think that pot has grown smaller and smaller.”


It looks like Travis County will have only four minor transportation projects to recommend, but Eckstein did have some hope for funding in other areas. “We’re still trying to figure out what the impact for Texas is going to be,” he said.


Eckstein and his intern Katy Johnson are sifting through the over 700-page bill and monitoring various federal and state agencies to track the bill’s development and ultimate allocation of funds. The bulk of the money is likely to go directly to state agencies, and the funding areas include: aid to states; business; energy; aid to low-income families; education; health care; science and technology; transportation and infrastructure; and tax cuts.


Steve Manilla, the public works director from TNR, told commissioners that transportation has been the most clear funding stream to monitor because the delivery systems and the formulas are already well established. He said TxDOT had approached him in November looking to submit a list of state road projects in the county that could be up for consideration. Manilla included another dozen or so projects the state and county had worked on.


The county then learned that all potential projects receiving federal funds would need to be certified under National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Typically, only roads that go through the TxDOT planning process have such certification, and obtaining it from scratch can be a lengthy process that stretches out past six months. This requirement, along with the stipulation that already funded projects won’t get additional stimulus money, “eliminated most of our projects for potential funding,” according to Manilla.


The county’s projects dropped from about four dozen roads and a few parks to four resurfacing projects, which could obtain a faster certification. Commissioner Pct. 1 Ron Davis said it all. “Everything you’ve said so far is bad news,” he lamented.


The four projects are a .4 mile section of Brodie Lane, another .4 miles of Fitzhugh Rd. where it crosses Barton Creek, two miles of Johnny Morris road and 4.2 miles of Quinlan Park Rd. and would cost, respectively, $120K; $45k; $124K and $400K.


“Given the amount of money I’m hearing is going to be made available to this area, there’s a lot more important projects than resurfacing,” Manilla told In Fact Daily. He said he expects safety projects to be prioritized above resurfacing. The three-county area could expect $25 million of stimulus to come via CAMPO, and the State of Texas is expected to pull down between $2.1 and $2.2 billion for transportation projects. Still, Manilla said, $54 billion worth of projects were on TxDOTs original list.


Commissioners generally bemoaned the unprepared nature of the regional road projects. Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt told the court it was her understanding that most of the Texas transportation money would go toward maintenance projects through TxDOT and long range plans created by MPOs. In Travis County’s case, that leaves only the Redline, she said, which only needs train cars and could not be included in the stimulus package list. After Eckstein told the court that Central Texas would be excluded from much of the funding because the projects wouldn’t be ready in two years, Eckhardt commented, “We fiddled while Rome was burning.” 


“And now the firemen are here and saying ‘well, we can’t put out that fire,’” added Eckstein. Commissioner Pct. 4 Margaret Gomez blamed the county’s process, “because we take too long to make some of these decisions. We’ve been talking about mass transit since 1973.”


The county will still benefit from the stimulus, but in other areas. There could be funding for capital projects benefiting health and human services, along with competitive grants for collaborative projects. Eckstein told commissioners that “we can come up with a program that takes juveniles in the criminal justice system, trains them how to retrofit buildings [for better environmental efficiency] and put them to work.” Emergency Services may also be in a position to improve and upgrade their communications. Just as the county leaves its big transportation dreams behind, they are starting a new scramble to bring some of that stimulus cash home.

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