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CAMPO Board to decide next week how to spend federal stimulus funds

Thursday, June 4, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) board will have to exercise the wisdom of King Solomon when it meets on Monday to stretch an additional $29 million in federal stimulus funding across as many appropriate road projects as possible in the three-county region.

CAMPO Executive Director Joe Cantalupo pared down a list of about 180 projects to about two-dozen “most eligible” across the Williamson-Travis-Hays county region. Projects were balanced by CAMPO staff in four different $29 million options intended to both reflect the goals of the stimulus package – one-time spending with a preference toward those projects with high benefits in terms of mobility, safety, economic impact and quality of life – and provide an appropriate balance in spending among the counties. That means about half the funding going to Travis County, with the balance split, somewhat evenly, between Williamson and Hays.

Williamson County, to some extent, has bowed out of the road project discussion. Commissioner Cynthia Long noted that the county already had been the recipient of $10 million in statewide funding for FM 1460. So the county was willing to back off of many of its stimulus project suggestions and give other jurisdictions a chance.

As soon as Cantalupo began laying out the scenarios, local leaders were talking about ditching this project or replacing that project. That’s to be expected, and even encouraged, between now and Monday night, when the board takes a vote. Cantalupo urged those leaders to come to some decision by Monday night, for fear that some pending projects might be lost if delayed too long.

Some of these projects will be familiar to people who have followed local news. For instance, the $3.2 million improvement to SH 71 where the recent traffic fatalities have occurred is on the list. Re-funding roadside assistance along the Interstate 35 corridor was given a $2 million jumpstart. And Hays County put improvements to RR 12, a perennial problem in the region, on the list.

Because “shovel ready” or, really, “near-shovel ready,” is the key, the City of San Marcos ended up on the short end of the stick. Cantalupo was in the cross hairs almost immediately with San Marcos Mayor Sue Narvaiz, who saw only one of her three proposed projects on the funding list. San Marcos, Narvaiz pointed out, is the area with the greatest economic distress in the region, and should be given priority.

Unfortunately, San Marcos needs big projects. Two of the city’s proposed projects, both along the Interstate 35 corridor, were over $20 million. And those two, plus a third $5 million one proposed for funding, were not exactly at the stage to be ready for construction as soon as the funding is released.

Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, playing devil’s advocate, asked why the Texas Department of Transportation wasn’t pulling its weight, if all three of the projects San Marcos needed were along the busy Interstate 35 corridor.

“Do you really want to ask that?” Narvaiz shot back.

The audience laughed.

Georgetown Mayor George Garver was statesman-like in his objections, noting that all areas had great needs but asking why projects with pre-funding – like Georgetown giving $2.5 million to start the Lakeway bridge project off Interstate 35 – didn’t push those choices to the head of the list.

“So we would wonder, from our vantage point, from giving them money in advance and making some of the improvements… how did we come to be totally ignored?” Garver said. “It seems to me that those projects with a commitment on the table from TxDOT ought to be at the front of the list.”

After some discussion, it was noted that almost every project on the list had some local commitment. About half were on the short-term Transportation Improvement Plan, or TIP. Projects on the TIP are supposed to have committed funding from various sources, Cantalupo said. But the financial crunch means that many of those projects no longer can claim that kind of support.

And there was some discussion of HERO, the Highway Emergency Response Operator. The project would not put concrete on the ground. Instead, it would provide congestion incident management along Interstate 35 through Williamson, Travis and Hays counties. That left some officials questioning whether money would be better spent on a one-time road project.

Local officials already are mixing and matching. Cantalupo asked that they keep the balance of the projects in mind as they struck one and included another on the Excel sheet created by CAMPO staff. The discussion continues Monday evening.

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