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Travis contemplates state pass-through financing for roads

Thursday, March 25, 2010 by Jacob Cottingham

Travis County Commissioners on Tuesday learned of the latest call from TxDOT for pass-through financing highway projects, setting off debate in the court about the interplay between local and state governments and fiscal responsibility. Pass-through financing plans require public or private entities to pay for work on state roads up front, after which they are reimbursed based on the number of vehicle miles traveled on the improved roadways.


This round of pass-through financing is slightly different than the version that went out in 2007, which adjoining Hays and Williamson Counties both took part in. The changes now only reimburse for the costs of construction – leaving it up to local entities such as Travis County to foot the bills for planning, design, right-of-way, and environmental assessment. Steve Manilla, Travis County Public Works director, told commissioners he estimated that the state would be reimbursing about 85 percent of the total cost for the roads.


In a memo to commissioners, the Transportation and Natural Resources Department laid out the options they thought most appropriate. The first would be in South Austin, widening FM 1626 from Brodie Lane to FM 2304 and FM 2304 from FM 1626 to Ravenscroft Drive. The other project would be outside Manor and consist of a realignment and widening of FM 973 from north of Proposed Braker Lane to US 290 east of Manor. 


Manilla said the process for picking the roads was competitive, with only $300 million allocated to pass-through projects statewide. The process for moving forward would be a slow one. In September TxDOT would make the decision on which projects to do. By the end of 2010, Travis County would have to have $4 million available to begin the engineering, permitting, and environmental clearances to sign agreement for both projects. It would be another two to three years after that before the county could start buying ROW. Manilla said that could take up to a year and a half. At that point, the county would need to have all the construction dollars up front, roughly 4-5 years from now. TNR estimated that the FM 1626 project would cost $18.4 million and the FM 973 would run $51.5 million for a total of about $71 million. The timeline is short as well — applications are due May 11.


Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez was the first to signal her wariness about the deal, peppering Manilla with questions about the impact such a move might have on the bonding capacity of the county and indicating that she’d prefer to bring such a matter before voters after the county has had more time to prepare for such a commitment. “Our own process is a much more sure thing because we can take all this time to come up with the numbers and … have the bond election. It seems to me that we cut down on our risk so much more,” she said.



Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber said the county may “be at a financing paradigm switch,” and although she is concerned about setting a precedent with pass-through financing, it could represent the only way to get some projects completed. Huber seemed to support the 1626 idea and took on the notion of local entities paying for state projects, which two citizens had complained about in their communication to the court. “The reality of this is, this is very local even though it’s state roads in a local area,” she said. “We’re faced down in that area with the congestion at Brodie, and the FM 2304 part is actually an uncompleted five-lane road from Ravenscroft south. This would be finishing what TxDOT has already started.”


She said the state had already completed some of the utility relocations and much of the right-of-way was already bought. However, she said, “They don’t have any plans to finish the project. And the alternative that’s being pushed so hard for the solution to the traffic congestion in this area is 45 Southwest, which is an $80-100 million project, brand new, tolled only.”


Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt vented some of her frustration at the state government: “Frankly it can’t be said enough that this is yet another example of TxDOT specifically, and the state generally, yet again abdicating their responsibility and attendant cost of those responsibilities down on the local level … But I have to deal with facts on the ground rather than the facts as they really ought to have been, and this is a crappy set of facts.” She noted, “Looking at the map for 973, if it’s realigned, would be an alternative to taking 290 East into the City of Austin, which I don’t anticipate TxDOT being thrilled about doing.” Saying that the proposed roads were an important opportunity to connect activity nodes in the county, she also agreed with Huber that the southern project is an alternative for creating 45 SW.


Judge Sam Biscoe tried to tone down the mood. “I don’t know if it’s fair for us to be super-critical of TxDOT,” he said. “The state ran out of money and we’ve known that for years. That’s nothing new. If we want to do these roads, we can do them. TxDOT is not forcing us. There are other cities and counties to use up the $300 million. Your facts are right, but I don’t think it’s fair for us to sit here and criticize TxDOT like they’re making us do these two projects, because they’re not.”


The court opted to hear more next week about the specific costs of putting together the application –and the possible need for outside help due to the time crunch – and what sort of impact the county auditor’s office might see if such costs were fronted by the county.

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