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County official looking for $500 million transportation bond in 2011

Monday, August 2, 2010 by Michael Kanin

Travis County could soon join the City of Austin in planning a bond election in the near future to fund transportation issues.


The Executive Manager of Travis County’s Transportation and Natural Resources department is hoping for a $500 million initiative for voters to consider in November 2011. Joe Gieselman told attendees at the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Central Texas Infrastructure, Growth and Development seminar last week that current plans to use half of the county’s $400 million debt capacity to fund a host of projects, including roads and parks, wouldn’t be enough.


“What I hope to do, and I still have hopes that we’ll be able to pull this off, is…more in the order of $500 million just for transportation,” he said. “I think that’s the order of magnitude that you’ll really need to have to support the amount of roads…that we need to prepare for the future.”


That level of funding, Gieselman added, would necessitate a tax hike. “The only way that type of bond program can be financed is with a new tax,” he said. “I know that’s not real popular but I’m not particularly a fan of the way we’re headed right now.”


In his remarks, Gieselman was also critical of the state’s pass-through financing program. “Some counties have bought in to it. Travis County has not, for a particular reason,” he said. Instead, he noted that the county prefers to fund its projects through “user fees,” taxes on vehicles or gas that serve as a direct charge to drivers for the roads that they use.


“(The) pass-through toll actually shifts that burden to the property tax and it has local governments paying for state highways,” he argued. For Gieselman, this becomes problematic.


“It’s really for failure to have a state funding mechanism that stays current,” he explained. “It’s starting to trickle down to the local governments and they’re asking us to pick up the debt, to finance the debt, and to carry the debt until we get paid back—and it’s not a dollar for dollar, it’s 80 cents on the dollar.


“It’s not a good way to go,” he said. “I think, quite frankly, the whole issue of transportation finance needs to be addressed at the state level, soon.”


After his talk, Gieselman further elaborated on his issues with pass-through financing for In Fact Daily. “It’s really the difference between having a user fee to pay for infrastructure and having it on the property tax, which is general property owners who are paying that tax,” he said.


“It’s a major shift in philosophy on how we finance transportation improvements…the burden of state highways is being pushed down to local residents,” he added. “That’s why I don’t particularly support that. I’d rather see the State address the State transportation finance at their level and increase the taxes, if necessary, to pay for State highways.”


Gieselman said that such a change would be “fairly simple.” However, he added, “I don’t think there’s a political will to do it.”

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