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Travis County may have to pay to get pass-through reimbursements

Friday, January 21, 2011 by Michael Kanin

The Travis County Commissioners Court learned Tuesday that it may have to contribute more local funds if it hopes to win reimbursements under the State of Texas’ pass-through financing program. According to testimony from Executive Manager for Transportation and Natural Resources Steve Manilla, other jurisdictions have offered to pay for a percentage of their construction fees to make their bids more competitive.

 

Manilla told the court that in most of the pass-through applications that TxDOTapproved last year, the applicant also provided some of the construction funding. “We’re entitled to 100 percent of that, but to be more competitive, applicants are paying for some of the construction,” he said.

 

That news came as court members continued to prepare for a 2011 bond election. Manilla told the court that a portion of that initiative could be used to cover pass-through projects. Precinct 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt told him that she was concerned about just how much those projects could cut into other county projects.

 

“I’m concerned that taking on state responsibilities will suck all of the air out of our bonding capacity for things that we are statutorily mandated to provide, like courthouses,” she said.

 

The state’s pass-through financing effort offers local jurisdictions a way to construct what would otherwise be state road projects. According to the Texas Department of Transportation’s Web site, “(t)he state then reimburses a portion of the project cost to the community over time by paying a fee for each vehicle that drives on the new highway.”

 

With that organization strapped for cash, its program in effect gives local governments a chance to pick up a portion of the bill for a project in exchange for its completion. Travis County was unsuccessful in all of its 2010 pass-through bids.

 

There are three pass-through projects currently under consideration for 2011. They include just under $25.5 million for bypass of Manor Road along FM973, almost $11.4 million for the widening of FM1626, and $25 million for the widening of FM969. Should the county fail in its attempts to secure pass-through financing, none of those projects would remain on the list for 2011. Travis officials will know by May whether or not that is the case.

 

The county is expected to try to include the construction costs of a portion of its downtown campus in the 2011 initiative. Those figures could well include costs for the county’s new courthouse.

 

Manilla told the court that, in its applications for pass-through dollars, it should consider paying for roughly 50 percent of the construction costs for FM1626. That figure sits at about $3 million. That means that commissioners could expect to be reimbursed for about $43 million of the $46 million they would spend on the construction of the projects.

 

Either way, they would be on the hook for over $15 million in right-of-way and engineering costs.

 

County Judge Sam Biscoe told Manilla that he and his department should figure out what other successful pass-through bidders had offered to pay the state. “It seems to me that we ought to have a better idea of what the successful localities agreed to pick up before we land on 50 percent,” he said.

 

Manilla told the court that he would look into it.

 

After the hearing Eckhardt told In Fact Daily that the pass-through program is problematic. “For all of the talk of economic prosperity and whatnot, if you don’t invest in the basic infrastructure of civilization – like roads, schools, courts – then how much economic stability can you have?” she said.

 

Still, she voted for the measure, acknowledging afterward that it is part of doing business in Texas. Her colleagues agreed. The final tally was a unanimous 5-0.

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