Wednesday, August 21, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

Gómez wants to speed up widening of roads near COTA facility

Travis County Commissioner Pct. 4 Margaret Gómez says her proposal to expand roads in southeast Travis County is about safety, business development, and job creation, but some of her critics charge that she is pandering to the Circuit of the Americas race track.

Gómez and former County Auditor Susan Spataro say the focus of proposed construction in the region is primarily on improving the road value, thereby fostering economic prosperity within the community.

“As soon as we say we need roads in Precinct 4, immediately COTA comes up,” said Gómez during Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting. “COTA has had great impact on Precinct 4, this region, and this city. However, I don’t want to let COTA and the impact it has had on us drown out the voices of the Mexican American community.”

Gómez says her diverse region is 56 percent Mexican-American with a disproportionate number of citizens who are economically disadvantaged. She argues that because of a lack of development, residents don’t have access to basic services that those in other areas enjoy. And, she says southeast Travis County has been somewhat disregarded in the road expansion race.

“County taxpayers provided $90 million to assist the state of Texas in acquiring right-of-way to build SH 130,” Gómez said. “The portion of southeastern Travis County was completed in 2008. Now SH 130 runs through southeast Travis County. However, unlike areas west of I-35 and northeast Travis County, southeast Travis County does not have the surrounding network of roads necessary to stimulate economic activity in the SH 130 corridor.”

In what she calls an aggressive plan, Gómez is asking her fellow court members to approve new expansion of streets near the COTA site, a strategy the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization has on its books, but was not planning on implementing for some time.

“It initially appears quite a ways off with the let year being between 2020 and 2025,” said Bryce Bencivengo, CAMPO’s Community Outreach Coordinator. “We anticipated it a few years away.”

The plan includes turning Kellam Street into a five-lane road from Pearce to SH 71 and expanding Elroy Road – now widely familiar because of COTA — to a four-lane road from McAngus to Kellam.

Gómez asked Spataro to help forecast the financial and developmental elements of the project.

In Southeast Travis County, there is “a significant amount of underutilized, undeveloped land,” Spataro said. “There’s fundamentally a lack of road infrastructure and connectivity. I took a lot of personal time to go out there and look at the roads. I was looking for a viewpoint from everyone involved.”

According to her calculations, as each year passes, the costs and interest rates involved in completing the project will rise. Theoretically, a current interest rate of 3.3 percent would climb to 4 percent next year, and by 2019 could be nearly 8 percent. A $10 million road project today would cost the county $7 million more by 2020, Spataro estimates.

Beyond an admonishment that the cost for the project will continue to rise the longer the county waits, and saying construction would cost “several million dollars,” Gómez offered no substantive construction estimate.

Gómez is suggesting the court use certificates of obligation to secure the money for the project and follow up with a reimbursement resolution—effectively borrow money from itself against next fiscal year’s budget—without voter approval.

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is on board to oversee and manage the project. However, it’s all in the preliminary stages.

“None of this has been presented to my board,” said CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein, who says he has concerned about floodplains. The City of Austin would need to be involved in the plan as well, Heiligenstein said, since the area is in its extra-territorial jurisdiction. He’s presenting the plan to his board next week.

Potentially working against Gómez and the plan is the goal to see the work completed by May 1, 2014.

“Wow, you guys are a little ahead of us right now, given we’re just now going through the budget session,” said City of Austin Transportation Director Robert Spillar, who appeared a little less than enthusiastic about the pace of the proposed construction. Spillar told the court the decision to move ahead with the county on the project would be at the discretion of Council and he said he would carry to Council members any formal requests for participation.

Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis appeared exasperated by the notion that Austin leaders wouldn’t be more excited about the project.

“It just appears to me that the city should have some kind of interest in something that’s going to generate a lot of revenue for the city of Austin,” he said. “You just can’t lump it all in the laps of the county.”

Time, Gómez insisted, is of the essence.

“It seems like our schedule is a little too soon for the bond election, and meantime, prices are going up,” she said. “Do we delay or do we move? I think we have the capacity…we have the means to do something.”

In two weeks, the court is expected to hear construction cost estimates from CTRMA.

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