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COTA area roads put on hold for negotiation among commissioners

Wednesday, September 18, 2013 by Mark Richardson

Travis County Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez pushed a proposal to fast-track road improvements in her precinct near the Circuit of the Americas racetrack before County Commissioners Tuesday, but in the end, opted to wait a week when she didn’t have the votes to pass her plan.


Gómez  was adamant to the very end that her constituents had waited long enough for infrastructure improvements and she wanted the plan – to be funded with some $33 million in county debt – approved on Tuesday. But after almost three and one-half hours of presentations and sometimes rancorous debate, she compromised with Pct. 2 Commissioner Bruce Todd, who was pushing to bring a group of stakeholders together and explore other sources of funds.


The vote is now scheduled for Sept. 24.


Gómez attempted to sell the plan on the assertion that it was designed to stimulate economic development in one of the poorest parts of her precinct. “These people have waited long enough,” she said. “We need to get started on this issue. You can’t put up rooftops without a road, and we need to get them built.”


But Todd, taking up his first real issue since being appointed to the Court in June, pressed to include more parties in the process. “This in not business as usual,” he said. “It’s important to get buy-in on this from a broad base of stakeholders. We need to bring together the city, the county, the state and anyone else with a stake in this and develop a plan over the next six weeks or so.”


Todd’s plan was to develop a group of stakeholders that included Travis County’s Transportation and Budget staff, the City of Austin, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Texas Department of Transportation. That group would be tasked with developing the road plan and finding alternative sources of funding.


Throughout the entire debate, COTA was the elephant in the room. No matter what the benefits of the plan might have been for Precinct 4 residents, building the new roads would benefit the race track and entertainment venue, possibly without any contributions from its owners.


The plan included the construction of a five-lane road from Pearce Lane to SH 71, and expanding Elroy Road to four lanes from McAngus Road to Kellam Lane. Funding for the project was to come from the issuance of Certificates of Obligation, debt instruments that the county can issue without taking them to the voters. The plan called for construction – to be managed by the CTRMA – to begin almost immediately and for the project to be completed by the fall of 2014.


Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis became the swing vote. He initially appeared to be the third “yes” vote in a coalition of Gómez, himself and Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. But at the last minute, Davis appeared to balk when Gómez would not accept an amendment to her motion to stipulate that COTA pay for at least half of the project.


Daugherty brokered the compromise. “Would you rather have this by a divided court, or wait a week, work out a way to incorporate some of Bruce’s ideas and get this done with 5-0 vote?” he said. Gomez decided to wait a week rather than take a chance on losing the vote.


Earlier, Gómez spent more than an hour laying out her plan, bringing in a number of families and small business from her precinct to talk about the condition of the roads and the problems it causes in the area. She also laid out her case by alluding to the grim economic situation many residents in the area find themselves in, pointing out that the road projects would bring the immediate benefit of jobs, and the long-term benefit of attracting more businesses to the area.


She pointed out that going to a bond election to build the roads could take more time than is necessary. “Some of these children you saw here this morning could be adults before a project funded through bond money gets completed,” she said.


During the public hearing, most of the speakers – including two announced candidates for the Court – lined up behind Todd’s proposal. Former Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, who is running for County Judge, and former Austin City Council Member Brigid Shea, who has announced for the Precinct 2 seat, joined several other speakers in endorsing the plan for a brief study by stakeholders – though both Eckhardt and Shea denied that there was any political motive to their comments.


Shea asserted that COTA has gotten too much of a free ride. “The public has ponied up enough money for COTA,” she said. “The only reason to hurry this process though with no voter approval is the one that benefits COTA. I think they need to pony up at least 50 percent of the cost for this project.” She also expressed indignation that COTA’s owners have filed a lawsuit to have their tax assessment lowered.  


Based on their verbal exchange on the dais, Gómez and Todd will meet during the next week to work some of his ideas – and Davis’ demand for COTA participation – into the project and bring it all back for another vote next week.

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