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County votes to extend Slaughter

Friday, July 10, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

A major arterial on the southeastern frontier of Austin will sprawl a little farther out thanks to the Travis County Commissioners Court.

After an animated discussion on the role private developers should play in funding infrastructure that directly benefits them, the commissioners voted to move forward with the expansion and extension of Slaughter Lane east of Interstate 35.

Once completed, four lanes will connect I-35 to Thaxton Road just south of McKinney Falls Parkway. Ultimately, per the CAMPO 2040 Regional Transportation Plan, Slaughter will reach all the way to U.S. Highway 183.

Voters first approved money for the project in a 2005 election, but expected contributions from private landowners have so far failed to materialize. On the western half of the project, between Bluff Springs Road and Vertex Boulevard, the owners of the nascent Goodnight Ranch subdivision have been unable to secure financing.

“Which is not unusual in a public-private partnership,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt explained. Once the owners begin developing the property, the money will start coming in, and then they will contribute their fair share, she said.

In the meantime, the county has already completed its own share of the section by installing a two-lane extension to Vertex.

As for the eastern section, stretching from Vertex to Thaxton, Transportation and Natural Resources Director Steve Manilla recommended on Tuesday that the county build all four lanes even though no landowners have stepped up and offered to chip in. That recommendation drew pointed criticism from Commissioner Brigid Shea.

“I think it sets a bad precedent for us to say, ‘Anybody out there want to volunteer to pay money for us to extend a road out to them?’” she said. “Anybody who is a betting person would say, ‘Well, geez, if they’re going to extend the road anyway, and I don’t have to pay for it, why should I volunteer to pay?’”

She added that the Slaughter Lane extension would take away money that could be used for other projects in already developed parts of the county. She cited as an example Manchaca Road just before FM 1626.

“We know those poor people in Hays County who are just desperate to get into Austin and are begging for other routes, and yet they are forced into a bottleneck in such an obvious place where we should be putting road funds,” Shea said.

Shea’s use of that particular example was hardly a coincidence. Expansion at that intersection could deflate some of the urgency behind the controversial SH45 SW. That project would connect FM 1626 to MoPac, a scenario that Shea relentlessly opposes.

Sensing that the hot-button issue could potentially derail the conversation at hand, Eckhardt warned Shea that her comment was not “germane.”

“It was just an example about how we won’t have money for other worthy road projects if we’re continuing to volunteer scarce county road dollars where landowners should be participating,” Shea replied.

For his part, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said he didn’t mind if the county paid for the full cost of the Slaughter Lane extension, because it would help induce development in the area. “Growth does not take place unless there is some infrastructure in place,” he said.

Shea tried to respond to Daugherty’s remarks, but Eckhardt cut her off and asked Commissioner Ron Davis for his thoughts on the item.

“I’m listening, but I’m ready to vote in a little bit,” Davis said bluntly.

When the vote did come, Eckhardt, Daugherty, Davis and Shea all endorsed the use of $11.8 million in unallocated bonds and reserves to complete the extension. Commissioner Margaret Gómez, in whose Precinct 4 the project resides, was not on the dais.

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