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Travis County bond proposal continues to evolve

Wednesday, July 26, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

A roiling public hearing at Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday muddied the waters on an already complex bond package, part of which voters could decide on this November.

More than two dozen speakers signed up to air their thoughts on the $234.5 million recommendation delivered to the court by the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee last week.

However, before any of them had a chance to tee off, committee Chair Ron Wattinger expressed his exasperation that staff had increased the total price tag of the committee’s recommendation by roughly $12 million, bringing the new total to $247.3 million.

“We worked very hard to get within a budget number, and that was a shock,” Wattinger said.

Transportation and Natural Resources Chief Deputy Cynthia McDonald explained that the adjustments came after staff reexamined the list of 52 individual projects that the committee recommended for bond funding.

“We went through it with a fine-tooth comb,” she said. The fresh analysis found new costs associated with seven of the projects. Investments funded by general obligation bonds that voters would decide on would be worth $141.7 million, while the collection paid for by certificates of obligation issued by the court would be worth $83.1 million. Project management costs are estimated at 10 percent, bringing the entire package to $247.3 million.

With that new potential price tag established, a series of speakers urged the court to keep one specific project that could potentially inflate the cost even more off the project list.

Nearly 17 people testified against extending Reimers-Peacock Road to connect Hamilton Pool Road to U.S. Highway 290 in western Travis County. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, whose Precinct 3 spans the area, has previously indicated his interest in adding the extension to the bond project list.

Emergency Services Districts Nos. 6 and 8 support the project along with Lake Travis Independent School District and the Travis County Sheriff’s Office.

However, the broad consensus of the testimony on Tuesday – pocked with numerous expressions of “ditto” – held that the new road would drive development and increase traffic in an otherwise rural corner of the county. Thomas Griffith warned that builders would immediately pounce on any new opening of untouched land.

“That’s what happened in Houston. That’s what leads to the sprawl,” said Griffith. “New roads are widened, new roads are built, and then growth exceeds the pace.”

Other speakers praised the committee’s recommendations and the focus on southeast Travis County’s Precinct 4, which would benefit from infrastructure enhancements to relieve existing roads that have been outpaced by growth.

“The people are coming, the families are coming, and that means more kids, more traffic and the need for safer passages,” A.J. Rizzo, who works in Del Valle, told the court.

Other speakers had more specific requests for the court. Committee member Heyden Black Walker, testifying on her own behalf, asked that the scope of safety upon which many of the proposed transportation projects are based be redefined to include all modes rather than just vehicles. She also suggested that the committee meet again to review the added $12 million in costs.

The Shoal Creek Conservancy’s Ted Siff told the court he represented a larger coalition of similar groups including the Hill Country Alliance and the Save Barton Creek Association. He asked for the inclusion of projects left out of the committee’s recommendation, notably an extra $24.2 million for low-water crossing improvements throughout the county. Siff also encouraged the court to consider a $7.5 million investment in Northeast Metropolitan Park in Precinct 2. 1.

Nearly two hours after the hearing began, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said the court, the committee and staff would consider the points raised throughout the testimony in the days ahead. The committee could meet as soon as this Thursday to discuss the revised costs as well the safety scope definition and Siff’s twin requests. She also requested a staff update on procedures for enlisting private participation from private entities such as the Circuit of the Americas that stand to benefit from large county investments.

The court will resume the discussion again next Tuesday, Eckhardt said, with an eye toward a final vote on Aug. 8.

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