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Travis County gets slow start to $185M bond program

Wednesday, September 5, 2018 by Jack Craver

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt isn’t ready to hit the panic button, but she is expressing concern about the amount of time it’s taking for the county to get going on the $185 million of projects that voters approved in last year’s bond election.

On Tuesday, the Commissioners Court finally voted to approve a program managing consultant to oversee the bond program.

In the past, the county relied on its own staff in the Department of Transportation and Natural Resources to design and oversee bond projects. Due to the large size of the 2017 bond, however, the Commissioners Court decided to bring in two outside entities to run the show. First, a general engineering consultant to essentially serve as the general contractor, and now the PMC to monitor the progress of each bond project, including costs and time overruns.

The court voted in March to award the GEC contract to Travis Transportation Partners, a partnership of HNTB, a major national engineering company, and K Friese & Associates, a smaller locally based firm. On Tuesday, the court approved a contract with Front Line Consulting to serve as the PMC.

Speaking to reporters after the Tuesday meeting, Eckhardt said that she expected it to take a while for the county to find companies willing and able to do the work. Many local contractors, she said, were unsure of whether they should seek the GEC contract because taking on that role would preclude them from bidding on individual bond projects.

It is important, however, that the process begin to speed up, she said. She and other commissioners, she said, have taken the position that the county should not ask for bond funding unless it plans to spend it in a defined period of time. The 2017 bond projects are supposed to be complete by 2022.

There is still money from the 2011 county bond program that has not yet been spent. In bringing in the third-party entities to help oversee the 2017 bond, the Commissioners Court is hoping that county staff will be able to get the rest of the 2011 projects done. County staff will also oversee some of the 2017 projects and the county has contracted with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to oversee two roads projects.

The 2017 bond, which was approved by 73 percent of voters, is divided into two categories: infrastructure and parks/conservation.

The $93.5 million for infrastructure includes seven bicycle safety projects worth about $25 million, such as the addition of bike lanes on Old San Antonio Road between the Austin city limit and the Hays County line. It also includes roughly $25 million for eight drainage improvements and bridges, about $8 million on pedestrian projects, and the remaining $31 million on expanding existing roadways, such as a new two-lane roadway between State Highway 130 and Colony Boulevard that is estimated to cost $11.9 million.

The parks and conservation package is worth $91.5 million. A large chunk of that – $38.2 million – will go to acquiring land or executing conservation easements. The rest will be on parks improvements that the GEC and PMC will oversee, notably the construction of the $23.5 million Bee Creek Sports Complex.

So far, only one of the projects is done.

“All of the rest of the projects are not shovel-ready yet,” said Eckhardt to county staff during the meeting. “That is concerning to me, since we are coming up on the one-year mark of a five-year program.”

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty similarly expressed concern, saying that the court should get regular updates on the progress of the bond projects to make sure they get done within the planned timeline.

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