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Between storms and traffic, Travis County tries to stay afloat

Wednesday, December 5, 2018 by Ryan Thornton

A growing influx of vehicles to Travis County paired with the effects of the climate crisis has the county struggling to provide the infrastructure needed to simultaneously absorb the effects of both. At the same time, the recent Atlas 14 rainfall standards have piled extra time and expenses on top of an unprecedented number of construction projects lined up for the 2017-2022 Bond Program.

As a result, Transportation and Natural Resources, the department responsible for the management of the 60 individual projects within the Bond Program, has developed a new implementation strategy that includes use of a general engineering consultant (GEC) and a program manager consultant (PMC). TNR staff briefed the Commissioners Court Tuesday morning, saying the new strategy should help meet the bond’s Dec. 31, 2022, deadline.

The county brought in the two firms earlier this year before Atlas 14 – a study of regional rainfall averages by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – standards were adopted. Commissioners Court approved Travis Transportation Partners as county GEC on March 27 and Frontline Consulting as county PMC on Sept. 4. Following adoption of the new rainfall standards, a number of 2017 bond projects were expanded to the tune of $22 million.

The 2017-2022 Bond Program now totals over $300 million and consists of $184,940,000 from the Nov. 7, 2017, bond election, $94,955,309 in critical safety projects to be paid with certificates of obligation and the $22 million for adjustments based on the Atlas 14 study.

Jessy Milner, COO of Frontline Consulting and 2017 bond project manager, said he was optimistic about the 2017 bond despite the unique challenges facing the county. Milner told the court the new approach has been an adjustment for TNR but has already made department operations more efficient since the firm started its work in September.

Each of the 60 projects must go through a four-step process that consists of design, right-of-way acquisition, utility relocation and construction. The design stage has already been initiated on 13 of these projects and 12 more are in various stages of procurement, according to a report by TNR Public Works Director Morgan Cotten. By May 1, 2019, 40 of the projects are expected to be in the project delivery process.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt highlighted the feat facing the county in the 2017 bond. “We’re pushing four times as many projects through the pipe as we ever have before,” she said. “This is really a seismic growth in the product of our Transportation and Natural Resources department.”

Recent floods exacerbated by climate change and traffic congestion were on the commissioners’ minds as they discussed the urgent need to deal with low-water crossings and inefficient evacuation routes. However, funds don’t currently exist to deal with the growing list of locations that may present a danger in the case of a natural disaster or emergency evacuation.

“I do think this may be one of those realities that we’ll have to grapple with as a county, as we experience more and more extreme flooding, more threats from wildfires. I think we are going to be looking at potentially higher costs for infrastructure solutions which we know won’t completely solve the problem,” said Commissioner Brigid Shea.

Shea said building bridges over low-water crossings and other infrastructure projects have limited potential to help people during an emergency if congestion on Travis County’s major routes stays at its current levels.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty put some of the blame for our current predicament at the feet of Travis County voters. “A large number of people in this community have fought added roadway capacity, and where we are now is we are having to pay the fiddler,” he said.

The $22 million added following the Atlas 14 study will be added to the revised cash issuance schedule and discussed at Commissioners Court during the Dec. 11 voting session.

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