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Council: TxDOT should pay for underpass cleanup

Thursday, March 28, 2019 by Jo Clifton

Several members of the Austin City Council expressed anger at the Texas Department of Transportation after learning at Tuesday’s work session that the city would have to pick up the cost of cleaning up the state’s property at city underpasses. Council Member Leslie Pool was the only one, however, who argued that perhaps the city should postpone signing a contract to get the work done.

There is no question about the need for the cleanups and several neighborhoods have asked the city to deal with the problem more frequently. While the city emphasizes housing the homeless, the underpasses continue to be an ugly reminder that the problem remains unsolved.

Council will be considering an item on today’s agenda for a $1,560,000 contract with WorkQuest to provide debris removal and management at 61 underpasses and bridges throughout the city over a four-year period. WorkQuest has been doing the same work for several years under a contract with TxDOT and the state has picked up the tab. But that is no longer the case.

As Richard Mendoza, director of the Public Works Department, explained at the work session, although TxDOT has been paying for the work for years, the agency has always viewed cleaning up homeless encampments as “elective work.” The city is under a municipal maintenance agreement for the state rights of way within the city limits, he said.

While TxDOT agrees that the state is responsible for the care of any vegetation growing there, the agency believes it is not responsible for dealing with the trash generated by homeless people living under the bridges and underpasses. Mendoza said TxDOT considered its trash cleanup work voluntary, but because of the cost of recent flooding, the agency will not be doing trash cleanups anymore.

Both Pool and Council Member Kathie Tovo said that making the city pay for the cleanups amounts to yet another unfunded mandate from the state. Pool questioned whether Council could simply put off the decision by not taking action this week, but she did not find support for that idea.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, whose constituents often express concern about the numbers of homeless people living under bridges and overpasses, was quick to point out that the city cannot simply ignore the problem as it is a health and safety issue.

Tovo said she was surprised by TxDOT’s decision because just 18 months ago the agency had pulled together a group of stakeholders, including a member of Tovo’s staff, to discuss how to more holistically serve those living under the overpasses. In those conversations, the city and others discussed how strapped for money they were and thus unable to afford more housing. “So for TxDOT to go from a proactive, holistic approach,” to no longer participating in solving the problem, is “surprising and unfortunate and I’m really concerned about it,” she concluded.

Mayor Steve Adler took the opportunity, as he often does, to talk about the fact that the city needs to add 3.8 percent to its budget each year just to keep up with everything it was paying for in the previous year. Some legislators, of course, have been discussing limiting the city’s authority to raise revenues. Cities across the state have expressed alarm at the idea that the state might be able to limit their tax increases to 2.5 percent without an election. TxDOT’s decision to stop paying for underpass cleanup adds to the list of unfunded mandates that the city and its representatives can discuss when budget caps are debated.

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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