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Travis County, CAMPO luck out with shared-use path project

Tuesday, July 2, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

In a fortunate turn of events, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization has found an appropriate use for $1,069,919 that could have slipped back into the state’s hands this year.

The agency received notice only a few months ago that it still had access to the Transportation Set-Aside funding to use by Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year. At its June 10 meeting, the Transportation Policy Board approved putting all of that money into a shared-use bridge project to break ground this fall.

Most of the money, $1,022,856, was initially awarded to Travis County in 2014 for a shared-use path and sidewalk project at FM 973 and Elroy Road, at the southeast corner of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Another $47,000 was also set to expire if not used for a similar purpose.

In negotiating the Elroy Road project, however, the Texas Department of Transportation recently agreed to take responsibility for implementation but also decided to move the project and funding timeline down the road to Fiscal Year 2021-22 at the earliest.

Because the Transportation Set-Aside funds are only available within a four-year window, the money that was initially allocated for that project was suddenly available to be used for other purposes. If not, the state would either send the funds to a different regional planning organization or to the federal government to be redistributed to a different state.

With the money freed up and relatively little time to spend it, CAMPO went to the TxDOT Austin District in search of an eligible project that would be ready to make use of the funds immediately.

“In an ideal world, if we have money to obligate we would want to take it to a competitive call or revisit the previous call where we did have active transportation projects,” said Ryan Collins, a short-range planning manager at CAMPO. “But because we’re on the three-month time frame, we weren’t able to do that because TxDOT is really the only one that is able to move forward with a project that quickly.”

Another constraint was that the Transportation Set-Aside funds are designed to be used for bicycle and pedestrian mobility projects, with only a few exceptions.

According to Ashby Johnson, executive director of CAMPO, the Austin District had only one eligible project that was ready to go this fall: a shared-use path and bridge along U.S. Highway 290 traversing State Highway 130 in eastern Travis County.

While the final buildout will include shared-use paths on both sides of U.S. 290, Collins said the project will only construct the southern half.

The project will now be added to the Transportation Improvement Program when it is revised again in August and will then be set for construction in early fall.

Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea expressed discomfort at the lack of foresight that led to the project details being decided so quickly and almost risking forfeiture of over a million dollars in state funding.

“It would be pretty useful to know if another million dollars is freed up on a project and entities and the MPO could use it,” she said.

Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long, however, put some of the blame back on Travis County for letting the funds sit unused since 2014 and failing to keep a closer watch on the deadline.

“It’s a two-way street,” Long said. “If Williamson County is awarded project money and for whatever reason we don’t start it, we don’t do it, we need to be early on in that process so that we don’t get in this situation again.”

To avoid this situation in the future, Johnson said the agency has recently adopted an internal project tracking process that will help it make use of funds before they are at risk of expiration.

That will also provide enough time to send projects out for a standard competitive bidding process, which this approximately three-month time frame could not accommodate.

Prior to having that tool, Johnson said, the only warnings CAMPO received were rare short-notice emails from the state.

“We don’t get a whole bunch of notices,” he said.

The project was approved unanimously with Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and Bastrop County Commissioner Clara Beckett voting by proxy.

Photo by Lars Plougmann made available through a Creative Commons license.

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