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As the planet warms, Brigid Shea is planning Travis County’s response

Friday, December 27, 2019 by Jack Craver

Commissioner Brigid Shea may have been elected to handle issues at the county level, but her focus is global.

“My major focus in running for reelection, I believe very strongly as community leaders that we have to do more to prepare people for climate change,” she says.

She’s appalled by the state and federal governments’ lack of action, which she believes will bring especially dire consequences in Central Texas, where scorching summers have gotten even hotter in recent years and increased the threat of wildfires. More extreme weather events also bring the prospect of devastating floods.

“A lot of state leadership has willfully ignored the science and has instructed their own scientists to not use the language (of global warming),” she says.

It’s therefore county government’s duty, she believes, to do what it can to prepare for the potentially disastrous effects of climate change. It’s particularly important for people in the Austin area to stop using so much water, as it may not be so plentiful in years to come.

“Our region will be much hotter and much drier, and on an epic scale in terms of drier,” she says.

Shea led a successful push to put in place a purple pipe system in a handful of the county’s largest buildings, including the administration building and the new courthouse. “We’re saving 10 million gallons a year and nobody is noticing,” she says.

She has collaborated with a neighborhood in her precinct to set up a neighborhood fire drill, a voluntary exercise where members of the community practice evacuating in the event of wildfire. The Comanche Trail neighborhood, which comprises about 200 homes just north of Hippie Hollow, conducted the first such drill in March, and residents of other neighborhoods have shown interest in following suit.

Shea’s concern about natural disasters is why she has a zero-tolerance policy for residential developments that don’t have at least two ways out. She was the only commissioner to oppose two RV parks due to a lack of secondary access.

She was likewise disappointed to see a large group of her constituents in Steiner Ranch vehemently oppose the construction of a road through the development that was largely prompted by concerns over evacuation in the event of a natural disaster. Wildfires destroyed 23 homes in the area in 2011.

The opposition from residents likely led the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization to divert funding that the county was counting on for Route F to the I-35 project, says Shea. The county didn’t have enough money to do the road itself, so it opted for a less ambitious project – an evacuation route that will be gated, so it can only be accessed during emergencies. Of course, another large group of people were unhappy about the result, notably residents of the nearby Montview community, which the road traverses.

Shea says much of the conversation about the issue wasn’t “super logical.” She recalls one man standing up at a meeting amidst a conversation about how the new plans might affect a park where kids often play soccer.

“He said, ‘I don’t give a damn about the kids or the park, I just want to know if this will hurt my property values.’”

“And he got applauded for that,” Shea exclaims. “I was horrified.”

She has similarly been disappointed by how stubbornly the community resists the county’s efforts to increase enrollment in a text alert system for natural disasters (Warn Central Texas).

“We’ve had a big campaign to try to boost participation in these signups. We added it to (county) employee orientation,” she says. “We’re not moving the needle on the signups. It’s just ridiculous how hard it is.”

Shea anticipates the revenue caps imposed by the state Legislature could lead to competition between local governments over increasingly limited tax dollars.

“You’re going to see more squabbling over shrinking resources,” she says, pointing to the current spat between the city and county over hotel tax dollars and the sale of the Palm School.

Even when it comes to fiscal policy, climate is front and center in Shea’s mind. She notes that rating agencies take into consideration whether local governments have climate action plans when rating their bonds. Mega-investment firm BlackRock recently signaled serious concern about municipal bonds due to the economic threat of climate change, particularly in coastal areas.

“It’s literally life and death and we’re not dealing with it,” she says. “We’re not taking it seriously.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated. It previously suggested that CAMPO had designated funds for Route F it later withdrew. In fact, CAMPO never designated funds for the project.

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