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Friday, December 27, 2019 by Jack Craver
Jeff Travillion says it’s time to pay attention to eastern Travis County
Jeff Travillion believes it’s time for the east side to get some love from local leaders. While private dollars are transforming the look and feel of much of East Austin and making it increasingly hard for many longtime residents to afford housing, public investment remains woefully insufficient, says Travillion, who just finished his third year representing the northeast quadrant of the county on the Travis County Commissioners Court.
To Travillion, nothing better illustrates the political establishment’s indifference to the east side than the debate between the county and the city of Austin over hotel tax dollars. By approving a $1.3 billion reconstruction and expansion of the convention center downtown, City Council effectively blocked Travis County from pursuing its desired renovation of the exposition center on Decker Lane.
“We have to really analyze all of the public spending so that we can make sure that investment doesn’t only go in one place,” Travillion said. “You can’t say that downtown is deprived of anything. But when we have the opportunity to invest $1.3 billion, do we spread that around the entire county, where people who have been displaced actually live?”
While Travillion is upset about that decision, which he believes reinforces the historic neglect of the eastern crescent, he is upbeat about work the county is doing with other governmental entities, notably school districts and the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, to provide critical services to his constituents.
“I’ve been working pretty diligently with (Capital Metro CEO) Randy Clarke” to increase transit options for communities to the north and east of the city.
He touts the recently completed renovation of the Norwood Transit Center in the parking lot of the Walmart northeast of Interstate 35 and U.S. Highway 183. The $700,000 project includes real-time countdown signs, new shelters and security cameras.
Long-term, Travillion is pushing for Capital Metro to prioritize the Green Line, a commuter rail route that would run between Manor and downtown Austin, serving several other east side areas in between.
Critics have contended there are not nearly enough riders on that route to justify the steep cost of a new rail line. Travillion dismisses the criticism, saying it reflects typical downtown-focused bias and that the projected population growth in the areas served by the Green Line will prove the project worthy.
“We think that in the very near term, you’ll get the density that you need,” he says.
Similarly, he has pushed for more affordable housing in his district, despite objections from housing officials who are reluctant to put more income-restricted units in high-poverty areas, such as Decker Lake and Austin’s Colony.
Sure, those areas appear “low-opportunity” now, says Travillion, but in a few years that may very well change due to rapid population growth and billions of dollars of investment in nearby Colony Park. With limited dollars, local governments should buy up land while it’s cheap and provide permanent affordable housing that will protect low-income residents from displacement if and when those areas gentrify – which he believes they eventually will.
“We should be buying this land, putting it into trust,” he says.
Like the rest of his colleagues on the court, Travillion does not relish a future under the new property tax caps imposed by the state Legislature last year.
The 3.5 percent per-year limit will make it very difficult for local government to deliver basic services, he says, suggesting that lawmakers who approved the legislation did not understand what programs they were putting at risk.
Do state leaders not understand the impact of the revenue caps, or do they simply not care? Travillion laughs: “No comment.”
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