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County scrapes together budget for a pass-through project

Wednesday, May 26, 2021 by Seth Smalley

Last week, the Travis County Commissioners Court fielded a briefing regarding funding for the FM 969 pass-through from the county Public Works Division.

David Greear, the assistant public works director, presented an overview of the project to commissioners.

Public Works entered a finance agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation to finance the FM 969 pass-through project. “I just think it’s one of the most important arteries moving from west to east,” Commissioner Jeffrey Travillion said.

“It was an opportunity for Travis County to proceed on a project that was a state project, but they did not have the funds, so the county said, we will provide the funds, we will work with the design and construction,” Greear told commissioners.

TxDOT defines pass-through financing as “a tool the state created to stretch already limited tax highway dollars and to allow local communities to fund upfront costs for constructing a state highway project.” In other words, it’s a way for local communities to finance local stretches of state highways that would otherwise be too expensive for the state to finance.

The agreement indicates that TxDOT will reimburse any funds spent for the project.

The pass-through project is split into two phases. Phase one, which added a center left-turn lane, shoulders and a sidewalk from Decker Lane to 973, has already been completed.

“We are now in the phase two portion,” Greear said. “We are ready for construction, and TxDOT is ready to start the project this August.”

Phase two comprises the stretch of road from 973 to Hunters Bend Road.

However, TxDOT requires the estimated construction cost bonds “in tech stocks” 60 days before the project ends. Greear went on to explain that Public Works is about $7.7 million short of the amount it needs to provide to TxDOT.

This budget shortfall is the reason Public Works came to commissioners on April 20, “to discuss some options for that budget.”

In April, the commissioners had recommended that Public Works forgo reimbursements from TxDOT for the next 20 years, so that TxDOT would front the $7.7 million.

“They turned around and said, no, we cannot accept that. They said that we need to provide funds up front, that they were willing to be agreeable to a payment plan, in essence, where we would pay them what we have right now and then continue payments for the next two years,” Greear told the commissioners.

Stuck as the go-between in TxDOT and the Commissioners Court’s negotiations, Greear proposed an alternative.

“We could provide TxDOT up front $2.9 million we have in our budget minus what TxDOT should be reimbursing us for the last two years from a prior resolution. So it comes down to $2.4 million that we’ll be providing to TxDOT, and then we’ll be providing the remaining $7.6 million over two years, at approximately $3.8 million per year.”

Travis Gatlin, the county’s budget director, continued the presentation, saying that while the first year of the plan is achievable under Transportation and Natural Resources’ current budget, for the next two years they’d have to look at ways to divert other sources of budgeting to fund the project.

“We’ve already looked at potential for about $1.3 million in investment income that was on the proceeds for the project – we can utilize those funds to bring that down. … So we’ve identified about $1.8 million of the $7.6 million, so we’re down to about $5.8 million. And then we’ll, as I mentioned, we’ll make a recommendation on if we should use cash for that, or some type of debt financing mechanisms so we can fulfill the new amended contract,” Gatlin said.

No actions were required by the commissioners during the voting session.

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