By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large
At the end of a long, rough road, the Interstate-35 towns in Hays County could wind up with more road improvements than once thought under a tortured pass-through financing agreement with the state.
Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) said Wednesday that talks with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) are seriously addressing the possibility of re-trenching $47 million once ear-marked for RR 12 to improve I-35 and its access roads under a re-worked agreement.
“My hope is that we might be able to shift some of the money from RR 12, since there’s no community consensus about addressing that road,” Barton said. “They (TxDOT) see that this part of the county has consistently and diligently tried to make something happen on FM 1626.”
Barton said the state agency is interested in designating some of the funds to remedy one of the most notorious traffic tangles along I-35 — the intersection of Exit 217 and its highway access roads, particularly the west side access road that feeds the southbound interstate.
TxDOT also is considering improvements to I-35 through Buda, which, said Barton, is “one of the most dangerous and crowded traffic areas in the county.” An additional possibility, Barton said, is that TxDOT could put in a new interstate overpass in the Buda-Kyle area. Based on discussion in open court last month, the county and TxDOT are likely to work out an allocation for U.S. 290 in the Dripping Springs area.
Barton said county officials will meet again with TxDOT officials before the end of next week. A newly constituted pass-through agreement could go to the commissioners court before the end of March.
The upshot is that this twisting, turning saga could end with the Interstate eastern towns of Hays County receiving the lion’s share of $133.2 million in state road funds after officials fretted not long ago that they might receive nothing. As is often the case, a convoluted story could wind towards a surprising conclusion.
The former commissioners court and TxDOT agreed in the summer of 2006 that the county would front the money to improve state roads, with TxDOT reimbursing the county up to $133.2 million over 20 years. But the voters installed three new court members in November 2006 and the new county judge, Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley), immediately challenged the pass-through financing agreement.
After the new court finally emerged from contentious negotiations with a $172 million road package to put before voters in a May 2007 bond election, the initiative failed, with 52.37 percent of the voters in opposition. Equally telling, the vote confirmed a clear split within Hays County concerning the desirability of road projects.
The less-populated Hill Country west, led by Wimberley and Woodcreek, came out in force to vote against the bond, protesting proposed improvements to RR 12 between San Marcos and Wimberley. Bond opponents in the west railed against RR 12 growing into a super highway that would flood the Hill Country with unwanted traffic.
In the more populous Interstate east, where heavy traffic has become a way of life, voters sought to relieve congestion and supported the bond issue to the extent that they stood to gain roadway. Buda voters, hoping for improvements to FM 1626, produced heavy turnout overwhelmingly in support of the bond. But Kyle, with little obviously at stake, turned out fewer than ten percent of its voters, as did San Marcos.
When TxDOT subsequently asked the county about its intentions after the failed election, the court majority crafted a vague response saying it wanted to keep the agreement alive, but did not offer specifics. At that point, eastern road advocates worried that the county was in breach and the agreement would be lost. Later, elected officials on the county’s east side trembled as Sumter, a voting member on the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Commission (CAMPO), went against TxDOT pet toll projects in the Austin area.
But interests in Buda and San Marcos continued pressing to keep the pass-through agreement alive. San Marcos requested, and received, county authorization to front $29.4 for SH 110 and receive reimbursement from TxDOT as provided in the pass-through agreement. Meanwhile, Sumter faced a tough crowd when she met with Buda-area citizens last summer to discuss road projects.
The tide really turned in October, when Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) began voting with Barton and Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos), establishing a new court majority on road projects. Until then, Ingalsbe generally voted with Sumter and Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs).
Armed with a new majority, Barton passed a report into the record with the county’s strongest language to date in support of the pass-through agreement. Later, the commissioners voted, 3-2, to begin engineering on FM 1626 with a $1.7 million appropriation. As all this occurred, local officials still didn’t know for sure if TxDOT would maintain the pass-through agreement.
TxDOT finally broke the ice in December, telling commissioners they could either let the agreement expire, carry out the agreement despite the bond failure, carry out the agreement without RR 12, or carry out the agreement by replacing RR 12 with road projects to be agreed upon between TxDOT and the county. Commissioners have since worked with TxDOT on the last of those options, leading to discussions concerning the improvements to I-35.
The unlikely turn-about certainly isn’t lost on Barton. Despite the failed bond election and the county’s dismissiveness towards TxDOT during most of the last year, the agreement is alive. Despite a TxDOT funding crisis triggering job losses at engineering firms throughout Texas, the state agency is still willing to maintain the agreement.
Most remarkably: After worrying they would receive no state money because the western minority shouted down the eastern majority in the May election, road advocates in the county’s eastern half now could wind up with well more than $100 million in pass-through money, due to a chain of events that began because the western minority shouted down the eastern majority in the May election.
Said Barton, “Wouldn’t that be something?”