San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

February 1st, 2008
TxDOT pitches new road plan

By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large

SAN MARCOS – Painting a bleak picture of future mobility improvements, state transportation officials presented Hays County commissioners with a sense of urgency and a revised pass-through road financing proposal at a special meeting Thursday morning.

As foretold three weeks ago by Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle), the new iteration shifts state money from RR 12 to Interstate-35 between FM 1327 in Buda to Yarrington Road in Kyle.

The former commissioners court and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) agreed in 2006 that the county would front $155.8 million for state road improvements, with the state reimbursing up to $133.2 million over 20 years. That agreement lost traction in May 2007, when voters rejected a $172 million bond package. Since then, county road advocates have worked furiously to maintain fruitful relations with TxDOT, hoping to keep some kind of agreement alive.

The new pass-through proposal would include FM 1626, as always. The county already has agreed to let the city of San Marcos to front the costs on FM 110, for which the city would spend $29.4 million and the Texas Department of Transportation would reimburse $17.6 million.

SH 21, on which the state and county were going to split $8 million in improvements through a side agreement, is off the table, though TxDOT Austin District chief Bob Daigh told commissioners that demands on the road could force the state to act in the future. Daigh added that the county could try to fund RR 12 improvements with state money, but the state would insist on reimbursement of $15-20 million on U.S. 290, where the state began work after the former court approved the original pass-through agreement.

Commissioners responded Tuesday by unanimously approving the new version “in concept,” while agreeing to negotiate details with TxDOT. However, the track record established by these commissioners predicts that the greater challenge will lie in negotiating the details amongst themselves.

As is his custom whenever he visits Hays County, Daigh warned that funding for new state roadways is soon to become an artifact of memory. Daigh has given the same speech in Hays County at least twice per year since 2002. The difference this time is that TxDOT recently trimmed its engineering budget 57 percent and its right-of-way acquisition budget 50 percent, so even the skeptics started believing him.

“The situation now is even worse than I had figured,” Daigh said. “These dollars are truly scarce, scarce dollars. If these dollars go away, it will be a long time before dollars of that magnitude come to Hays County.”

Daigh went so far as to say TxDOT sees no new road projects being contracted past 2011. Describing TxDOT’s money woes, Daigh cited flat gas tax revenues due to fuel economy, increasing maintenance requirements as growth turns country roads into heavily traveled suburban roads, and a $666 million cut in federal transportation aid with more to come.

“Mr. Daigh described TxDOT’s funding situation as ‘dim,’ ” said Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos). “I would call it ‘dark.’ ”

Daigh and local TxDOT engineer Don Nyland proposed that $52 million of the tortured agreement with Hays County be transferred from RR 12 to pay for improvements on Interstate-35. Key improvements to I-35 through Northern Hays County would include:

1. Conversion of all the access roads in Buda and Kyle to one-way from two, relieving a dicey and dangerous situation in the daily lives of local drivers;

2. The relocation of the southbound off-ramp to the Kyle Parkway, which would move further north so exiting cars wouldn’t back up to the Interstate. Combined with one-way frontage roads, the change would enable TxDOT to time the lights at Kyle Parkway more efficiently, relieving back-ups that already have grown to legend in just the few months since the lights were activated;

3. A re-routing of SH 150 from Center Street to the east, which would keep drivers off the east side access road. Indeed, because that access road will go one way towards the north, the new extension of SH 150 becomes necessary, lest drivers coming from Austin to eastern Kyle would have to exit at Yarrington Road, take the overpass back across the Interstate and hit the east access road going north to reach the main road back to their homes.

TxDOT also included tight time lines, which could compel the commissioners to produce funding through revenue bonds that could be issued quickly and don’t require voter approval. The revenue bonds would be financed mostly by the pass-through funds from TxDOT.

The I-35 improvements would cost $66.6 million, about $14 million more than the RR 12 improvements they would replace on the agreement. Kyle City Manager Tom Mattis said the city could make $11 million of its funds from the State Infrastructure Bank (SIB) available to defray that expense, since many of the I-35 improvements are on the city’s wish list.

Beyond agreeing to negotiate with TxDOT on the new offer, commissioners must now decide how to generate funds so work can begin. A bond election to fund the entire scope of projects seems unlikely due to timing issues.

If commissioners wanted to call a May election, they would have barely more than a month to decide on a bond package and place it on the ballot 60 days in advance, as required by law. And a November election doesn’t work with TxDOT’s time frame, which calls for $37 million of the Interstate work to be contracted during the 2008 fiscal year.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton went on record saying the county should seriously consider revenue bonds, if only to fund enough improvements to start work. Barton expressed additional concern that the county needs to generate money quickly because funds for engineering on FM 1626, approved last October, will run out in the spring.

Thursday’s developments marked a dramatic change of direction for the pass-through financing agreement, feared to be all but dead by road advocates after Hays County voters turned it back in last year’s election.

Voters in the county’s western portion turned out heavily against the agreement, believing a proposed widening and straightening of RR 12 from San Marcos towards Wimberley would promote too much traffic. Voters in the Buda area turned out heavily for the sake of improvements to FM 1626. However, voters in Kyle and Dripping Springs stayed home, having nothing to gain but a tax increase.

Only 10,190 voters, or 10.78 percent of the county’s registered voting roll, turned out for the May 2007 election. The bond failed in a divided county, where 5,336 (52.37 percent) voted in opposition and 4,854 (47.63 percent) voted in its favor.

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