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

February 10th, 2008
Coming to a head

By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large

Tuesday figures to as another dramatic moment in the endless saga of state roads in Hays County.

In a ten-page missive issued through various agents in Precinct 2, Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) announced that he will ask for a straight up-or-down vote to front state road improvements by the issue of revenue bonds at this week’s meeting.

Barton wants to issue revenue bonds, which don’t require voter approval, to at least fund engineering so the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) can move the projects on its schedule, which calls for projects to be bid in May. Hays County Judge Liz Sumter has come out in favor of a May bond election, in which case the county couldn’t hand funds over to TxDOT until June even if voters approve.

Without laboring through the long history of the county’s pass-through financing agreement with TxDOT, the basics are straightforward.

TxDOT is willing to expand FM 1626, build a loop in southeastern San Marcos (SH 110), finish improvements to US 290, turn the access roads on Interstate-35 through Buda and Kyle to one way, improve overpasses and turn-arounds on I-35 through Buda and Kyle, and re-route SH 150 in eastern Kyle.

However, TxDOT lacks the funding or the borrowing authority to start those projects. So, Hays County would have to front the costs for those improvements. TxDOT promises to reimburse the county up to $133.2 million over the next 20 years.

The county would have to borrow the money. The county could issue general obligation bonds, which require voter approval. Or, the county could issue revenue bonds with TxDOT’s promise of repayment as security. Barton will call for the county to issue revenue bonds, which don’t require voter approval, because, he says, the county simply doesn’t have time to execute the technicalities necessary for a May bond election.

Barton’s plan calls for issuing revenue bonds to start the work in TxDOT’s time frame, then call a bond election for November to fund the rest. The extra time before a November bond vote would enable the county to assemble a bond committee and account for other transportation developments in the next few months.

Quoting Barton’s letter:

Some are arguing against revenue bonds, arguing that we can wait and put everything to a vote in May […] But failing to issue revenue bonds now – even if it’s only for engineering and utilities, and maybe right-of-way acquisition – means critical delays, time in which traffic will grow worse, environmental clearances may expire. It means more time for the state to change its mind and back out on the deal. (We have painstakingly negotiated a deal with the staff at TxDOT, but we still have to get approval from the Texas Transportation Commission, the five-member body appointed by the governor. We’re supposed to go before them later this month. If our message to them is “keep on waiting, we’ll have an election and let you know” … well, it might not blow the deal but it sure gives me stomach acid thinking about everything that could go wrong.)

Almost certainly, Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos) will join Barton in voting to issue revenue bonds. Just as certainly, County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) and Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) will vote against it. That puts the frequently vacillating countenance of Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) clearly on the hot seat as the swing vote.

It figures to be an intense morning of conversation among the commissioners before a full house in San Marcos. The stakes are high and, at this late hour, the outcome remains uncertain.

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