Hays County Judge Liz Sumter, left, and Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley, left, at last week’s meeting of the Hays County Commissioners Court. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
After waiting in vain for three years for federal approval, San Marcos officials have proceeded with efforts to improve the two-lane, pot-hole-ridden portion of East McCarty Lane. However, the city’s work on the road has opened a conflict between the city and Hays County, which stands to lose a small portion of state reimbursement from the state for a package of road projects including that portion of McCarty Lane.
The city began the road work against the stated wishes of Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) and in the face of earlier criticism from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). Now, officials indicate that the city’s movement on the road could cost the county up to $4 million in “pass through” funds from TxDOT.
TxDOT recently said the city can move ahead with construction, though a spokesperson for the agency said the city’s initiation of road improvements may result in a slightly smaller state reimbursement and more public meetings for residents affected by the road work.
Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos), whose precinct includes that portion of McCarty Lane, said a city investment in the project is enough to offset a reduction in state reimbursements.
The city began improvements to McCarty Lane in April, when San Marcos Capital Improvements Projects (CIP) Director David Healey told the city council that the construction work would cost 30 percent less than city’s estimate of $6.5 million. Healey said the project should be complete by Thanksgiving.
The city is turning approximately one mile of McCarty Lane into a four-lane urban roadway featuring a raised bridge, median, landscaping, irrigation, hike and bike areas and lighting.
The county has an agreement with TxDOT whereby the county would fund various road projects and receive $133.17 million in Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) dollars, which would be “passed through” TxDOT to the county. The “pass through” agreement includes FM 110, a loop around southeastern San Marcos that includes East McCarty Lane.
The pass through agreement, originally reached in 2006, was jeopardized when county voters declined a $172 million road bond election in May 2007. However, road warriors on the Hays County Commissioners Court, specifically Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) and Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-Wimberley), fought to keep the pass-through money on the table until county voters passed a $207 million road bond in November 2008.
The disputed thoroughfare calls for approximately two-miles of five and four-lane roadway from Interstate-35 to SH 123 for an estimated cost of $29.35 million, according to the county. The project is part of the first segment of the FM 110 project, or San Marcos Loop, which would approximately follow the eastern city limits from Yarrington Road to McCarty Lane.
Between May 2007 and November 2008, while the fate of the pass-through agreement was uncertain, San Marcos officials offered to pick up a portion of the FM 110 project that includes McCarty Lane. As the 2008 road bond election approached, the county and city reached an agreement calling for the city to pay $9 million of the project. City officials and residents have long been concerned that McCarty Lane is unsafe and inappropriate as a main thoroughfare to San Marcos High School, which opened its location on Old Bastrop Highway on the east side of town in 2007.
But further work by the county on the first segment of FM 110 has been stalled pending FHWA approval. FHWA requires extensive environmental studies and public meetings before it releases reimbursement funds for projects of FM 110’s scope.
More than two weeks ago, Sumter said further work on East McCarty Lane could jeopardize as much as $15.8 million in pass through reimbursements to the county.
San Marcos Assistant City Manager Laurie Moyer said early last week that the county has been waiting six years for FHWA approval. Moyer later became he city’s interim city manager after the San Marcos City Council voted, 4-3, late last week to fire City Manager Rick Menchaca.
Said Moyer, “The bottom line is that, if you put yourself in the perspective of our city council and Commissioner Ingalsbe, that piece of McCarty is in the city limits, in the county, and you’ve got — including myself, so I can relate — all these parents driving back and forth to that high school every day on this little two-lane road in a flood plain that floods out — potholes, everything — and they’re like, ‘Why can’t you guys do something about it? Fix the road. What do we pay taxes for?’ And so, the city said, ‘Okay, we’re going to get out there and get something done.'”
Sumter told her commissioners court colleagues last week that they should ask San Marcos to halt all work on the McCarty Lane project.
“Are we willing to waive that particular phrasing in the interlocal agreement where we require that they be federally-qualified (roads)?” Sumter asked.
Sumter said the longer the city continues work on McCarty Lane, the less “flexibility” the county has. Sumter added that until the FHWA issues a letter of authority qualifying the FM 110 project for federal funds, the county should not risk less of a reimbursement.
Sumter initiated the discussion last week after Ingalsbe motioned to table an agenda item for possible action, under which county staff would ask the city to halt work on the road. Ingalsbe said she had a “very successful meeting” with TxDOT officials the day before, and said the situation was under control. As Sumter began to voice her concerns, Conley interrupted her by seconding Ingalsbe’s motion, though the discussion continued. Ingalsbe later withdrew her motion and the court took no action.
“You’re talking about technicalities here, Liz,” Conley said. “You’re really splitting hairs here. Everybody’s in the know, everybody understands what’s going on. We’re moving forward in an appropriate way. If you want to have legal discussions about phrases and sentences in a legal document, that’s fine … But everybody in this — there’s no concerns or issues or liabilities to the citizens of Hays County.”
Sumter said voters approved the $207 million in road bonds with the expectation that the county would receive $133 in pass through funds. Ingalsbe said the city’s contribution would enable the county to issue less bond debt. Barton wondered if the county would be compensated to a greater extent by the city’s investment in McCarty Lane than by federal funds passed through the state.
“We calculated — this is from (Prime Strategies consultant) Mike Weaver, it’s just an estimate — that our decrease, maybe, in reimbursement, would be approximately $3-4 million,” Ingalsbe said. “The City of San Marcos has invested, or is investing, over $9 million to the project. So that’s money that we didn’t have, we weren’t going to be able to come up with, so, yes, we’ll still have a net gain.”
TxDOT Public Affairs officer John Hurt said any reduction in reimbursement to the county would “be a relatively small amount,” which he declined to estimate.
“There do need to be some changes made to the environmental document on one count,” Hurt said. “The pass-through agreement, the project — none of that’s in jeopardy of termination. There may be some adjustments made, but we’re not looking at anything that’s going to have a huge or cataclysmic impact on the project.”
Moyer said the requirements of FHWA’s environmental document do not differ from what the city has already fulfilled, except that the federal assessment requires “a very defined process” involving more public hearings.
“Part of what we’re saying is, we’re building the road in an already roadway area,” Moyer said. “We’re not creating some new road. It’s a road that was already there. So that’s why it was like, ‘Why should you have this big public thing to go through this alignment when the alignment’s right there?'”
On May 25, San Marcos Planning and Zoning (P&Z) commissioners discussed asking the county to rename McCarty Road “Rattler Road” in honor of San Marcos High School. One resident who spoke during the P&Z meeting suggested that the whole San Marcos Loop be called “Rattler Road” instead of the proposed “FM 110.”
The high schools’ recently graduated senior class is campaigning for at least a portion of the road to be named after their mascot. The San Marcos City Council last week approved, on first reading, a resolution to designate as “Rattler Road” a portion of McCarty Lane from its intersection with Old Bastrop Highway to its current end point at the city limit line near the school.Email | Print