Hays County Commissioners Debbie Ingalsbe, left, and Jeff Barton, right, at Tuesday’s meeting of the Hays County Commissioners Court. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
After fruitless attempts to gain funding from the city and the state, Hays County commissioners expressed frustration Tuesday at the prospect of spending $240,000 for traffic lights at the intersection of Stagecoach Trail and Wonder World Drive, where the county will open a $72 million administration building in January 2012.
Because Wonder World Drive is owned by the state, commissioners could let the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) install the traffic lights. However, the agency indicated it would not do so for another 30 to 36 months.
Commissioners may not be willing to wait that long as they anticipate the anger of county employees and constituents who will be among the new travelers passing through the unimproved intersection each day after the 232,209-square-foot government center at Stagecoach Trail opens for business.
TxDOT indicated it will not be able to construct the intersection’s improvements for up to three years because 40 other traffic light projects are more higher prioritized. However, TxDOT offered to expedite the project if others pay for it.
“I asked (TxDOT Austin District Engineer Carlos Lopez) if there was any way that, if we spent the money to have this designed and installed, if they would reimburse the county for that,” said Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos). “And he kind of gave me a chuckle and said ‘No.'”
Ingalsbe said the Wonder World Drive/Stagecoach Trail intersection has “met warrants” with the state, which means TxDOT recognized the need for the improvements after reviewing its criteria for starting traffic light projects.
“In other words, it’s met warrants with the state, but the state wants to brag about keeping state taxes low, and to force as much tax burden down to local governments as possible,” said Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle).
Commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday to pay engineering firm HDR $28,000 to design the traffic lights, in the hope that TxDOT may reconsider paying for the construction phase of the project if it is designed before the other projects in the state’s queue. HDR designed the government center.
“I have to tell you, it just makes me angry, when we have been such a good partner to TxDOT and taken on so many state roads,” said Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs).
Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) cast the sole vote against designing the traffic signals. Sumter suggested the county postpone action on the matter until the court’s three new members take office in January. Sumter told her colleagues the new court may not be willing to spend local dollars on the state road.
“The construction will be decided on with the new court,” Ingalsbe said later that day. “I guess there’s the possibility that they may say that we need to hold off on it, but I’m hoping that we can make them understand the importance of it, with the number of people — the traffic that’s going to be generated there with the opening (of the government center).”
Ingalsbe said that in addition to the 400 county employees expected to travel each day to the government center, there will be others going there for business, including up to 600 jurors on occasion.
Ingalsbe said City of San Marcos staffers indicated reluctance to help fund the traffic lights because they view the project as the state’s responsibility. Ingalsbe said she has not yet contacted San Marcos Mayor Daniel Guerrero about the issue, and expressed her hope that the city may contribute some funds.
Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-Wimberley) said the county would pursue funding assistance from nearby property owners and businesses.
Commissioners indicated they may be able to fund the traffic lights with the approximately $6 million in savings associated with the government center. Because the savings are funds borrowed for the government center, the money can only legally be used for costs associated with the building. The savings also can be used to retire the debt incurred for the government center.
In March, commissioners sold $72 million in certificates of obligation (COs) to pay for the government center, the first time any government entity in Hays County has borrowed that much without voter approval. County officials have estimated the government center principle and debt to total $120,055,562 by the time the COs mature in 2035.
The government center is intended to serve as a one-stop-shopping location for most county services, including the courts system, and to alleviate overcrowding and poor working conditions in current county offices.
Hays County Engineer Jerry Borcherding said the traffic lights will probably cost between $200,000 and $220,000 to construct, though he said a high-end estimate is about $240,000.
“I don’t really know what design they’re doing for a traffic light,” Sumter said to her colleagues Tuesday. “You would think that they would have a design on the shelf for virtually every configuration of an intersection that there is. So, I wonder about what it is we’re designing.”
Borcherding replied that traffic light projects vary depending on factors such as existing road widths and utility line configurations, which, he said, are unique to each location.
“In this particular case, we have a five-lane intersecting with … two lanes, and so there are a lot of different aspects to consider,” Borcherding said. “This goes into the design of the poles themselves and the supports. Those are not on-the-shelf items. They’re not built until the design is completed. It’s all custom work per intersection.”
Commissioners indicated they will lobby state legislators to make the project a priority for TxDOT. Borcherding said that if the county designs the traffic lights, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) may be more likely to award funds for the project.
While the state faces a large budget shortfall, the legislature may be unlikely to increase TxDOT’s slumping revenues by raising the fuel tax in the upcoming session.Email | Print