New Courthouse? Let's Form a Committee!
"There's momentum for this project. ... Don't waste that."
On Tuesday, the Travis County Commissioners Court heard an update on its would-be signature construction project, the planned new county courthouse. In the process, commissioners got some surprising – considering both popular presumption and crane-borne reality – advice. Citing a burst of new Downtown construction, and concerns over whether the county's new site could support its full leasing capacity on the lot, consultants hired by Travis County told commissioners not to build the sucker too big.
Last August, county officials heard from consultants Broaddus & Associates that they could develop the lot they'd just purchased at Third & Guadalupe streets to include up to 2 million square feet of construction. Such an effort, commissioners were told, would result in the biggest building west of the Mississippi River. At its heart, the structure would serve as the county's new civil and family courthouse – a long-needed upgrade from the current eight-decade-old digs in the Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse. Whether they add the retail and office space – and just how much of it they choose to construct – remains an open question.
Also unresolved is the issue of just how the county will pay for the building, which, depending on construction method and scale, could cost anywhere from $268 million to about $404 million. County bonds remain an option, as does the idea of teaming up with a private firm that would take on some of the cost burden and, potentially, a fair amount of the maintenance and operations costs that will mount even after the facility opens.
Whatever happens, the bean counters at Ernst & Young who were hired to advise the county on how to proceed offered the court a telling suggestion. "One recommendation ... that we would like to make is move quicker," E&Y principal Mark Gibson told commissioners: "There's momentum for this project. ... Don't waste that." County Judge Sam Biscoe took the advice to heart – he scheduled Tuesday's meeting for the commissioners to make a series of key decisions about how to move forward with the effort. His colleagues weren't so ready, and by Tuesday afternoon, the court had agreed to establish a committee to take a look at the public-private partnership angle. We'll report more on that discussion, and the broader background of the courthouse project, next week.