Road Shows

Are County Bond Proposals Good for the Long Haul?

illustration by Jason Stout

Driving west out of Austin, it used to be easy enough to tell when you had reached unincorporated Travis County -- the road narrowed to the two-lane farm-to-market variety, white-tail deer and buzzards became the dominant social groups (though they never voted as a bloc), and, of course, you encountered the wavy sea of limestone and cedar trees and the unmistakable smell of the Hill Country breeze blowing through your unbattened hatches. These days, determining whether you're on a county road or a city road -- as you head, for example, out Anderson Mill Road or FM620 -- is more a matter of determining when the endless succession of subdivisions and strip malls switches from incorporated sprawl to unincorporated sprawl, which is no easy task (especially if you're still going by the smell of the breeze). One way to distinguish a county road from a city road in a rapidly expanding metropolitan area, though, is by who funds maintenance and expansion of the respective road systems. In the case of Austin and Travis County, consternation about the lack of equity in this bifurcated funding system is growing, and that portends a bumpy road for the $43.5 million in road bonds on the ballot in the upcoming Travis County bond election.

"When it was just farm-to-market roads serving sparsely populated areas," says Old West Austin Neighborhood Association member Mark Ferrari, "it might have made sense for everyone in the county to pay for those roads." But as growth out in the county has become more dense, particularly over the last 10 to 15 years, residents have begun to expect urban-level services from the county, and that means expanded roads capable of handling higher traffic volumes. This poses a problem, because although Travis County does have a relatively high property tax rate compared to other Texas counties, residents in the unincorporated areas pay nowhere near the level of taxes city dwellers pay. In fact, because they pay both city and county property taxes, Austin property owners are taxed at almost twice the county rate. As spending on what once were rural county roads increases to accommodate increased sprawl, this disparity in taxation means that city taxpayers in effect are subsidizing growth out in the county, and this raises the question of equity.

In Travis County, unlike Dallas County or other heavily populated Texas counties, not a dime of revenue from the sale of county road bonds is expended inside the Austin city limits. However, the bonds that fund road repair and expansion in the unincorporated portions of Travis County are repaid primarily by ad valorem property taxes and license plate fees, which are collected from all residents of the county, not merely those outside of Austin. Because Austinites supply around 80% of those funds, the burden of funding county roads falls disproportionately on city taxpayers. County residents, meanwhile, contribute very little to the funding of city transportation infrastructure, since they do not pay the transportation fee levied on city utility bills or the city property tax, two primary sources of transportation funding. They do pay sales tax when they shop in Austin, but it's unlikely that they buy enough to offset the windfall they receive from county road bond sales repaid by city taxpayers. This becomes even less likely as retail businesses begin to follow the lead of residential growth out into the unincorporated areas.

"If they want to look like a city, and act like a city, then they need to be willing to pay the true cost of what that entails," says Ferrari, a self-described fiscal conservative. Otherwise, "Someday the people of Austin are just going to say `No,' and they'll have to find some other way to fund what they want."

Someday arrived last week, when a coalition of Austin neighborhood advocates, environmentalists, and "concerned taxpayers" went down to the county courthouse and formed a political action committee under the name Taxpayers Against Subsidizing Sprawl (TASS). "County bond elections are just one way city taxpayers subsidize sprawl," says TASS member Karen Akins, who is vice-president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council. Although the immediate focus of the group is fighting certain road bonds in the current election, namely Propositions 5 and 6, "we're also hoping that this group can focus discussion on tax equity issues over the long term, not just for the coming bond election," she explains. Although the $36 million Prop. 1 provides for the expansion of several roads in rapidly growing areas of the county, TASS has decided not to oppose that one, because lumped in with the expansion funds are millions for much-needed routine road and bridge maintenance. "We are not generally opposed to spending on roads, nor are we anti-growth," said Akins, "but we do want to send a message that Austin taxpayers are tired of subsidizing unplanned growth."

The Pickle Porkway?

To that end, TASS will be building opposition to right-of-way purchases for State Highway 130 (the "Pickle Parkway") and State Highway 45 (part of the old "Outer Loop"), Propositions 5 and 6, respectively. Prop. 5 is a $4 million down-payment on Travis County's $62 million share of the right-of-way costs for the proposed SH130, a six-lane, 90-mile-long freeway that would run parallel to I-35 from Georgetown down to Seguin. Although this highway is still being marketed, both here in Texas and in Washington, D.C., as a bypass of the heavily congested Austin portion of I-35, the slowly unfolding details of SH130's design suggest that it will more likely serve, at least in the near future, as another route from the suburbs into the central city (see "Stealth Highway 130?," in July 18 Chronicle). East Austin groups, such as PODER and El Concilio, have urged the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to assess the impact the highway would have on East Austin neighborhoods, fearing that if SH130 does indeed become a commuter route into Austin, it will mean thousands more vehicle trips per day through the Eastside.

Anyone who spends any time on I-35 knows what a colossal pain in the ass rush hour has become, but TxDOT's own projections indicate that SH130 may not provide much relief. Although the new highway may divert some semi-trailer traffic around Austin, it will do little to alleviate the number of commuters on the highway, and traffic volume near downtown is projected to decrease by a modest 6-8%.

In any event, purchasing right-of-way for SH130 is a dicey investment at this point, as County Judge Bill Aleshire has pointed out, since the state has yet to finalize the route for the highway. Aleshire asked for some assurance that the design would be finished within five years, so that the county can make good on its promise to have bond money allocated within that time frame. TxDOT says it will have a route finalized by the end of next year. Of course, that rate of progress is contingent upon continued funding for the billion-dollar project, which is far from certain. Over the course of the summer, the Texas Congressional delegation managed to get $8 million earmarked for the "Pickle Parkway" in the proposed new federal highway bill, but then suffered a setback as Congress postponed the whole enchilada for another six months in order to preserve the balanced budget deal between Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton. For the time being, TxDOT may take advantage of some discretionary federal funding to continue design work to the degree possible.

If Prop. 5 passes (or, for that matter, even if it fails) county residents should look for more of these "right-of-way on the installment plan" propositions in upcoming bond elections. This $4 million represents what Leslie Pool, a member of the county's Citizen Advisory Commission for the bond election (and a TxDOT employee) terms "earnest money," intended to convince the feds that we are serious about building SH130. As such, the failure of this package, according to Ross Milloy of the Greater Austin San-Antonio Corridor Council, could "seriously delay the project" by hindering TxDOT's efforts to draw down additional federal highway funds over the next decade. That being the case, Milloy and other SH130 boosters can't be pleased with developments in Caldwell and Guadalupe Counties, through which the southern third of the highway would pass. City and county officials there indicated at hearings held this summer that they had neither the means nor the inclination to fund right-of-way purchases for SH130 at any time in the near future.

Further trouble for the Pickle Parkway surfaced last month on a front closer to home, as about 200 Round Rock residents confronted mayor Charlie Culpepper at a hearing on the route for the northernmost section of SH130. Residents in eastern Round Rock want the highway to be built further east of town than currently planned, and they threatened to fight a proposed sales tax increase that would be used in part to fund right-of-way purchases within the city limits. Culpepper said he would ask the state to consider still more alternative routes, a prospect that doesn't bode well for Travis County's purchasing right-of-way anytime soon. Just how uncertain is the route for Texas 130? Although TxDOT has been fairly heavy-handed in pushing its "technically preferred" route, the state is hedging its bets, holding on to all of the right-of-way it owns in the eastern portion of the Austin metropolitan area.

Outer Loop Redux

Proposition 6 would allow the county to purchase right-of-way for a proposed extension of State Highway 45, which looks suspiciously like a segment of the notorious "outer loop" project ostensibly removed from the drawing board by the Austin Transportation Study following objections from environmentalists. The loop was a grand scheme hatched in the 1980s to circle the city with a four-lane highway (à la I-410 in San Antonio), with the western portion crossing the entire Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer (not to mention the Colorado River) in the process. Before the overall plan was (theoretically) scrapped, Gary Bradley managed to get a segment built to serve his Circle C development (together with a controversial extension of MoPac across the aquifer). Now it appears that plans for further construction of portions in southwest Williamson County and southwest Travis County are still alive and kicking.

This particular segment would begin where MoPac currently ends, in effect extending Loop 1 in a southeasterly direction across more of the Edwards Aquifer and down to the Hays County line, apparently continuing the Loop's piecemeal march from Circle C toward I-35. Bill Bunch of the Save Our Springs (S.O.S.) Alliance has already weighed in publicly against Prop. 6, arguing that the road is intended to serve "reckless development," rather than an already existing need.

Paula Wong, head of the volunteer Citizens Advisory Commission that conducted hearings and prepared a preliminary bond package for the County Commissioners, says she was never contacted by Bradley or any other big developer interests on SH45. In fact, according to Wong, the only group the commission heard from in support of the extension was the Shady Hollow Homeowner's Association, which represents a small neighborhood just north of the proposed extension. Jim Mann, an attorney who lives in Shady Hollow, argues that the extension is needed to relieve traffic on Brodie Lane, which he says brings semi-trailers rumbling through the middle of his neighborhood on their way from Loop 1 to home-construction sites in booming southwest Travis County and northern Hays County. According to Wong, if this proposition saves one child from being fatally injured by a truck, it's worth the bond expenditure.

But if protecting the neighborhood is the sole concern, counters TASS's Karen Akins, "then what you need is restricted access to Brodie Lane, not a multi-million dollar highway extension." Austin Neighborhoods Council V.P. Akins says she'll be the first to volunteer her time to help residents make their neighborhood thoroughfare safer.

While Brodie Lane traffic is bad, there are alternatives to extending SH45, adds Greg Walton, who lives about a mile west of Shady Hollow in the Zyle Road neighborhood. "The county could add some lights to Brodie to slow the trucks down," says Walton, "and then encourage through traffic to go about a mile east to Manchaca Road, which was always intended to be a major arterial, anyway." Manchaca, which is much less residential than Brodie, will be four lanes wide from FM1626 (the southern limit of Shady Hollow) all the way up to US290 by next year, according to the Austin Transportation Study plan.

While reasonable people may disagree about how best to deal with traffic in Shady Hollow, few people would argue with the fact that an extension of MoPac by the county would encourage development in an area where the majority of Austinites say they want to limit growth. At the hearings held last summer on the bond package, the Shady Hollow Homeowner's Association unsuccessfully lobbied to have SH45 included in Proposition 1, in order to insulate the unpopular highway from the kind of opposition being raised by TASS and others. The county commissioners declined, but the undeterred Shady Hollow group has printed about $2,000 worth of flyers to make their case for Proposition 6.

They're not the only ones getting behind the bond package. A pro-bond PAC called Citizens for Travis County's Future filed with the county in early September. The PAC's campaign committee co-chairs are attorney Wong and TxDOT's Pool -- who both also served on the original citizens' committee that prepared the bond package. Among others also serving on PAC's campaign committee for the bonds are former Mayor Roy Butler, political prognosticator and former mayoral father-in-law George Christian, veteran community booster Willie Kocurek, former chamber chair and ad exec Kerry Tate, Eastside community leader Rev. Sterling Lands, UT board of regents member and former city councilmember Lowell Lebermann, and the mayors of Lago Vista, Jonestown, Lakeway, and West Lake Hills, just to name a few. The PAC has retained Alfred Stanley, the omni-present political operative who helped Mayor Kirk Watson, among others, into office, as its finance director. Watson himself, as part of a plan to "quick-start" transportation solutions, sent out a press release earlier this week announcing the formation of a Mayor's Mobility Task Force to "get Austin moving again." The press release embraces SH130 as "the most viable solution to this developing crisis and the project must be expedited to the construction phase as quickly as possible."

According to the bond PAC's 30-day contribution and expenditures report, the Shady Hollow Homeowner's Association has chipped in $500, and 11 individuals have contributed $100 apiece. But engineering and consulting firms that specialize in transportation and general construction seem to be the county's most concerned citizens, with firms such as CH2M Hill, Fugro-McClelland (Southwest), Jose I. Guerra Consulting Engineers, Cunningham Allen, and Carter-Burgess having contributed a total of $3,750 to the pro-bond PAC. At least one of those companies, Carter-Burgess, is employed by TxDOT on the SH130 project.

The bond backers may need all the help they can get. It's not particularly catchy, but TASS's tax equity battle cry has the potential to unite a formidable front, and things should be heating up in the next few weeks. Though her primary concern with the road bonds is the very real environmental threat of sprawl in the southwest, even S.O.S. executive director Brigid Shea sounded the tax equity note, albeit from a slightly different angle, arguing that growth in the unincorporated areas of the county erodes the city's potential tax base. "Austinites know that, and they resent it," says Shea, "and I wouldn't be surprised to see some of these road bonds defeated."

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