With Travis County Commissioners essentially blaming city officials for sending mixed signals -- or no signals at all -- on a controversial road bond proposition, the Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to remove the potential liability from the Nov. 6 ballot. (Fortunately, ballots hadn't yet been printed and are expected to go to press by the end of this week.) The action eliminates the $14.1 million question to expand and extend Frate Barker Road (a little two-lane country road in suburban South Austin) from Manchaca Road to State Highway 45 South. Because the road would cross over the aquifer recharge zone and cut through city-owned preserves, the divisive nature of the bond item alone -- with environmentalists on one side and business interests on the other -- had suggested the possibility of an early death for the overall bond package.
And that was a risk County Judge Sam Biscoe could ill afford, given that the all-important proposal -- $66.2 million for right-of-way acquisition on SH 130 -- will be on the ballot. On the matter of Frate Barker, Biscoe said he did not feel comfortable about the possibility of running roughshod over city-owned property, particularly after the Austin City Council took action Sept. 27 to remove the road project from its city transportation plan. "I don't think Travis County should impose an unfriendly condemnation of city property," Biscoe told the Chronicle before Tuesday's meeting. "I was the swing vote to put this on the ballot, and now I'm going to be the swing vote to remove it from the ballot."
Biscoe also said he was surprised by the city's come-from-behind maneuver on Frate Barker. A July 10 letter of support from Austan Librach, the city's director of Transportation, Planning and Sustainability, bore Librach's name and signature, but it was actually signed at the time by acting director Jana McCann. Calls to Librach's office had not been returned by press time.
When commissioners cast their vote, Ron Davis and Margaret Gomez (neither of whom supported Frate Barker to begin with) followed Biscoe's lead to cancel the Frate Barker question, with the final vote coming down to 3-1-1. While Todd Baxter, an outspoken proponent of the road project, dissented, Karen Sonleitner claimed she had run out of middle-ground solutions and abstained. It was Sonleitner who had initially proposed making Frate Barker a stand-alone ballot item.
Before the vote, there was much shame-on-the-city talk from the dais about the importance of communication in this new era of regional partnerships. "How could there be such a disconnect between the city and county?" Sonleitner asked incredulously, adding that the city had been invited to participate in various hearings that preceded the commissioners' vote. "If only we had known that Mr. Librach was not speaking the true will of the city." At press time, City Manager Jesus Garza could not be reached to comment on city-county communications.
It was uncertain whether the commissioners' action would alter what appeared last week to be a widespread environmental bloc against the overall package. Prior to Tuesday, the boards of Save Our Springs Alliance, the Sierra Club, and the Austin Neighborhoods Council PAC (Austin Neighborhoods Together) had voted to oppose the bonds in their entirety. (In a previous meeting between enviros and business leaders, SOS had offered to back SH 130 in exchange for the elimination of Frate Barker, but Chamber of Commerce and real estate honchos refused on grounds that they supported the entire package.) In other endorsement votes, the executive committee of the Travis County Democratic Party (composed of precinct chairs) came out against Frate Barker, but favored the proposed regional park projects. The Dems voted yes on SH 130 but took no position on right-of-way acquisitions for SH 45 North, designed to serve as an east-west connector between U.S. 183 and SH 130 near Pflugerville.
At the very least, Frate Barker's removal from the ballot will cast the bond package in a friendlier light. "Because Frate Barker has no credibility, it was ruining the credibility of the other propositions," says environmentalist Robin Rather, an outspoken opponent of the project. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, she had tried to rally support behind postponing the bond election altogether.
Meanwhile, Greater Austin Chamber Chairwoman Susan Dawson acknowledged her group's overall support of the bond package, but expressed relief that Frate Barker is now out of the voter's hands. "We supported the bond package process but we also recognized that of that package, pieces of it were more divisive than others," she said.