Commissioners Punt Southeast Roads One More Time
Margaret Gómez agrees to compromise
Decisions about county roads are just like county roads: Always expect delays. On Sept. 17, Travis County Commissioners voted yet again to postpone a decision on a proposal to build new lanes and extra roads, without voter approval, in Southwest Travis County.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez originally presented the plan last month (see "Gómez Pushes Road Plan Near Racetrack," Aug. 30), and it was scheduled for a Sept. 3 vote. However, commissioners delayed it two weeks while waiting on cost estimates. This time, Gomez had the numbers: $19.5 million to add a 1.9-mile, five-lane extension to Kellam Road from Pearce Lane to SH-71, and $13.8 million to expand Elroy Road to four lanes from McAngus to Kellam. Gomez argued this will provide long-needed traffic relief to the area, especially on school routes. However, the roads are perceived as a favor for the Circuit of the Americas, which already receives major state subsidies, and whose owners are suing to challenge their property tax bill. Indeed, in 2012, COTA had agreed to pay for at least part of the road expansions themselves, with partial reimbursement from the county; that agreement now appears to be forgotten. Elroy Neighborhood Association Chair Cathy Olive fumed at the idea that the roads would provide local relief, saying, "You're wanting to widen it to [COTA's] front door."
The Commissioners Court argument came down to a fight between Precinct 2 and Precinct 4. Former Austin Mayor Bruce Todd – who was appointed by Judge Sam Biscoe to Precinct 2 to replace Sarah Eckhardt when she stepped down to run for county judge – proposed waiting 45 days and forming a stakeholder task force to see which roads in the area were a real priority. Both Eckhardt and Brigid Shea (running to succeed Eckhardt) turned up to back Todd's plan, and Eckhardt proposed extending the delay to include consulting with surrounding municipalities. While she said she did not want to turn the debate into "political theatre" (a nod to her own election hopes, to succeed Biscoe), she said she didn't want more "public treasure" going to COTA.
Gómez was visibly frustrated about Northwest Travis having so much to say about her precinct, challenging both Eckhardt and former Council Member Shea on what they ever did for East Austin families. Expressing chagrin that taxpayers in her precinct subsidize road construction and economic development elsewhere in the county with little quid pro quo, she said, "I feel like Precinct Four has been left out of the process." With the support of testimony from some constituents, she bristled at the idea that the roads are primarily for COTA, not residents. During race weekends and events, she said, "They're stuck in their homes, instead of taking care of business."
Gómez had the votes – in fact, the Kellam extension initially passed 3-2 (Todd and Biscoe opposed). However, Gómez finally agreed to a new compromise, giving Todd and the other commissioners a week to find alternate funding sources and potential partners from the state and surrounding cities. So the whole fight will return this Tuesday, Sept. 24.