Texas 195 has long been a dangerous stretch of highway. Many call the winding road, one of the few direct routes between Austin and Killeen, The Highway of Death. A particularly deadly period from 1994 to 1999 saw 41 people killed on the highway, including nine soldiers stationed at Fort Hood.
The road needed to be widened. But while the state initiated the work, the recession caused funding to stall. By 2007, local officials had grown tired of waiting. Williamson County pulled $35.2 million from a voter-approved bond package, began buying up right-of-way and moving utilities, clearing the way for the state to make the improvements.
“We really drug them along kicking and screaming,” Williamson County Judge Dan A. Gattis said. “If you sit there and cry — so what, you don’t get your roads.”
State funding for road construction is growing scarce, and growing counties have had to use local tax money upfront to make sure state road projects — such as widening Texas 195 — get done quickly.
As its population has continued to boom, officials in Williamson County have pumped more than $166 million into such work on state-maintained roads, money that won’t be reimbursed. About 17 percent of the county’s bond debt of more than $800 million — one of the highest in the state — goes to pay for projects that were supposed to be funded by the state. The owners of a $180,000 home in Williamson County — the county’s average home value— pay about $64 of their annual $884 county tax bill for the roadwork.
Counties across Texas, especially growing counties such as Williamson, are increasingly turning to local taxpayers to foot the bill for work on state roads, saying they have no choice but to go ahead and make the improvements. The counties have pressured lawmakers to put more money into the Texas Department of Transportation to help share the load.
“Simply put, it’s just really the reality of the day … if you expect to see almost any sort of improvement to the state highway system beyond maintaining what you have on the ground today,” said Will Conley, a commissioner in Hays County, which has put about $250 million into the state highway system.
Shifting burden for roads
With Williamson County’s explosive growth have come commuters: Many of its new residents commute to Austin for work. Nearly every major road in Williamson County is a state-operated road, from the 183-A toll road to Texas 45, RM 620 and Texas 29. The county has funded work on just about all of them.
“With as fast a growing county as we are, that’s one of the reasons we’re involved in this — not only is it for safety reasons, but also mobility,” county Commissioner Valerie Covey said.
And the residents have historically understood that, approving two multimillion-dollar bond packages, in 2001 and 2006, that have funded roadwork.
In addition to the $166 million the county has spent on state roads without reimbursement, Williamson County has spent $149 million on state roads that the state will reimburse via financing agreements with the Texas Department of Transportation, a common method for funding roadwork.
Williamson County has spent much more on state roads than its neighbor to the south.
Travis County generally only works on state roads through reimbursement agreements, said Steve Manilla, the county’s transportation director. Manilla said Travis County has entered two such agreements in recent history — for work on FM 969 and FM 1626 totaling about $26 million.
Of the $250 million Hays County has put toward state roadwork, about $133 million will be reimbursed, Conley said.
Finding new funds
Without new state funding, TxDOT officials have said the agency will be unable to schedule new construction projects after 2015. Fearing they’ll be left with more roadwork to do, county officials have pushed for the state to increase registration fees or make adjustments to the existing gas tax, among other things, to gin up more money for state roads.
But with the legislative session in its final two months, the chances of any new transportation funding bills passing are dwindling.
How to put more money in the agency has become a constant discussion at the Capitol over the past few sessions, said Donald Lee, the executive director at Texas Conference of Urban Counties, which lobbies on behalf of counties like Williamson.
County officials would support “just about whatever the Legislature thought was their best solution, as long as it was something that would help address the problem,” Lee said.
“As people move to the state, and we build out and develop more for the state, there has to be more roads and highway infrastructure. That can’t be avoided,” he said. “Right now, some of that cost has been pushed forward to future generations through bonds, and other costs have been pushed onto local taxpayers. That just doesn’t seem like a good or sustainable policy.”
Leaving it up to locals
TxDOT officials said that Texas 195 had long been on the state’s schedule for improvements — by 2007, the state had purchased a portion of the right-of-way for the project — but a lack of funding and frequent stops for environmental clearances meant the agency was only able to do the work in stops and starts.
Williamson County’s intervention ran counter to the usual process, in which counties and cities pay the state back for 10 percent of right-of-way and utility work. On Texas 195, the county did that work and paid upfront, and the state will pay back its 90-percent share. Williamson County is on track to have spent about $9.6 million on the road after those reimbursements.
“We appreciate all they’ve done to be innovative and cooperative with us,” TxDOT spokeswoman Kelli Reyna said. “Regardless of whether or not they would have jumped in, we still would have moved forward with them.”
Improvements are under way in three sections along the road. Officials broke ground on the final section in February, and construction should last a couple more years.
Officials are identifying other projects elsewhere. Williamson County is looking at putting another bond package before the voters. The county has formed a committee to consider how much the county needs and where that money could be used.
“At this point that’s purely exploratory,” Gattis said. “I believe we can propose a fairly substantial road bond project right now that will not need a tax increase to pay off, and that’s what I want to look at.”
Gattis pointed to the 183-A toll road, which currently connects back to U.S. 183 north of Leander, as one road that could be expanded to accommodate future growth. The county spent nearly $22 million on the road. Gattis said the toll road could be extended to reach Liberty Hill, Jarrell and Florence, which he said are the top cities on the county’s radar for future growth.
“It probably never would have happened if the county hadn’t jumped in there and bought up right of way and got that started,” Gattis said.