An $11.5 million project to widen Frate Barker Road is on hold while officials decide whether to save Cami.
The roughly 100-year-old live oak, nicknamed Cami by the neighbors fighting to save it, stands in the way of Travis County’s plans to widen a 1.3-mile stretch of the road from two to five lanes.
Uprooting the tree and planting it elsewhere could cost upwards of $245,000. Simply replacing the tree with a few smaller ones would cost only $20,000.
But Travis commissioners postponed a decision on the tree Tuesday for at least another week to see if they can find a less expensive way to move the live oak — with the help of the nearby Rancho Alto Homeowners Association, which has offered to spend $108,000 to care for the tree in the five years after it is moved and make sure it survives.
“We’re not saying, ‘if you don’t move this tree, we’re going to shout and scream and chain ourselves to it,” said Michael Fossum, the executive director of the Austin Heritage Tree Foundation. “We’re just asking to have a reasonable look at it. It’s a reasonable cost. The neighbors have committed to it, and we think it should be saved.”
Typically, when the county removes a large tree for a road project, officials replace it by planting a number of smaller trees whose trunks add up to the same diameter of the original one, said Chiddi N’Jie, a senior engineer with the county’s Transportation and Natural Resources department. In the case of the 30-inch diameter live oak on Frate Barker and Rancho Alto Road, just outside Austin’s city limits in southern Travis County, the county could plant three 10-inch oak trees at an estimated cost of $20,000. Federal highway funds that will pay for 80 percent of the project would go toward the new trees as well, so the county would be on the hook for only $4,000 of the replacement cost.
But the Heritage Tree Foundation and residents near Cami are asking the county to save the tree and move it elsewhere. Moving a tree that old can be complicated, Fossum said, but a tree as old as Cami provides valuable environmental, health, community and other benefits. A landowner across the street has offered to let the tree be planted on his property.
”We’ve named that tree. We talk to that tree. We sit under that tree. That tree is important to us,” said Tracey Huguley, who lives in the Rancho Alto subdivision and has been leading the effort to save Cami.
County staffers said Tuesday that they are concerned about the high cost of moving the tree and that the Texas Department of Transportation, which administers the federal highway money, won’t necessarily pay 80 percent of the moving cost.
The county had gotten bids as low as $120,000 to move the tree, but would have to pay the highest bidder’s price, $245,000, because that contractor offered the lowest overall price of the road construction and tree movement project, said Marvin Brice, an assistant purchasing agent. To find a lower tree-moving price, the county will have to seek new bids for just that; TxDOT would have to approve the tree-moving contractor, and the county would spend at least a month seeking those bids, purchasing agent Cyd Grimes said.
County Judge Sam Biscoe said he wanted staffers to figure out how to do that over the next week.
“I’m trying to save the county $125,000 and save the tree,” Biscoe said.
Biscoe also asked that county staffers to ask TxDOT if it will pay for 80 percent of the tree-moving cost. Doing so would lower the county’s share to $24,000 to $49,000, a much easier price tag for commissioners to consider.