Travis County to consider paying for new, wider roads around F1 track



Taxpayers may be on the hook for millions of dollars in new and wider roads around Circuit of the Americas, as Travis County commissioners consider an unusual request that includes paying for the work with non-voter approved money.

Margaret Gómez will ask her fellow commissioners Tuesday to approve the road improvements and complete them by May. Her memo outlining what she called “an aggressive plan” offered no cost estimates. Earlier this month, however, she proposed $15 million to $20 million in road work in that area, which included work around the Formula One racetrack.

Gómez wants to extend Kellam Road with a five-lane road running 1.8 miles from Pearce Lane to Texas 71, making a full north-south arterial from the highway to the track. She also wants to widen Elroy Road west of the track’s north entrance, a 1.1-mile segment from McAngus Road to Kellam, from two lanes to four lanes and replace a small bridge.

In the memo, Gómez said “the lack of road infrastructure and connective is a disincentive for economic expansion and business attraction that would lead to job creation.” She did not return several calls from the American-Statesman.

If approved, the spending would represent further county investment in expanding the road network around Circuit of the Americas, which opened 10 months ago, after county officials pushed the track’s owners to pay at least half of it.

The work would be done under an unprecedented deal with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, an agency the county helped found in 2002 that has focused on building toll roads in the Austin area.

“It’s a unique deal because they’re in a such a hurry,” said Mike Heiligenstein, the agency’s executive director. “My board turns around things pretty quickly.”

The mobility authority would essentially manage the project for the county and likely contract with engineering firms HNTB or Atkins North America Inc., which Heiligenstein said are on retainer. The agency would also use the design-build method of construction contracting, requiring only one step of bidding, whereas the county would likely need to bid out such a project in two steps, taking considerably more time to get a deal in place, Heiligenstein said.

“We would just manage it, and not charge them any administrative fee,” he said.

Commissioner Bruce Todd said he wants to see the county work with the city of Austin and the circuit to figure out how to pay for and plan transportation infrastructure around the track. “It’s more important to do it right than it is to do it quick,” Todd said.

County officials would periodically inspect the roads during construction, said Steve Manilla, the county’s transportation and natural resources executive. “Ultimately, we’re going to maintain those roads,” he said.

The county typically pays for large-scale road projects, such as widening and extending roads, with bonds approved by voters every five years or so. Manilla said the last major project paid for by non-voter-approved bonds was in 2007: Commissioners approved $2.1 million to extend about 1.8 miles of Highland Boulevard in Lakeway, with the city sharing in the tab.

Last year, the county spent $5.6 million in non-voter-approved money to widen and resurface roads around the track, but officials said that work was planned to happen within a few years anyway as part of routine upkeep. Commissioners narrowly approved the work in April 2012.

After the inaugural U.S. Grand Prix in November, Manilla said work north of the track — including what Gómez is proposing now — was not worth the cost.

“What we were talking about was reducing the amount of time people need to get into and out of that facility. What we observed was traffic was managed pretty well,” Manilla said recently.

But now, Manilla said, increased traffic from future development “is going to eat up a lot of roadway capacity that’s out there now.”

Landowners along the proposed extension of Kellam Road have pledged to donate right of way for the road, which Manilla estimated to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. “The property owners, though, have an interest in getting the roadway built,” Manilla said.

Cathy Olive, president of the Elroy Neighborhood Association, said she doubts the work is needed for future development or emergency first responders.

“Let’s call a spade a spade. This is to help the racetrack,” Olive said. “This is for Travis County taxpayers to give COTA a free freakin’ road.”

In Elroy, the unincorporated town around the Circuit, Olive said she hasn’t seen any major new developments. As the neighborhood association’s president, she gets zoning notices for the area. “They are like for a new gravel pit or a new auto parts store,” Olive said.

The state has helped race organizers considerably, with the comptroller pledging $250 million from the state’s Major Events Trust Fund over the next 10 years. In December, the office paid race organizers $29.3 million, an amount that is supposed to offset by sales taxes generated by the event.

According to a May report by the city of Austin, area hotels made about $22 million more in room revenues during the week of the November race than they did in the same week in the previous year, and hotel occupancy tax for the fourth quarter was about $3.5 million more than the previous year. The report, which was careful to state was not an economic impact study, also said mixed beverage and car rental taxes were also up year-over-year for the quarter by 10 and 22 percent, respectively.


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