Travis County elected officials had a choice: Seek partners to share costs for a major road project that would benefit those partners or push all the costs on to Travis County taxpayers. The best and most reasonable option, to spread costs to reduce the burden on taxpayers, seems obvious. Nonetheless, three Travis County elected officials, Commissioners Margaret Gómez, Gerald Daugherty and surprisingly, County Judge Sam Biscoe, chose to hand the entire bill to Travis County taxpayers and try to recoup costs later. And they did it in such a way that denies voters their rightful say on a road project that will be financed by their tax dollars.
Their actions demonstrate a disturbing trend among too many elected officials, who have lost sight of the fact that they are spending other people’s money. As trusted stewards, they are called on to exercise solid judgment, restraint, due diligence and sensitivity in spending public dollars. Too often, however, our public officials don’t distinguish between spending that promotes investments in infrastructure, economic development, education, safety net programs and public assets and spending for the sake of spending. In the latter case, they don’t consider the public’s ability to pay or respect the public’s right to participate in determining spending priorities.
And that is how it went down this week on a major road project, which benefits Circuit of the Americas as well as Travis County and the city of Austin — but by no means was an emergency, as Gómez sold it. Taking that approach is likely to drive up costs to taxpayers unnecessarily because, as Commissioners Bruce Todd and Ron Davis pointed out, no one is likely to contribute money on the back end to something for which the county has already paid. Cost-sharing arrangements are most effective when negotiated up front. That, too, is obvious, or should have been from the county’s failure to recoup any of the $5.6 million it spent last year to improve roads around the Formula One track.
Todd offered a sensible plan that would have brought all interested parties to the table to hash out financing and planning and examine whether the county should take the current project to voters in a May bond election. It failed.
If there is a silver lining in this deal, it’s that Gómez scaled back her grandiose proposal for road improvements near Circuit of the Americas’ venue, perhaps to win Biscoe’s support. The project extends three-lane Kellam Road north of the track nearly two miles to Texas 71, for about $15.2 million. Her original proposal, which would have cost at least $33.3 million, called for Kellam Road to be extended to five lanes and for Elroy Road, which leads to the track’s north entrance, to be widened. Davis initially supported the larger proposal but dialed back his support after realizing that only Travis County taxpayers would foot the bill.
In their rush to do what Gómez describes as a project that can’t wait for normal procedures, commissioners abandoned due diligence. They are using a method of financing — certificates of obligation — that permits them to bypass voters and sidestep the upfront analysis on road projects. Up to this deal, the county relied on voter-approved bonds to do major road projects. Instead of vetting it through the county’s budget and transportation departments, Gómez took it to outside consultants.
No one has bothered to explain how a road project that now is so vital to the county’s mobility goals was not important enough to be part of the county’s $133 million bond package that voters passed just two years ago. But don’t mention, as Daugherty cautions, the one reason that explains the road’s sudden importance — that it is being rushed so it opens in time for the 2014 Formula One Grand Prix event at Circuit of the Americas. That’s the only thing that explains the urgency.
Gómez says the road must be built now for economic development and to improve safety of children who attend school nearby. Precinct 4, she says, should not have to wait. Some residents also see it that way, saying the road project could generate jobs, housing developments and even bring a grocery store to an area the federal government has designated “a food desert.”
Those are worthy goals that warrant well-thought-out solutions to address the economic and infrastructure needs of an underserved community in Precinct 4. The road project alone won’t bring about instant change. And the region needs a comprehensive approach, not a piecemeal plan. A key question looming over the road project is whether money diverted to it would have been more wisely invested in other solutions to spur economic growth. Sadly, in moving so rashly, commissioners have damaged their credibility. And that might stall progress for Precinct 4.