(Ladies and) Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!

By Bill Oakey

September 17, 2013

My second beer tonight came from one of those sampler packs, and unfortunately, it wasn’t very good.  But at least I got a chance to wind down from one of the wildest and wooliest public meetings I’ve experienced in quite some time!

The topic at hand was the F1 road expansion project for Southeast Travis County.  There were only a handful of citizens on hand to speak.  But it was quite lively.  If politics were defined as a spectator sport, today’s showdown at the races would certainly qualify as an event for the record books.

Let’s get one thing straight before going any further.  How did the vote turn out?  Did they vote to approve the roads using certificates of obligation, and to do so without voter approval? Not exactly.  Did they vote to approve Commissioner Bruce Todd’s alternate proposal to create a stakeholders committee to review the road needs and funding options and report back in six weeks?  Not exactly.

Well then, you might ask, what did they vote on?  All I can tell you is, I would sure like to know the answer to that myself.  I sat through the entire thing, and actually came away more confused than enlightened.  One thing is clear.  There won’t be another attempt at a decision until next Tuesday.

So, let’s start with the beginning of the meeting. Commissioner Margaret Gomez made an impassioned appeal for better road repairs and maintenance in Precinct 4, which includes the town of Elroy where the COTA racetrack is located.  She spoke eloquently of years of neglect for her underserved constituents there.  Even without the racetrack, she insisted, some of the roads are not safe for families and their schoolchildren.  After she spoke, a few of the family members, with toddlers on their laps, approached the table in front and addressed the commissioners with their concerns.

There was also a very lengthy staff discussion of the roads, which eventually included the total estimated price tag of $33 million.  Note that the price has gone up considerably since just last year, when most estimates never reached $20 million.  Expansions of Elroy and Kellam Road were the ones up for a vote.

All but one of the citizen speakers questioned the rush to approve the roads without first determining what other funding partners could be brought to the table.  Former Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt spoke intelligently and articulately as always about economic development and the need for “getting it right” on road projects as opposed to just getting it done.

One highlight of the afternoon was a near-meltdown of a personality clash between Gerald Daugherty and Cathy Olive, president of the Elroy Neighborhood Association.  She insisted that the section of Kellam Road up for discussion is actually part of Circuit of the Americas Boulevard.  After pausing to catch his breath, Daugherty backed away from a full scale fight with Olive, but it was obvious that a history of bad blood exists between the two.  Cathy Olive’s closing comment was that road crews were out there today “spreading black goo” to try to cover up cracks in the brand new pavement that was just put down before last year’s race.  She questioned the quality of the work done then, and wondered whether taxpayers can expect anything better the next time around.

My suggestion was that whatever health and safety issues involved in any of the roads in Precinct 4 should be dealt with on their own merits, and the necessary repairs and maintenance should be brought up to date as soon as possible.  As for the larger scale road expansions to benefit the racetrack, I recommended that the commissioners reach out to COTA for funding support.  I mentioned their repeated offers to share the costs during the period of January through April of last year.  To top it off, I asked them to approach COTA “at the highest levels” and ask them to become a major partner in other areas as well, such as sponsoring job fairs and a job training center.  I don’t think it would hurt to ask them to rebrand themselves as a high profile “good neighbor” corporate citizen.  Who knows, they might just go for it.  No one will ever know if they don’t ask.

Brigid Shea, who is the frontrunner for next year’s vacant seat on the Court, spoke up for the taxpayers and the need to keep the public’s ability to pay in mind when jumping into large scale expensive projects.  Both she and Susan Moffat recommended Bruce Todd’s proposal for a six week committee review.

Each commissioner weighed in with their thoughts.  It became clear right away that Commissioner Gerald Daugherty would vote with Gomez on her plan to approve a fast track approach to building the roads, through the Central Texas Mobility Authority.  Judge Sam Biscoe and Commissioner Bruce Todd stood in favor of a slower, more methodical approach with the stakeholders committee.  That left Commissioner Ron Davis as the swing vote.

Davis laid out his feelings about the longstanding community divide, which he stated was very much alive and well.  Like Ms. Gomez, he spoke of the need to equalize the treatment of an underserved population in Precinct 4.  He wanted to vote yes on the Gomez motion, but only if a shared funding plan would be included.

From that point forward, everything became about as clear as mud.  Commissioner Gomez made several attempts at a motion, each time followed with several attempts at friendly amendments.  And there was at least one substitute motion.  In the end they finally voted to come back and try again next week.

It’s what they actually intend to accomplish between now and next week that is not clear, at least not to me.  Bruce Todd spoke of merging his plan with Margaret Gomez’s and possibly getting a unanimous vote.  Hopefully, that means a cost sharing plan with several other partners besides Travis County.   When I was speaking, I asked one critical question.  Is it possible to use the fast-tracking approach offered by the Central Texas Mobility Authority with voter-approved bond financing?  The answer I was given was yes.  We can only hope that no one forgets that option when the horse trading resumes again next week.

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