Open Letter to Travis County Commissioners – Roads Alone Will Not Solve Problems in Precinct 4

By Bill Oakey

September 19, 2013

Amid the tumultuous debate this week over whether and how to fund road expansions in Southeast Travis County, a big question has been largely overlooked.  Will new roads address the broader concerns of the underserved, mostly Hispanic residents in Precinct 4?

Most of the discussion has centered around the hot button issue of whether the expansion of Kellam Road and Elroy Road stands as just another subsidy for the Circuit of the Americas racetrack.  This week, the Austin-American Statesman published two opinions suggesting exactly that.  Vance Facundo, an F1 fan whose social media forums draw 6,000 followers, raised several interesting questions.  He doubts whether the massive growth projections for the area will pan out, and even cited reasons why the crowds for upcoming F1 races may not be sufficient to warrant the large scale road expansions.

Then on Wednesday evening, the American-Statesman editorial board weighed in.  They declared that all other claims aside, rushing the roadwork though with an unorthodox approach that bypasses voters serves only the interests of the racetrack owners.

That brings us back to Tuesday’s Travis County Commissioners Court meeting and the emotional comments by numerous speakers.  One that stands out in my mind came from Brigid Shea, who is running for a seat on the Court next year.  She spoke directly to the needs of the residents of Precinct 4, many of whom live below the poverty line.  Using an earlier cost estimate for the roads of $25 million, she listed several social service program items and numbers of potential affordable housing units that could be obtained for that sum of money.

This afternoon, seeking to put all of the issues into perspective, I sent the following message to the Travis County Commissioners:

Dear County Commissioners:

I fully understand the difficult challenges you are facing with the Southeast roadway expansion issue.  My sense from watching Tuesday’s discussion is that most of you prefer a shared approach with other funding partners.  At the same time, Commissioners Gomez and Davis are justifiably concerned about the divide that has kept the underserved population in Precinct 4 waiting too long for services that are overdue.

Let me suggest that the shared funding approach for the roads will help make more money available to serve those needs.  It will also reduce or eliminate the public perception that the roads are just a subsidy for COTA. Like it or not, public perception carries over into election campaigns.  On that battlefront, reason and sound policy give way to negative energy.

The Court would do well to tap into the community voices across boundary lines who know and care about best practices for underserved populations.  We need to address job training, affordable housing, and post high school opportunities for the folks who need them.  No one understands that better than the many businesses, large and small, who need a well-trained and educated workforce.

So, please take this opportunity, while the subject of needs in Precinct 4 is in the air, to address the broader issues as well as the roads.  The more productive and successful we can be across the divide, the better chance we will have to eliminate it someday.

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