Travis County recommends $14 million increase to 2017 bond referendum

Judge Sarah Eckhardt listens to a Travis County resident weigh in on the proposed 2017 bond Tuesday morning.

Judge Sarah Eckhardt listens to a Travis County resident weigh in on the proposed 2017 bond Tuesday morning.

Cost estimates for a proposed 2017 Travis County bond increased by about $14 million from last week's $144 million recommendation, said Cynthia McDonald, deputy chief of Travis County's Transportation and Natural Resources Department during today's Commissioner's Court meeting.  County staff and citizen bond advisory committee chairman Ron Wattinger gave an update on the proposal before opening a public hearing.

At a July 15 meeting, the Travis County Citizens Bond Advisory Committee recommended the approval of a $144 million bond referendum that will fund specific projects to help the county’s transportation, park and roadway issues. The tally is in addition to a $90.5 million recommended annual appropriation from certificates of obligation that does not need to be put to the voters in November. A total of $236 million is proposed for park and roadway improvements.

Travis County 2017 Bond referedum This photo shows a map of projects listed in the proposed 2017 bond referendum but does not reflect the cost changes proposed at today's Travis County Commissioners Court meeting. Although the projects remain the same, county staff said the total costs have increased by about $14 million.[/caption]

County staff traditionally reviews the scope of each of the projects before final approval which involves determining and documenting a list of specific project goals and costs.

"There are a lot of changes happening at the last minute," McDonald said. "Once we look[ed] at [the items in review], we [did] one last cost estimation and, unfortunately, there was an increase of about $14 million."

She said the bicycle safety project cost estimates for Fitzhugh Road, Old San Antonio Road and Old Lockhart Road saw the biggest increase, estimated at $6 million. The widening of the proposed lanes so they are safe for both riders and drivers accounts for the rise in cost, she said.

Staff also increased the cost estimate for the South Pleasant Valley Road by $2.6 million to improve curving, McDonald said. The Gilleland Creek Greenway Improvements increased by $2.25 million to include engineering and design for the entire portion of the 19-mile trail along Gilleland Creek. Another $800,000, representing an increase in construction costs, went toward bridge safety for Littig and Manda Carlson roads.

Revised costs now estimate $67 million for transportation improvements, up from an initial $58 million estimate, and $75 million for park improvements, up from an initial $73 million. Certificates of Obligation, which do not require voter approval, were increased by almost $1 million, from $82.3 million to $83.1 million. With an additional 10 percent of the new cost total allocated to project management fees and 1 percent of the new cost total allocated to bond issuance, the overall county funds to be spent on proposed parks, transportation and bridges projects totals $249 million.

Commissioners expressed some concern with the increase in costs because of the impact it could have on taxpayers. The $144 million bond proposal was initially not expected to result in a tax rate increase.

"Our goal as a county is to deliver projects on time and within budget," County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said. "We want to be transparent about the costs to the public and the time frame [the projects] will be delivered."

Wattinger recommended a few solutions to get back to the recommended numbers that include the removal of the Onion Creek Greenway improvements, which was estimated to cost $9.5 million, and the removal of the drainage stream crossing engineering for Great Divide at Little Barton Creek, which was estimated to cost $766,600.

"Safety is our number one priority," Wattinger said of the improvements proposed in the eastern parts of the county. "We needed roadway improvements and not park projects. A bike trail [in Onion Creek] is not critical to residents in that area and that’s a $9.5 million project."

Public comments focused on the Del Valle improvements as well as requests from residents of western Travis County to not include the construction of a roadway—Reimers-Peacock Road—that was originally suggested to connect West Hwy. 71 to Hamilton Pool Road.

Eckhardt said the county plans to deliberate on this during the Aug. 1 meeting and Commissioners are expected to make a decision as soon as Aug. 8.