Collin County is dipping into its budget reserves to begin initial work on major transportation projects commissioners say are imperative as the county population continues to swell from 900,000 to potentially more than 2.5 million people by 2030.
Commissioners on June 26 did not come to a consensus on moving forward with a $500 million-$600 million bond election in November, despite a planning board’s May 22 recommendation in favor. The planning board concluded the county could support a $560 million bond without raising the county tax rate.
County officials estimate $536 million is needed in pre-construction work on four limited-access roadway, or LAR, projects the county has identified as the greatest transportation needs in the county: a US 380 expansion, an SH 78 alternative, an additional north-south Lavon Lake corridor from SH 121 to the President George Bush Tollway, and the outer loop around northern and eastern Collin County. Pre-construction work on these anticipated freeways includes environmental, design and engineering work as well as some right of way acquisitions, County Judge Keith Self said.
“We’ve got to continue to move as fast as we can,” Self said. “So we’ve got plenty of reserves, and we’ll dip into the reserves to keep the process moving until we can get the [bond] master plan together and present it to the people. By January of 2019 we need to be getting some money out of the bond to start putting it on the roads.”
Self, who along with Precinct 2 Commissioner Cheryl Williams and Precinct 3 Commissioner Chris Hill voiced concerns with calling for the bond election in 2017, said the county needs more specifics on future freeway road alignments and exact funding allocations before calling for an election.
“I would like to have seen [the bond] on the ballot in 2017, but I just cannot go to the people and ask them for half a billion dollars-plus without telling them how I’m going to spend the money,” Self said. “That’s the only reason [the bond election] was moved to 2018.”
However, Precinct 1 Commissioner Susan Fletcher and Precinct 4 Commissioner Duncan Webb said delaying a bond election has the potential to jeopardize the county’s ability to receive state and federal funding.
“We have the lowest tax rate in the state,” Fletcher said. “But when you drive into Collin County, I don’t want you to be able to recognize that. We’ve got to spend some money on roads—it’s critical.”
Webb, who is the county’s representative on the Regional Transportation Council, which is the transportation planning organization for the region, said he is concerned that delaying the bond election will send the message to the RTC that Collin County is not prepared for the LAR projects and will allocate a projected $600 million in future RTC and Texas Department of Transportation funds elsewhere, which would be “devastating” to the county.
“I know how far we are behind [on transportation projects], and I believe that we know the four major highways that we are going to be working on.”
— Susan Fletcher, Collin County Precinct 1 Commissioner
“All of the members of the RTC, including Dallas, Denton and Tarrant [counties], would be chomping at the bit to get another $600 million or a portion of the $600 million over the next 10-year period, and that worries me,” Webb said. “Now that’s just a worry. It’s never been said but we’re always financially constrained, and as a result, anyone is looking for an excuse to reallocate.”
The county’s previous bond election was held in 2007. Of the $328 million total, $285 million was earmarked for transportation needs.
Commissioners first discussed the potential need for another transportation bond election in 2014 but tabled the discussion, Webb said. In February 2016, the court agreed on LAR priorities and has been in discussions about LAR projects and a potential bond election since that time.
The planning board, in its May bond recommendation to commissioners, said it is urgent that freeways are planned and right of way is acquired as soon as possible.
Fletcher said she is frustrated that the commissioners are not following the planning board’s recommendation.
“We tasked [the planning board] with looking at this issue and bringing back to us some ideas and solutions,” Fletcher said. “On top of that, we told them to be more general in their recommendation. We didn’t tell them to come to us with a very specific plan, but yet when they came to us and did what we told them to do—to be general—that was the reason that was used for not moving forward [with the election], because we didn’t know exactly [where the LARs would go].”
Of the 31 Collin County cities, only nine have responded as of press time July 27 to an RTC query asking cities to identify three LAR projects. McKinney, Frisco, Plano, Prosper, Princeton and Wylie have passed resolutions in support of the projects, and Farmersville, Lucas and St. Paul passed resolutions against LARs projects.
Williams said before voting on a bond, cities and residents need to have confidence that the road projects are proposing are beneficial and not detrimental to their
“I think we have to prove that to them in order to get [city] support and the public’s support from those areas,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve got enough data yet to show that.”
McKinney City Manager Paul Grimes said there are several projects that all the cities can agree are “no-brainers.”
“And then if there are other ones—US 380 comes to mind—that there hasn’t been a consensus yet on what’s going to happen there, then let’s not worry about it,” Grimes said. “Let’s move on. Let’s not wait for everything to be in place before we move forward. Let’s find those projects that we can move forward with now, because time is of the essence in getting the capital funding.”
The planning board presented commissioners with three potential bond fund allocation options: Option 1 would allocate 100 percent of bond funds toward LARs; Option 2 would allocate 90 percent of funds toward LARs and 10 percent to principal arterial roadways, or PARs, connecting to LARs; and Option 3 would allocate 80 percent of funds to LARs, 10 percent to PARs and 10 percent to other thoroughfares.
In the past, county transportation bond funds have been split about 50-50 between larger county projects and city arterial roadway needs. Options 2 and 3 were included by the planning board because of feedback from the cities that county bond funds are still needed for city-specific road projects, according to the report.
Fletcher said since county tax money would be spent on bond projects, not city tax money, city support—or a lack of it—is not a major surprise.
“I know how far we are behind [on transportation projects], and I believe that we know the four major highways that we are going to be working on,” Fletcher said. “Not knowing the exact plan doesn’t change the fact that we know where the money is going to be spent, and we would’ve not sold any bonds prior to knowing what was going to be done with that money. Passing the bond and actually selling those bonds are two different things.”
Self said that although the LARs, and not city streets, are the priority in county transportation needs, the county does not want to be at odds with the cities when calling for an
“… The vision of the major highways is one that will cause us to try to get support because the cities are used to receiving county dollars to build city streets,” Self said. “If we don’t do that this time, it’s a change, even though they understand we need major highways. Some of them don’t want the major highways in their city; some of them want to continue to accept the county dollars for their city streets.”
Williams said her goal is to have road alignment and funding allocation details in place by next summer so commissioners can call a bond election in November 2018.
“It’s time-consuming. If you’re going to be transparent and you’re going to let people know what’s happening and get adequate input and feedback from the public, it’s a little bit longer process,” Williams said. “I think that if we do our job right, people will pass that bond.”
Meanwhile, county officials are moving forward with the initial stages of the LAR projects as much as they are able without bond funds. The county is already working to acquire right of way for the outer loop project.
LAR studies are also underway—by TxDOT on US 380 and by the North Central Texas Council of Governments on a potential north-south corridor.
If the bond is called for and passed in November 2018, it would be early 2019 before the bonds could be sold, Self said.
Webb said he is concerned, however, that as the county develops its fiscal year 2017-18 budget, there are other county needs that will absorb reserve fund dollars, potentially limiting funds available for transportation projects.
The commissioners all say they agree that bond funding for transportation is a necessity.
“If we don’t prepare and if we don’t have enough money coming in from the state... you’re going to have one of those three T’s—you’re going to have more traffic or more taxes or tolls,” Fletcher said. “One of those three or a combination of them can happen if we don’t have enough money coming in.”