November 9, 2015
It came down to the wire, but Travis County voters turned down the county’s plan for a new civil courthouse. Now it’s time for taxpayers and local politicians alike to understand what that vote really means and how we can move forward.
While RECA believes this plan was the wrong one, in the wrong location, we agree that the county needs a new courthouse. To meet that need, RECA stands ready to assist the county and the community as we look for more affordable and suitable ways to relieve the burden on the aging and overcrowded Heman Marion Sweatt courthouse.
The community is simply not convinced that a new facility should cost $300 million and take the form of a downtown high-rise. The area around Republic Square is already seeing rapid redevelopment, from Second Street all the way west to Seaholm. Taking a valuable, unrestricted city block in this district off the tax rolls is simply not a good idea for taxpayers.
Responding that this one plan, in this one location, must be built one way or another as essential “civic infrastructure” is not very compelling to many Austinites. Many view roadway projects such as MoPac expansion and SH 45 Southwest as equally essential, a position with which county leaders disagree. Our approach to meeting the needs of our community must find ways to respect and work forward from these different views, not seek to vanquish them.
Travis County owns a lot of property, both downtown and out of town. Ideally, we would have in recent years developed plans to use this property to gradually, affordably expand its court facilities, perhaps in multiple locations, while taking the burden off the current courthouse and determining the best approach for a permanent solution. While some windows of opportunity have now closed, it’s not too late to rethink the assumptions of the plan that was recently defeated.
We don’t think it’s true that Travis County voters have simply given up on big-ticket bond packages. Instead, the failures of the 2013 AISD bonds, last year’s urban rail package, and now the courthouse show that taxpayers are more selective and skeptical that was once the case. It’s up to political leaders to respond with affordable, sensible, and effective projects to meet our infrastructure needs.