RM 620 widening costs will trickle down to many water bills

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Starting in January, Water Control and Improvement District 17 customers around Lake Travis will feel a slight rise in their monthly rate.

The water district is adding a $5 monthly fee to customers’ bills, to help pay for the cost of moving utility lines as part of a Texas Department of Transportation project on Ranch to Market 620.

In November, WCID 17 sent out letters to customers, notifying them of the change. The water district also held a public informational meeting earlier this month.

“The biggest questions we had were, ‘Why doesn’t TxDOT pay?'” said WCID 17 General Manager Jason Homan.

He says it comes down to where the water lines are buried. Years ago, instead of spending millions of dollars to buy easements for putting in water and wastewater lines, the public utility chose to lay them mostly under public land — for free.

“It’s an advantage at the beginning, because it’s no cost to the utility to put your lines in, but should they ever need to move the road, that’s where the cost comes in,” Homan said.

Now that TxDOT is planning a massive project to widen RM 620, WCID 17 will incur the cost of moving and making needed adjustments to the utility lines underneath the road.

“If they need to do something with the right of way, they need to widen the road, they need to change the road’s configuration in any way, then it’s up to us as the people who install the infrastructure to move it,” Homan said.

“If we had owned easements, which we do in certain spots, then that’s something that we previously went out and purchased and the state respects that, and if they have to move our easement they will come in and they will pay for the cost.”

Moving water lines buried along the 14-mile stretch is expected to cost WCID 17 around $9 million. However, it’s a cost Homan says wouldn’t have been easily avoidable.

“It’s cost prohibitive to purchase all of those easements from landowners,” he said. “So we were forced, like many utilities are, to take advantage of the public right of ways.”

Homan says the water district’s aim is to put the least possible burden on ratepayers, however.

Of the $9 million it will take to move and adjust water lines within the project, $5 million will be diverted from other planned WCID 17 projects. The $5 monthly fee tacked on to water bills is expected to bring in the other $4 million. Homan says it will be about $5 million cheaper to collect the money upfront than the alternative — a bond that would come with taxes and interest.

“This was a rare opportunity for us, because we’re able to see the work coming years out, and the length of the project is looking at five to six years of construction time, so we knew that if we thought ahead and we planned now, we could save for it,” he said.

The TxDOT construction project is set to begin in WCID 17’s coverage area in 2020.

The extra monthly charge is set to expire in six years, once the $4 million is expected to be collected.

“Governments have a tendency to, once rates get raised, they stay that way,” Homan said. “The board and I were 100 percent convinced that we did not want to follow that path, so that’s why we made this a strict $5 fee, and it’s specifically titled the ‘TxDOT Water Line Relocation Fee, so that six years from now, when the project’s complete, it would be impossible, basically, for the board to continue that fee. In good faith to our ratepayers, we want to make sure that that fee will go away.”

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