UPDATED 9-19-22 to include a correction regarding the status of the I-2 Corridor, which was included in the County's Long-Range Transportation Plan adopted Aug. 9.
When Cynthia Long was seeking her first term as County Commissioner 16 years ago, she spoke frequently about the need to attract new business and create jobs in Williamson County.
“Instead of the traffic jam leaving Williamson County at 8 o’clock in the morning, I wanted it to be coming here,” she said recently.
Long celebrated when she read in the June edition of Austin Business Journal that more residents are now staying in Williamson County for work rather than commuting to Travis and other counties.
Long, who served four years on the Cedar Park City Council and seven years on its Planning Commission before seeking the Pct. 2 position on the Commissioners Court in 2006, attributes the change to collaboration and partnership between the County and the cities’ economic development groups.
“We’ve done a good job collectively as a county, recruiting businesses and providing the job opportunities for people to stay in the county,” she said. “If we can attract and find the right kinds of jobs, then somebody who might have been having to go to Round Rock or Austin for work, if they can do that near home, then guess what, they can get to that soccer game or that function at school.”
Planning for economic and residential growth, especially when it comes to transportation and connectivity, is essential to continued quality of life issues, although getting there is often painful.
Liberty Hill has changed dramatically since Long took office in 2007. Less than 10 years ago, the population of the City of Liberty Hill was less than 1,000 while today county officials say it is over 5,000.
Perhaps the most visible sign of that rapid growth is the traffic. A lack of connectivity between major roadways in the community has become a daily grind.
“The current road system doesn’t give you alternatives to stay off of (SH) 29 and to stay off of (RM) 1869 and Hwy 183,” she said. “And if we don’t plan for these other connections, it’s just going to continue to be gridlock on those major roadways.”
Long has drawn criticism over the past year from residents along a proposed east-west expressway between US Hwy 183 and the Burnet County line, and a connector between the new expressway and SH 29. The I-2 Corridor study prompted residents living within the initial right-of-way to organize themselves last year and voice their disapproval to Long, the Commissioners Court, in community meetings, and on social media. Despite the opposition, a revised version of the I-2 Corridor was adopted Aug. 9 by County Commissioners in a 4-1 vote as part of the County’s Long-Range Transportation Plan. Only Commissioner Terry Cook voted no.
“The challenge is that with all the new growth, it brings some of these problems,” Long said, referencing the plans for new roadways, as well as a proposed rock crushing plant that many claim is needed in direct response to Liberty Hill area construction demands.
Long said her office has received many inquiries and pleas for help to stop the plant due to concerns about air quality and water conservation. While she has met with residents, there isn’t much the County can do as the authority rests with the State through the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and even the Texas Legislature. However, she is meeting with the Williamson County legislative delegation to voice community concerns and explore the possibility of giving more authority to TCEQ or even the counties with regard to groundwater issues.
“There are definitely people that don’t want to see any more growth,” she said. “They want to close the door, right? But given that Texas is such a strong private property rights state, we can’t close the door. So for both the city council and at the County, we have to figure out how do we use the tools that the Legislature has given us to help manage and work with that growth? Because shutting the door isn’t an option.”
“I’ve never in my public service, seen this kind of growth. We’ve seen growth spurts, and you know, let’s face it in Williamson County, there’s only been a couple of years that were flat,” she said.
“From a transportation perspective, that’s why the County has been so bullish on trying to plan ahead,” she said. “It’s a very frustrating and upsetting process, and I get that. I’ve sat in this office and cried with people over projects and impacts to them. But the other part of me has seen what happens when you fail to plan. We just have to look south and see the gridlock in Austin, and as uncomfortable and painful as some of the planning is, I don’t think we want to trade it for what Austin is. And that’s sort of the balance and the challenge.”
Long also noted that one of her continuing goals from day one has been to keep the property tax rate low. She says in her 15 years of service, the County’s tax rate has dropped more than 30 percent.
County commissioners voted on a proposed tax rate in mid-August that coupled with multiple residential homestead exemptions should bring down the County’s portion of the average tax bill, she said.
Long, a Republican, whose career started in the technology field, said she looks for opportunities to talk with taxpayers about county government. She said it seems that most people don’t really understand the role of county government in Texas, often believing that county commissioners have more authority than they do.
“I always seek to have that one on one conversation with people,” she said, adding that knocking on doors and talking to constituents is her favorite part of the campaign. “The more people that I get the opportunity to talk long-term vision with, they get it.”