UT, other schools seeking bond money for construction projects

One of the main engineering buildings at the University of Texas is cramped, inefficient and outdated.

A large study area at one end is off-limits in hot weather because the Engineering-Science Building’s air conditioning system is maxed out. Students working on a solar car must travel 10 miles north to the J.J. Pickle Research Campus, where there is more space for such projects. The 50-year-old building, with narrow hallways and overflowing cubicles, is a turn-off to professors the university is trying to recruit.

A $310 million replacement building would vault UT’s engineering laboratories, classrooms and offices into the 21st century, but there’s a catch: Officials say they need $95 million in bond money from the state Legislature.

Securing that funding is one of the Austin flagship’s top priorities for the legislative session. And UT isn’t alone in that pursuit. About 50 of the state’s public universities, health campuses, technical schools and two-year colleges have requested a total of $3.6 billion in bonds. Community colleges aren’t part of the mix because they can pay off bond debt with property taxes they collect.

It remains to be seen whether lawmakers will authorize bonds. The Legislature cut $11 billion from primary and secondary schools, higher education, health care and other sectors in 2011. And despite a rainy day fund balance of several billion dollars, legislative leaders have been warning that times remain lean.

On paper, bond debt for higher education construction projects is to be paid back with tuition proceeds and other university revenue — hence the term “tuition revenue bonds” for such funding. In practice, the Legislature pays off the debt with general revenue.

Lawmakers last approved a major round of tuition revenue bonds in 2006, for 63 projects totaling $1.9 billion. Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, has filed a measure for the upcoming session that would authorize a new round.

“The need is great,” said Zaffirini, a former chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee whose proposal for bonds two years ago did not advance. “I’m hoping we will be more successful this year.”

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is sifting through the institutions’ requests and will rank their projects by priority, said Dominic Chavez, a spokesman. The board awards points according to 17 measures, mostly involving space needs, cost, efficiency and a project’s potential to increase enrollment and graduation rates. In a nod to the potential of higher education institutions to spin off companies, technology and other economic development, two measures consider a project’s prospects for increasing research sponsored by federal agencies and other organizations.

The board’s recommendations are just that, though, and any action by the Legislature could depend on the political, geographical and other interests of its members.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry said he would work with lawmakers to review the funding requests and prioritize spending “to keep Texas on a prosperous path to the future.” Asked whether the governor believes some bond money should be authorized, spokeswoman Lucy Nashed replied: “That’s something that will be reviewed and decided on during the budgeting process.”

Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, who leads the House Higher Education Committee, said he is “kind of souring” on the process because, in his view, the Legislature tends to parcel out too many projects to satisfy political interests. Only the most strategic investments for quality and enrollment capacity ought to receive funding, he said.

The requests include a wide range of projects.

Texas A&M University at Kingsville is seeking $42 million in bonds to expand and renovate its music building. The University of Texas at Arlington wants $64.3 million to renovate its life science building and add an animal research unit. Texas State University’s top two priorities are a new engineering and sciences building in San Marcos, for which it is seeking $83 million, and a new health professions building in Round Rock for $48.8 million.

The Austin flagship’s legislative request includes $58.3 million in bonds for a new Graduate School of Business building with a total expected cost of $116.5 million. The project would advance the master’s in business administration program as well as the goal of making the McCombs School of Business “one of the most prominent business schools in the world,” as the appropriations request put it.

UT-Austin’s top priority for bond funding is the planned Engineering Education and Research Center. The open-concept, 430,000-square-foot design features wide spaces for students to work together on projects, an approach increasingly favored by students and faculty members alike.

“Our classrooms were set up for lectures, not projects,” said Gregory L. Fenves, dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering, during a recent tour of the Engineering-Science Building, which would be leveled.

Some classrooms have seats bolted to the floor, making it difficult to accommodate project work. Computer capacity is limited by the building’s outdated ventilation system. For example, one room houses just two servers and a floor fan aimed at them — additional servers would make it impossible to keep the room cool enough for the equipment.

Gary Hallock’s lab, like those of many faculty members, is crammed with gear. Hallock, a professor of electrical engineering, advises students who work on the university’s solar car, a perennial project.

It’s difficult for those students, many of whom do not own cars, to get to the Pickle campus for that work, he said. The new building would end that inconvenience.

“It will be a huge advantage to be here on the main campus,” Hallock said.

The new building is also essential for the Austin flagship to remain competitive with the nation’s top engineering schools, Fenves said. It’s difficult to recruit when you don’t have extra lab space, he said.

The $95 million in bonds sought from the Legislature would cover 31 percent of the project’s $310 million cost. UT-Austin reserves would be tapped for $5 million. The university has secured a commitment from its governing board of $105 million in bonds backed by the Permanent University Fund, a multibillion-dollar higher education endowment.

Philanthropic donations are intended to cover the remaining $105 million. Of that, the university has raised $30 million, including a $10 million pledge announced last week from James Truchard, president and CEO of Austin-based National Instruments Corp.

Truchard said the new building would give UT a hands-on, project-based setting where science, technology, engineering and math skills can be honed.

“We need that place of critical mass and energy where all the disciplines can come together,” Truchard said.

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