Local universities in line for big improvements

Posted Monday, May. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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A half-dozen public universities in North Texas, straining under record enrollment growth, would receive more than $350 million for brick-and-mortar expansion projects under a state bond package that won preliminary approval in the Texas House Monday night.

The $2.7 billion package of tuition revenue bonds would be the first since 2006 and would finance a vast backlog of construction projects at nearly 60 institutions, including the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth and the University of Texas at Arlington.

“All of us who have grown – and pretty much everyone in the Dallas-Fort Worth area is growing – are really, really counting on this relief,” said UNT Chancellor Lee Jackson.

Final passage by the House on Tuesday would send SB16 back to the Senate for expected concurrence for two minor amendments. It would then go to Gov. Rick Perry as lawmakers head into the home stretch of the 2013 Legislature before next Monday’s adjournment.

Tuition revenue bonds targeted for North Texas include:

•  $66.6 million for an interdisciplinary research building at the UNT Health Science Center.

•  $64.3 million for renovating and expanding a life science building at UTA.

•  $73.6 million for a college of visual arts and design facility at the main UNT campus at Denton.

•  $56 million for a library and student success center at UNT-Dallas.

•  $56 million to the UNT system for college of law building renovation.

•  $37.9 million for a new science and technology center at Texas Woman’s University at Denton.

The 20-year bonds, which would cost the state approximately $450 million over the next two years, would finance the lion’s share of new project construction costs for universities that Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, said have been “busting at the seams” under the weight of burgeoning student populations.

The growth has been especially pronounced in the Dallas Fort Worth metropolitan area, the fourth most populous region in the country.

UNT at Denton serves 36,000 students and is looking toward future growth that would swell the institution to 45,000. UTA had 33,806 students in February, a 35 percent increase since 2008. TWU has grown by more than 80 percent from the fall of 2000 to a record enrollment of 15,135 students by the fall of 2012.

‘It’s huge’

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, author of the bill, said the tuition bond package is critical to help universities throughout the state keep pace with continued growth and upgrade facilities that have been plagued by overcrowding or disrepair since the last package was approved seven years ago.

“It’s huge,” she said. “It has an enormous impact. This is a wonderful time to invest in construction on higher education because enrollment is growing and because construction costs are down, as are interest rates. There is always an economic multiplier for such an investment because jobs are created.”

Michael Williams, interim president of the UNT Health Science Center, said the tuition bonds would help fund a new “state-of-the-art” 150-000 square foot research building.

AT UTA, the bonds will fund 70 percent of the costs for renovation of the life science building and a new addition for animal research. UTA officials have called the expansion an essentially element in the university’s efforts to obtain tier one status.

In Denton, the bonds will enable UNT’s College of Visual Arts and Design, which offers the only Ph.d. program in art education in Texas, to build a new facility to replace an overcrowded cluster of buildings. The college currently has an enrollment of 2,200.

TWU’s new 73,320-square-foot Science and Learning Technology Center is part of the institution’s mission to graduate highly trained nurses and health care professionals, said media relations director Amanda McKeen Simpson.

Essential projects

During hearings on the bill, chancellors and universities president said the bonds were essential to fund long-overdue projects that remained backlogged since the last bond issues in 2006. The bonds would finance 60 projects at 58 institutions and system offices, totaling $4.1 billion in construction costs and $2.4 billion in TRB authorizations.

Since the last bond package seven years ago, Jackson said, public university and medical school have added 83,000 additional students.

The latest bond package, he said, is “very important” for the UNT System, enabling the Health Science Center to expand high-priority research and providing relief for a visual arts program that is “spilling out of its space across several buildings.”

Rep. Drew Darby, D-San Angelo, called the proposal an “attempt to bring our facilities up to grade.”

“I would think every one of the members on this floor have an interest in make sure their institutions of higher learning have facilities in order to cope,” he said.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram’s Austin bureau chief, 512-739-4471 Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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