Engineering Building Moves Closer to Reality

Lawmakers likely to fund the modern engineering building UT desperately needs.

Engineering Building Moves Closer to Reality

An upgrade to UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering is making its way through a sometimes fraught legislative process, with officials, alumni, students, and faculty carefully tracking its progress. A group of legislators is leading the charge under the Capitol dome, and hoping the proposal can gain traction in a Legislature that’s looking more generous than the last.

In 2011, colleges from across the state made their case to the Legislature for new buildings and facility upgrades. Since public universities in Texas lack capital building budgets, they had little choice. A tight budget caused a battle over higher education funding—one staffer called it a “floor fight”—that ended with no one getting what they wanted, and legislators returning to their districts empty-handed. Not a single request was granted. Funding for university capital projects hasn’t made it through the legislative process since a 2006 special session.

This session, universities and their supporters are back in the Capitol, jockeying for funds to build everything from a new music building to water-infrastructure upgrades. Principal among them is UT’s proposed Engineering Education and Research Center (EERC), which aims to update some of the Cockrell School’s outdated facilities. Lawmakers say despite the difficult process ahead, the EERC has a good chance of passing.

The upgrades to current engineering facilities would include 430,000 square feet of flexible teaching and research space. UT officials hope the new facility will encourage cross-disciplinary interaction, modernize teaching, and create a greater sense of community in the Cockrell School. The new home to the college’s largest major—electrical and computer engineering—will be built in greater harmony with nearby Waller Creek and replace the cramped corridors and 1960s-era infrastructure of the Engineering Sciences Building.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, BS ’67, MA ’70, PhD ’78, Life Member, has spearheaded the project in the Senate. She’s working to pass UT’s building appropriation, called a tuition revenue bond (TRB), as well as dozens of requests from public colleges and universities statewide. Zaffirini worked with higher education committee members Kevin Eltife, BBA ‘81, and Kel Seliger, who chairs the committee, to create Senate Bill 16, which allows the Legislature to cover all or some of the costs of those various building projects. How much gets covered will be a matter of debate, first in the Senate finance committee, where it currently sits, and then on the Senate floor. Zaffirini, Eltife, and Seliger all serve on the finance committee.

“I certainly hope that the legislature will pass my SB 16 this year, especially because no new tuition revenue bonds have been authorized since 2006 and because interest rates and construction costs are relatively low,” said Zaffirini. Her bill would authorize $95 million toward the construction of the EERC.

Where the money comes from may also be up for debate. The legislative request for the EERC equals roughly one third of the total cost, with the other two thirds coming from philanthropy and the UT System in equal parts. Even with a better overall budget picture than 2011, belts still may be tightened. The House version of the state budget does not include money for university building projects, but he Senate version, passed earlier this month, does. Seliger (R-Amarillo) suggested to the Alcalde that the state’s Rainy Day Fund might be used for one-time investments like the EERC.

Sen. Kirk Watson and Rep. Donna Howard, BSN ’75, MA ’77, both of whom represent Austin, have filed companion bills in each chamber for an EERC-specific tuition revenue bond. If Senate Bill 16 doesn’t pass, the Legislature could still consider UT’s request through Watson and Howard’s legislation. Watson (D-Austin) calls his bill the “suspenders” and Zaffirini’s the “belt.” He says the investment in the EERC—call it the pants, perhaps—is worthwhile, and not just for UT.

“It’s an enormous value to the citizens of the state of Texas,” said Watson, and outlook for tuition revenue bonds is “pretty positive.” The former Austin mayor says now that the Senate has passed its budget, other appropriations should begin to move through the chamber.

On the House side, Rep. Howard is expressing optimism as well. Staff members are confident that UT-Austin’s proposal is one of the most likely TRBs to pass, if it comes to a vote.

Howard (D-Austin) says the proposed center is “essential” to preserving the Cockrell School’s world class reputation. “In order to maintain its top-tier status,” Howard said, “it will need to modernize its teaching facilities and expand lab access for students.”

After the University’s general appropriation, engineering dean Gregory Fenves calls the project UT’s top priority, and praises the work of the Zaffirini-led work group.

“We are very pleased that the EERC project is included in SB 16,” says Fenves. “We look forward to the hearings on the bill in the Senate and consideration in the House.”

“The EERC will be a tremendous asset for UT-Austin, not only because cutting-edge research conducted at the facility will help drive economic growth, but also because the center will provide a perfect venue for students and professors to pursue excellence in teaching and research.”

Officials aren’t the only ones ready for the EERC. Connor Weins, chair of the UT student chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers says juniors like him need the new building, even if it means spending their senior year spread across campus due to construction.

“We really need a new building, not just for the department, but for UT’s reputation,” says Weins. He says helping students connect with representatives from companies like Microsoft and Schlumberger is a major priority for his student group—they just don’t have a place on campus to show to recruiters.

“I’d really like to see the building have more space for students to use,” Weins says.

Zaffirini shares the view that the EERC is not just an practical upgrade, but an investment in innovation and teaching.

“The EERC will be a tremendous asset for UT-Austin, not only because cutting-edge research conducted at the facility will help drive economic growth,” said Zaffirini, “but also because the center will provide a perfect venue for students and professors to pursue excellence in teaching and research.”

Read more about the EERC.

EERC rendering courtesy of the Cockrell School. Photo of Sen. Zaffirini by Matt Valentine.

 

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