Austin toll authority manages to hit age 10 despite opposition

Link to article here.

Toll Agency hits age 10 with stability, big plans
By Ben Wear
American-Statesman Staff
December 28, 2012

There was a time, early in the history of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, when it was by no means clear that the agency would see its 10th birthday this fall.

Neither was it clear that it would have two toll roads open by now, nearly a billion dollars in assets and enough credibility that local elected officials, with little or no constituent blow-back, could vote this year to loan the authority $130 million to add toll lanes to MoPac Boulevard. Under that arrangement, the authority has 25 years to pay back the money, plus $100 million in what amounts to interest.

Those express lanes on MoPac (Loop 1), to run from near Lady Bird Lake to Parmer Lane, should be under construction by summer 2013 and take about two years to open.

In 2004, the agency at age 2 had no roads in place or under construction, little money and almost no staff. What it had was a demanding and strong-willed big brother — a Texas Department of Transportation feverishly committed to tolling everything it could — along with a lot of critics and a thick sheaf of negative headlines.

The agency, at the behest of TxDOT, in April 2004 put forward a nine-road toll plan for the area that included making people pay to drive on two roads that had been built entirely with tax dollars and were almost finished — a MoPac bridge over William Cannon Drive and Texas 71 east of Interstate 35. Historically, tolls have always been seen as a way to pay back bonds borrowed to build a toll road, not as a pure revenue generator. The public rebelled.

“There were some issues and some philosophical positions that had to be worked out,” said Mike Heiligenstein, a former Williamson County commissioner who in December 2003 became the authority’s first — and so far only — permanent executive director. “Tolling existing roads, for instance, was not a good way to start your agency off.

“There were points when I thought, ‘Man, is this ever going to get the kind of community buy-in and acceptance that’s necessary to be successful?’”

Travis County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, an alternative transportation advocate who has been an occasional critic of the agency in the past, now says Heiligenstein and the authority’s other leaders have done a good job. She voted to approve that $130 million loan.

“It has been run well. It’s been run lean,” said Eckhardt, a Democrat.

How lean? The mobility authority, with a 2012-13 budget of $43.2 million, has just 20 budgeted employees — some positions aren’t currently filled — instead relying on consulting engineers, financial advisers, bond attorneys and toll operations and maintenance providers to do much of its work. The North Texas Tollway Authority in Dallas, by contrast, has about 650 employees and a 2011-12 budget of $137 million. The Harris County Toll Road Authority has 734 workers and a fiscal 2012 budget of $386.6 million.

Unlike Capital Metro, the authority has built no buildings, instead renting space in an office building downtown. The authority this spring will move to cheaper offices, with free parking, near Interstate 35 and East 32nd Street.

The agency has also been remarkably stable. The North Texas toll authority has had seven executive directors during the time Heiligenstein has been leading the Austin agency, and Harris County has had three leaders since 2003. The governing board has had just two chairs, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, and little turnover among the other six members appointed by Travis and Williamson counties, which formed the agency at the urging of former state Rep. Mike Krusee, a Williamson County Republican.

Half the agency’s small staff has been there since at least 2005, in part because of generous salaries. Heiligenstein makes $242,500 — less than his Dallas counterpart but more than the toll director in Harris County — and seven other employees’ pay is in the six-figure range.

“In running lean, yes, they have operated as a conduit for private contracts,” Eckhardt said. “And they had some stumbling blocks early with regard to that sort of business model, but they’ve worked out the kinks. … I’m frankly grateful to Krusee for having developed this flexible oddball.”

Krusee, out of politics now, was chairman of the House Transportation Committee from 2003 to 2008. After birthing the powerless and penniless agency under a 2001 state law that allowed regional mobility authorities to exist, Krusee carried a bill in 2003 that gave it and other regional mobility authorities formed later around the state the ability to borrow money, condemn land and build highways.

Such authorities may also create transit systems, airports, parking lots and even ferries. Thus the word “mobility” in the title, rather than “toll.” But that has been mostly cosmetic up to now. What the mobility authority has built is toll roads.

With TxDOT’s financial help and a large bond issue to pay for construction, the agency opened the first half of its first road, 4.5 miles of 183-A, mostly in Cedar Park, in March 2007. Despite having toll rates much higher than three Central Texas tollways that TxDOT opened at roughly the same time, the road was an instant hit — so much so that the authority, after weathering the credit crunch of 2008 and 2009, extended the road 5.1 miles to Leander.

That section opened in April, five years earlier than originally envisioned. A 1.5-mile piece of a second agency tollway, built over the existing U.S. 290 in Northeast Austin and dubbed the Manor Expressway by the authority, opened in late November. When that $426 million, 6.2-mile project is fully open in 2014, its six toll lanes and six free frontage road lanes will stretch past Texas 130.

After the MoPac project, the agency probably will build tollways along the U.S. 183 and Texas 71 corridors in East and Southeast Austin, and on U.S. 290 and Texas 71 in Oak Hill. And, perhaps, one more brand-new road, Texas 45 Southwest near Manchaca.

Eckhardt said that as the agency matures and becomes more and more financially stable, it will need to pay real attention to the meaning of “mobility” in its title. She notes that the MoPac project will have a transit component, allowing Capital Metro buses and registered van pools to ride in the toll lanes for free.

“TxDOT did not do that” on its area tollways, Eckhardt said. But she wants the authority to be a financial player in the various rail plans on the board for Central Texas, even though such transit projects in the U.S. aren’t profitable and thus require tax support. The mobility agency doesn’t have taxation authority.

Even so, at age 10, Eckhardt said, the agency “has not quite hit puberty, and puberty will require them to live up to their full transportation scope, not just toll roads.”

Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority

Number of tollways: 2

Miles of tollways: 11

Annual budget: $43.2 million

Toll transactions in 2011-12: 22.4 million

Toll revenue in 2011-12: $23.6 million

Central Texas toll tags: 554,000

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