Agency’s flex­i­bil­ity im­presses Eck­hardt

Tolls

Austin American-Statesman - - THE SECOND FRONT - Con­tin­ued from

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 nineroad 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 201213 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

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