Agency’s flexibility impresses Eckhardt
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