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Transportation forum studies viability of RMA system

Thursday, January 8, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Austin may have been dealt more toll roads than any other region of the state in recent years, but it also has made more progress and had fewer logistical problems than other areas of the state facing the same job of laying down roads.

Of course, Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, painted a fairly rosy picture at the 4th Annual Texas Transportation Forum at the Hilton Austin yesterday. In his speech, on a panel that included regional transportation leaders, he assured the audience that the regional mobility authority was a viable vehicle for road construction. 

“Can RMAs successfully develop projects?” Heiligenstein asked the audience at the Hilton Austin this morning. “US 183A came in on time and on budget. It was one of the first design-build projects in the state. That wasn’t to say it wasn’t without its hiccups and issues, but those who are commuting love it.”

RMAs were created by the Legislature in 2001, but only the CTRMA has successfully moved a project from beginning to end. Developer consortiums, under comprehensive development agreements with TxDOT, completed the three roads that constitute the Central Texas Turnpike System, an Austin-San Antonio bypass.

The only other piece of a roadway system that has seen significant progress is the additional lanes to the existing US 281 in San Antonio. The Alamo RMA is still enmeshed in the environmental approval process for the roadway.

Still, Heiligenstein speaks of the RMA model as successful. The CTRMA is in the midst of putting together the financing package for the second project, the $600 million expansion of US 290E, known as the Manor Expressway. To make the financing deal work, US 183A is being used as collateral on the project.

Of all the vehicles to put roads on the ground under House Bill 3588, the RMA was probably the cleanest and easiest to execute. As the chairman of the North Texas Transportation Authority told the audience, it took 70 meetings to hammer out an agreement between TxDOT and NTTA on SH 161, and the financials have yet to be secured for the road project, considered one of the most promising for North Texas in terms of generating potential tolls.

When asked what needs to happen during the legislative session to enhance and facilitate road construction, Chair Paul Wageman said the market valuation process – those 70 meetings – should be reviewed. Instead of encouraging the agencies to work together, the process tended to put NTTA and TxDOT in conflict.

Of course, the big boon to North Texas was the upfront concession of $3.2 billion that NTTA agreed to produce when it began construction of SH 121. TxDOT is holding that money in a sort of escrow account, using it as profit to build projects that are being requested by the North Texas region.

What was clear from Tuesday’s discussion with lawmakers and Wednesday’s panel of regional leaders was that it would take money to make money. When TxDOT produces the funding to build a road – free or tolled – it makes it far easier for regions to be able to apply for federal loans or go out to the bond market.

RMAs were intended to speed up the process of identifying and executing regional road problems. As was mentioned in Wednesday morning’s session, a road project, from conception to execution to completion can be 13 years. With a good head start, US 183A north of Austin was able to move from execution to completion in two years, with hardly a hitch. Traffic counts on the road are as high as 55,000 transactions a day, which is roughly double the original estimate and has led the RMA to put the toll road’s expansion on the fast track, Heiligenstein said.

The theme that Heiligenstein returned to in his speech – and this was a speech to many in the road building industry — was the need to put enough money out on the table to keep engineers on the RMAs at work, as they move from project to project. Toll roads brought together a critical mass of engineering intellect, but that won’t continue unless the RMA can provide those firms with work and jobs.

Heiligenstein disagreed with Sen. John Carona’s (R-Dallas) assertion that toll agencies needed to be spending taxpayer money in order to convince drivers that those same toll roads were a good idea. Heiligenstein noted that marketing and education – introducing the concept of toll roads to a region – is wise.

“Those are the up-front dollars necessary to work with your public,” Heiligenstein said. “It’s not cheap, and it’s not an easy process.”

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