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CAMPO Board approves short list of agency director finalists

Tuesday, September 14, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The CAMPO Transportation Policy Board last night approved a short list of finalists for the agency’s open executive director job in a meeting that was otherwise dominated by talk about the parameters and priorities of the MoPac Improvement Project.

 

The board, chaired by County Judge Sam Biscoe, took a 50-minute executive session to review a prioritized list of 12 candidates that had been whittled down to a short list of preferred applicants by CAMPO’s executive committee last week.

 

According to the board’s motion, the Executive Committee will interview four candidates, including Eduardo Calvo, Ashby Johnson, Maureen McCoy and Douglas Weirsig. The full Transportation Policy board would interview the candidates – anywhere from one to all four – on the afternoon of Oct. 11.

 

Biographies were not provided. McCoy was deputy director at CAMPO and is the current interim director. A quick Internet search shows Calvo is the director of Advanced Transportation Planning at the Texas Department of Transportation, Johnson is the deputy director of transportation at the Houston-Galveston Area Council of Governments, and Weirsig, now with Jacobs Engineering in Houston, formerly worked in transportation at the City of Houston and was on the short list for director of the North Texas Tollway Authority.

 

MoPac project draws concern

 

Among the other items on the CAMPO agenda, the MoPac Improvement Project drew the most discussion. The $253 million project, spearheaded by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, would create an additional express lane on each side of MoPac between Parmer Lane and Downtown Austin.

 

Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) Deputy Executive Director Mario Espinoza, joined by spokesman Steve Pustelnyk and chief financial officer Bill Chapman, made the presentation, noting the history of the project: first discussed in 1994 and inserted into the CAMPO 2020 plan; stalled in 2001 due to the need for additional right-of-way and opposition to an elevated structure; recommitted to the CAMPO 2030 plan in 2005 as express lanes; and, now, finally, reaching a point where CTRMA could be ready to execute the project, as a toll project, to open in 2016.

 

Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, however, had last-minute concerns about the terms and conditions of the project. Eckhardt admitted she had signed off on the project in an informal meeting with CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein last week, but reviewing the documents last night, she had new concerns.

 

Specifically, the MoPac improvement project will be an express lane high-occupancy toll, or HOT, project, which is a form of a managed lane project not to be confused with other models currently used in Texas: the high-occupancy vehicle, or HOV, project or what is often referred to as the variable toll project.

 

Here’s how they’re different:

 

The common HOV project is intended to be an incentive for congestion reduction. When the lane is tolled, its tolls are skewed to charge less to those vehicles carrying the largest number of passengers. So a car with four passengers could pay less than a car with three or two passengers. Or, in some instances, the lane is free if multiple passengers are in the car.

 

The variable toll lane, which is frequently used with East Coast turnpikes, varies the rate of the tolls based upon the time of day and level of traffic. The more congested the road, the higher the toll on the variable toll lane.

 

The high-occupancy toll lane, or HOT, has no requirement for either time of day or number of passengers. Espinoza candidly admitted to the board that the lane is not intended to provide congestion relief. The project is simply using a tolled model in order to pay for its construction and maintenance.

 

CTRMA Spokesman Steve Pustelnyk dropped us a note and objected to the wording: “We feel this mischaracterized Mario Espinoza’s statement. The project is not expected to be a solution to overall traffic congestion on MoPac. However, it would provide congestion relief, since the Express Lanes will almost always be free flowing.”

 

Only about a dozen HOT lane projects exist in the United States. Two of the newest are along the Katy Freeway (Interstate 10) and US 290 in Houston. A third is being built as part of the expansion of the IH-635 corridor near Interstate 35 in Dallas.

 

Eckhardt said she recognized financial constraints might have made the HOT lanes the only viable option for the CTRMA but she struggled to reconcile the transit goals of the lane with the financing realities of the CTRMA.

 

“My understanding was the reason that 2+ and 3+ weren’t included was because of the difficulty in the verification of the occupants of the vehicle, that there was no other way to verify other than visual enforcement of two or three people in the vehicles,” Eckhardt said. “Now I’m being told that you’re not going to be able to make the financial nut if you have 2+ and 3+ in the vehicle.”

If the transit incentive aspect of the project were to be abandoned – and this would be CAMPO’s only chance to weigh in on the project – then Eckhardt wanted a clear understanding of what parameters for transit were being applied to the project. For at least the last five years or so, the ability to put Cap Metro express buses on that extra lane was noted to be a priority. Nowhere in the documents presented to CAMPO, however, was that noted.

 

Espinoza said past covenants passed by the CAMPO board would apply to the project. After the meeting, Eckhardt disagreed, saying whatever terms and conditions for transit were attached to the project had to be attached to last night’s vote, given the arrangement was between CTRMA and TxDOT.

 

“This was our only bite at the apple,” Eckhardt said.

 

Asked what type of terms she would have preferred to see laid out in the terms and conditions approved by CAMPO, Eckhardt said she would have preferred to see the type and level of traffic the CTRMA wanted to see the managed lane and whether policies and conditions might be adjusted if conditions changed.

 

Eckhardt insisted she wanted the project and supported it, but she could not agree to the terms. Commissioner Karen Huber and Council Member Bill Spelman were the only board members who joined her in her opposition.

 

The terms and conditions of the project, signed off on by the CTRMA and TxDOT, are three-fold: the scope of the project is 11.9 miles on MoPac, from Parmer Lane to downtown; the toll rate could be variable, with a base rate of 22 cents per mile; and the methodology of toll price increases would be based on the urban consumer price index, similar to terms on the US 290 East project.

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