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CTRMA chief seeks caps on fines and fees for toll road violations

Tuesday, December 7, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein considers capping fines and fees for toll road violators to be a priority for lawmakers to address in the upcoming session.


Heiligenstein was on Texas Department of Transportation Executive Director Amadeo Saenz’s Road Show webcast on Monday afternoon. Saenz asked Heiligenstein what he considered to be topics to address in the next session.


“We need to cap those fines and fees,” Heiligenstein said of toll road violations, “but we also need to make sure that we have some leverage with the person who continues to violate and steal from the facility, which is what they’re doing.”


Fines and fees have ratcheted up the bills of some toll road scofflaws to more than $20,000, according to recent reports. CTRMA Spokesman Steve Pustelnyk said the agency’s fines and penalties are significantly lower than those of Texas Department of Transportation.


Still, it’s reasonable to address how penalties rack up for toll road violators and how drivers can be encouraged to pay in a timely fashion, Pustelnyk said. The CTRMA would prefer to see a hold placed on driver’s license or vehicle registration renewals, instead of a court date, for chronic toll road violators.


The goal would be to create a reasonable penalty for those to pay who violate the law but also put some teeth into enforcement, so violators take fines seriously, Pustelnyk said. Taking violators to court would be the option once other avenues, such as a vehicle registration hold, were exhausted.


Heiligenstein also would like to see legislation to renew the expired comprehensive development agreement law passed next session. Issues such as whether pension funds should be used to invest in CDAs should be explored. And, given the headaches it created on all sides, market valuations of toll projects could be discarded pretty easily next session, Heiligenstein said.


“That’s a process that could go away and not hurt our feelings,” said Heiligenstein of the process to price roadways, which has sometimes added months to final negotiations over terms of public-private partnerships.


As Heiligenstein wrote recently on his blog at the CTRMA website, the agency continues to work with the community to develop rail strategies and visions. CTRMA’s role is not to build rail lines, but it is important to understand rail as a component of a regional transportation system.


The CTRMA is interested in hosting a regional rail symposium, one that will consider how to incorporate commuter rail and urban rail with other modes of transportation, such as buses and toll roads. Funding is tight, and needs are great across the region, Heiligenstein wrote.


“That’s why it’s critically important that we make sure our regional plans for and investments in rail and other transit are carefully coordinated and efficient,” Heiligenstein wrote. “We need to make sure we have an overall regional system that provides effective mobility, shapes future growth, and supports Central Texas’ goals for economic development and environmental stewardship.”


Investing in a toll road system has not taken transportation money away from Central Texas, Heiligenstein told Saenz, even though that is one of the myths that surround toll road funding.


Central Texas gets the same formula funding with or without the toll road system. But because of the toll road system, the region has been able to leverage larger dollars to jump-start much-needed road projects, Heiligenstein said. And tolls can provide additional dollars to address additional tolled and non-tolled projects.


Asked by someone watching the webcast, Heiligenstein said the US 290/SH 71 project still had an additional four years of environmental work before ground could be broken, and that includes making a choice on the best possible expansion plans, including the possibility of additional lanes.


“Whether or not a 12-lane road is the right cross-section or not, we think that’s one of the most congested areas in the region, and it has to be addressed,” Heiligenstein said.


In the interim, prior to construction, Saenz said the department would attempt to create some short-term intersection improvements to ease traffic woes. Similar intersection improvements are being proposed for Loop 360.

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