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Eckhardt brings out discussion on regional rail

Tuesday, April 19, 2011 by Michael Kanin

What started as a fairly bland presentation of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority’s fiscal year 2011 report turned quickly into a discussion of regional transportation options last week at the Travis County Commissioners Court.

 

CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein reported that the Manor Expressway effort – an east-reaching, tolled stretch of US 290 that will connect US 183 and SH 130 – would come in under budget and that the authority’s projects have had a significant impact on the local economy.  

 

But Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt pushed Heiligenstein to engage in a discussion about more funding for rail. “The 290 East project has the Elgin-Manor line running adjacent to it,” she said. “183 South also has the Elgin-Manor line running adjacent to it. The MoPac managed lane project also has the potential for the Lonestar Rail line running right next to it. It’s these sorts of projects that are of a similar scale as the toll road projects and also have potential to pull from the same client base in a very copacetic way.”

 

The agency’s funding is reliant on strict limitations governing how it can spend its money. “Your statutory authority is very broad but your bond covenant is extremely narrow, limiting you to essentially nothing but toll roads,” said Eckhardt.

 

She asked Heiligenstein if the funding agreements that govern the construction of the Manor Expressway “loosen up the strictures that you have been operating under.”

 

Heiligenstein was frank. “It’s pretty tight,” he replied. However, he suggested that the financing for an agency project along MoPAC Blvd. might not be as restrictive.

 

Still, after the hearing he told In Fact Daily that any rail project adjacent to that road would be expensive. “Just to move the (Union Pacific) out of there is more than we’ll see in 30 years,” Heiligenstein said.

 

Eckhardt noted that a broader bond agreement would allow the agency to potentially devote more money to rail – or, as she put it, “related projects in the system, other than tollways.”

 

After the hearing, Heiligenstein reinforced the idea that the restrictive nature of the agreements that let his organization issue bonds to fund their efforts is to blame. “Because we are a start-up agency – we’ve got one project up in Williamson County right now that’s funding everything – we have to be pretty narrow on our allowances in terms of how much we can do,” he said. “It’s a negotiation process between the ratings agencies, the investors, and then us.”

 

Heiligenstein noted that his organization is not prohibited from funding rail projects. “It’s not a function of us not wanting to . . . it’s a function of the credit markets saying, ‘We have to have a very specific bond covenant to be able to lend you money; we don’t want you going off and doing stuff that is not (economically) sustainable,’” he said.

 

He added that he would like to be able to arrange for broader covenants. “I wish we could open them up,” he said. “I would prefer it. We don’t want to be a toll road agency; we want to be a mobility agency.”

 

“This agency will get to that point, hopefully in my lifetime, where, in and of itself, it will have the ability to throw off money to other modes of transportation,” Heiligenstein added.

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