Thursday, December 22, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

CTRMA board bristles on SH 45 SW, MoPac South projects

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority board of directors bucked its agreeable reputation on Wednesday by reining in a recommendation to give Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein millions in discretionary spending powers on one project while also asking pointed questions about another.

The relatively feisty meeting featured a light agenda with only a handful of votes on what appeared to be routine items.

However, the recommendation to grant Heiligenstein the ability to execute change orders worth up to $3 million for work along State Highway 45 Southwest without consulting the board met nearly immediate skepticism. The money to cover those renegotiated contracts would come from the project’s $7.2 million contingency fund.

“I’m not comfortable allowing 40 percent of the total contingency to be allocated without any approval from the board. It just doesn’t feel right to me,” said Board Member Charles Heimsath.

Chair Ray Wilkerson voiced agreement with the sentiment, as did Board Member David Armbrust.

Ultimately, the board lowered the discretionary amount to $1 million but included language to allow Heiligenstein to exceed that amount in the event of an environmental emergency. The board voted 5-0 to approve the compromise, with board members James Mills and Robert Bennett off the dais.

The move marked the first time in recent memory when the board dialed down a staff recommendation. The board faced criticism earlier this year from activists who accused members of being too cozy with development interests and not critical enough of CTRMA policies.

After the vote, Heiligenstein acknowledged the unusual pushback against the recommendation.

“I just want to say I appreciate the board’s discussion on that. That really is good,” he said.

There was still more discussion ahead.

Heiligenstein used his monthly executive director’s report to give the board an update on the highly controversial MoPac South project. Last year, the CTRMA drew fierce backlash from environmental groups and West Austin residents after planners unveiled six alternative proposals to expand MoPac Expressway south of Cesar Chavez Street to Slaughter Lane. The two most controversial scenarios envision raising the highway’s profile and adding elevated tolled lanes over Lady Bird Lake.

General counsel Geoff Petrov told the board that the project has largely lain dormant since opponents of SH 45 SW filed a lawsuit against that project in February. The suit, he said, questions the environmental review process of SH 45 SW along with MoPac South. Petrov said a judge will hear the case on March 22 and will likely issue a ruling later in the spring. If the outcome rolls in the CTRMA’s favor, the planning work for MoPac South will resume.

Armbrust explained that the board members had caught flak from the public for the set of proposals that they did not make. “We are not the decider of the end result, but we’re getting a lot of credit for this process,” said Armbrust, adding that he wanted to learn more about who ultimately makes the decisions and how public feedback and other stakeholder input is used in the process.

Lynda Rife, the authority’s public involvement consultant, told him that her team takes the input and tries to incorporate it into project planning. But, she added, “We’re not a vending machine. If the public says, ‘We want gondolas,’ if that doesn’t work in this case, then the engineers need to tell us that.”

Seizing on that last point, Armbrust asked if the CTRMA’s staff engineers were the final authority when it comes to handing down proposals. Director of Engineering Justin Word replied, “I wouldn’t say we’re making the decision. We do our homework.” The results of that work are then checked and reviewed by the Texas Department of Transportation, Word explained.

Heimsath noted that while the board cannot choose which of the six MoPac South proposals to proceed with, it can opt not to fund the project altogether.

Photo by Lars Plougmann made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

CTRMA: The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. A governmental agency created, according to its web site, in 2002 to "improve the transportation system in Williamson and Travis counties." The site also notes that the agency's "mission is to implement innovative, multi-modal transportation solutions that reduce congestion and create transportation choices that enhance quality of life and economic vitality." In addition to other responsibilities, the agency oversees a set of toll roads in the region.

MoPac: Texas State Highway Loop 1 is also known as "MoPac" after the Missouri Pacific Railroad it was built on. The scenic highway runs from the beginning of the State Highway 45 to US 183.

SH45SW: A controversial road project that supporters argue would ease traffic traveling through areas of far Southwest Travis and far Southeastern Hays County. Opponents argue that the environmental impact of the effort, which runs close to sensitive land, is not worth that risk. The debate over the issue goes back as far as the mid-1980s.

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