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CTRMA board finalists talk up transit during Travis County interviews

Monday, January 29, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court will decide on Tuesday which two of six candidates it will appoint to the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority’s board of directors.

The court interviewed the applicants during a special session on Thursday.

Of the six, two are current incumbents. David Armbrust has held his seat since 2012, while Charles Heimsath was first appointed in 2009. They’re both now facing competition for their positions from attorney Amy Pattillo, former city of Austin planner Amanda Brown, Federal Highway Administration staffer Donny Hamilton, and attorney John Langmore.

Each of Thursday’s interviews was conducted in open session, with each finalist brought before the members of the court to face the same set of questions that probed, among other things, the fundamental purpose of the CTRMA as well as any potential conflicts of interest.

Despite the widespread perception of the authority as a builder of toll roads, public transit featured as a recurring theme of the interviews.

“Our mission is really more than toll roads,” said Armbrust. “We have very broad statutory powers and it could be many other things.” He told the court that he had recently proposed to CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein the creation of a new staff position that would focus exclusively on alternatives to toll road projects.

Heimsath allowed that part of the CTRMA’s object is to allow transit access on its toll roads. However, he asserted, “The CTRMA’s primary responsibility in my mind is to add roadway capacity in this region.” He also made note of the backlash against toll roads currently fermenting at the state level. Both Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick came out late last year in opposition to new toll road projects being included in the Texas Department of Transportation’s Unified Transportation Plan.

“Our mission is clearly at risk today,” Heimsath told the court. “What I think we need to do is a much better job of interfacing with the leadership in telling them really how we are different here in Central Texas.” For example, he said, unlike other toll roads across the state, the CTRMA’s projects generally include non-tolled options.

Pattillo, a former member of Rollingwood City Council, expressed her desire to bring “consumer-oriented representation” to the board. She also proposed to use the CTRMA’s broad financing powers to help the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Capital Area Rural Transportation System fund transit projects. And that wasn’t her only idea.

“I think that there is a need for potentially a postmortem on the MoPac Improvement Project now that we’re reaching the end of it,” Pattillo said, suggesting that a panel of transportation providers, elected officials and community stakeholders evaluate the effort to add two new toll lanes to MoPac Expressway that came online two years past schedule.

While County Judge Sarah Eckhardt asked most of the questions, she allowed Commissioner Jeff Travillion to ask each candidate how the CTRMA could better interact with the communities through which its projects run, particularly in East Austin along the 183 South Project.

“You can’t really talk about transportation without talking about a lot of other things because it is part of communities that have issues such as affordable housing and land use issues and zoning and things of that nature,” Brown answered. “So I think it would be paramount for the CTRMA to coordinate with each of those communities, identify what each of those issues are and use its influence to address those issues.”

She offered that enhanced public transit options could lower transportation costs and thereby increase household affordability.

When Brown was granted the opportunity to ask the members of the court a question, she used it to inquire about what qualities they were looking for. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty told her that he expects the CTRMA board members to be able to discern how their colleagues are voting on any given issue in order to preserve an image of stability.

“The RMA’s gotta go borrow money, and New York is not going to lend you money if you have a board that has 4-3 decisions,” Daugherty said.

For his part, Hamilton said that board members should be active participants in planning processes and should define the vision of the agency.

“I think it’s important to have a clash of ideas and that comes in through engaging people who help you do it, whether that’s staff or the community,” he told the court.

Like his fellow finalists, Hamilton also played up the importance of transit.

“There are several opportunities to get people off the roadway and try to get into people’s minds through education, outreach and other strategies to have people to think beyond the car and maybe try the bus,” he said. “You have to bring out-of-the-box thinking when it comes to transit. Transit is so valuable around the United States, and those cities that you see with robust transit systems, you see them thriving economically. People want to be there, businesses want to be there.”

Though the state law that defines the powers of regional mobility authorities allows them to operate transit systems, Langmore, who as a legislative aide helped draft that law, said that the CTRMA doesn’t have to exercise that option. Instead, he offered that the authority could augment Capital Metro’s operations by allowing buses on toll lanes free of charge and also building more adjacent park-and-rides.

“What they need to do is maybe not develop a transit system, but they certainly need to work in partnership with the transit system,” he said. “Again, they’re the mobility authority. They need to think beyond automobiles.”

After the three-hour session, Eckhardt adjourned the meeting without taking a vote on the two board seats. Instead, the court is scheduled to make those decisions at its regular voting session on Tuesday.

The two successful candidates will join Travis County’s third appointee to the CTRMA board, attorney Nikelle Meade, who has served on the board since 2007.

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