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CTRMA cuts expenses to deal with drop in toll system transactions

Thursday, April 30, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is slashing expenses across the board and deferring several initiatives and projects in order to keep spending on track with a 60 percent decrease in systemwide toll transactions resulting from local stay-at-home orders.

Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein said Wednesday that the agency is putting a number of technology upgrades and innovative initiatives on hold while “tapping the brakes” on the Barton Skyway Ramp Relief Project previously scheduled to begin construction this winter.

“We’re in unprecedented times trying to get our head around it,” said Heiligenstein. ”We’ve got a target that is moving rapidly. I think staff is doing a good job of guessing where the target is going to be, but as we all know … none of us are sure what that’s going to look like.”

Prior to the Covid-19 health crisis, the agency expected total revenues to exceed its budget for the current fiscal year, but a tremendous decline in traffic beginning in March could amount to just under $23 million in lost revenue from toll fees.

Based on current traffic patterns, the agency expects to receive only about 40 percent of the toll revenues previously expected for April, May and June. In the absence of traffic congestion, the agency expects the MoPac Expressway tolled express lane to bring in only 8 percent of expected revenues in the same period, but those estimates may prove to be on the conservative side.

“All of this is very fluid and it depends on what happens with the work-from-home situation and other Covid-19 restrictions,” said Tracie Brown, director of operations.

Robert Goode, deputy executive director, told the board of directors that traffic is back up on MoPac by about 15 percent since the first weeks of the local stay-at-home orders, but added it’s possible the region could slide back into another stay-at-home situation in the months ahead.

Faced with uncertainty, the agency has opted to cut expenses to ensure long-term financial stability by slowing its hiring process and minimizing operations and maintenance costs as much as possible. With the delays and cancellations, the agency now plans to end Fiscal Year 2020 at around $21.3 million under budget, nearly equivalent with the predicted amount of lost revenue.

The southern half of U.S. Highway 183 South, however, remains on track for completion by January of next year and has been accelerated in recent months. The northern piece of the toll project between U.S. Highway 290 and Techni Center Drive opened in August last year, adding six tolled lanes and up to six general traffic lanes to the corridor. “I’m very pleased to report to the board that we’re headed in the right direction despite everything going on,” said Justin Word, director of engineering.

Depending on how things play out, Bill Chapman, chief financial officer, said the pandemic could reduce traffic by around 10-20 percent over the next fiscal year, putting total system revenue at about $114 million, in sharp contrast to Chapman’s estimation of $157 million prior to Covid-19. With 10-20 percent fewer transactions, however, the agency would also be paying about 20 percent less in fees for services like toll collection.

“If we find that we’ve been overly conservative on our revenue estimates, I would hope that we can start to implement some of the programs that we’ve cut,” said Board Member John Langmore.

This story has been corrected to reflect the current timeline for completion of the U.S. Highway 183 South project. Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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