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  • Writer's pictureMolly Becker

More than just a toll roads agency: CTRMA tout transit, bike and walking infastructure

Wednesday, May 15, 2019 by Jack Craver

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority’s ability to build new toll roads may be temporarily stymied by opposition from state leaders, but the agency is keeping busy with major ongoing projects.

While the great majority of its spending is on expanding roadway capacity for cars, CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein emphasized the millions the agency is investing in bike and pedestrian infrastructure in a Tuesday presentation to the Travis County Commissioners Court.

The $108 million construction of State Highway 45 SW, linking MoPac Expressway with FM 1626, will be accompanied by a 4.5-mile shared-use path, along with pedestrian and bicycle bridges over Bear Creek and Danz Creek.

The $743 million reconstruction and expansion of U.S. Highway 183 between U.S. Highway 290 and State Highway 71 – to include six toll lanes and six general-purpose lanes – includes $25 million to construct 16 miles of continuous bike lanes, 10 miles of shared-use paths for cyclists or pedestrians, 7 miles of sidewalks and connections to the surrounding trail system.

Plans for 183 also include four pedestrian bridges, most notably the Montopolis Truss Bridge, an 82-year-old bridge that is out of commission but which the agency envisions as a gathering space with a scenic view of the Colorado River.

“What we see here is a reinvention of that trestle,” said Heiligenstein. “It’s being done all over the country and there’s no reason we can’t do it in Central Texas.”

Heiligenstein also stressed the opportunity express lanes offer for regional transit, highlighting the major increase in use of Capital Metro Express routes that travel in the MoPac express lanes. Those five bus routes provide commuters in outer parts of the metro area, such as Leander, Round Rock, Cedar Park and far Northwest Austin, a way to get to and from work downtown that is faster than driving in the MoPac general-purpose lanes and likely cheaper than paying the dynamic toll for the express lane each way.

“This has been truly one of the most transformative transportation projects in the region,” Heiligenstein said of the MoPac express lanes. “There were lines queued up to those buses like I’ve never seen before. It was very gratifying to see the demand for those express buses.”

Heiligenstein said he is trying to get the word out to developers to consult with the agency and Capital Metro about providing transit access to their future businesses or residents as early as possible. Future developments that the agency is eyeing in its long-term transportation plans include Robinson Ranch, where Apple has announced it plans to build a $1 billion campus.

Commissioner Brigid Shea said she hoped that park-and-rides could make use of existing parking lots, such as those of churches that generally aren’t in high demand during the week, rather than building new ones.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who has been a vocal proponent of expanding roadway capacity, said his vote to authorize the CTRMA in 2003 was the best of his political career.

“I think it’s been a great example of what you can do regionally,” he said. He acknowledged the controversy associated with some projects – both due to opposition to tolls and environmental concerns – but said the agency has done a good job of addressing concerns to the greatest extent possible.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt also had warm words for the group, despite acknowledging that she had fought “tooth and nail” against toll roads and is still generally opposed to them. Now that the agency has been in operation and has amassed more than $2 billion in revenue from its roads, she is eager to find ways to invest that money in ways that enhance public transit, she said, citing Project Connect, Capital Metro’s long-term plan for high-capacity transit.

“CTRMA is such a big part of making the Project Connect process a regional one,” she said, highlighting figures showing that the majority of the traffic coming into Austin on MoPac during morning rush hour is coming from outside of Travis County.

Every part of the region has an interest in major investments in public transit, she argued: “It must not be an us-against-them.”

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