Executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority
The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority was created in 2002 to improve transportation throughout the area. The Mobility Authority is scheduled to tackle nearly $2 billion in roadway projects during the next five years, including overseeing construction of the $426 million, 6.2-mile Manor Expressway project east of Austin and development of express lanes on MoPac. Other projects include Toll 183A, Oak Hill Parkway, Bergstrom Expressway and shared-use paths for bicycles and pedestrians.
Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the Mobility Authority, said the agency has been committed to pedestrian-friendly transportation options since its inception.
"We've already got plans for a shared-use path along the US 183 Bergstrom Expressway north of the airport, and we are working with residents in Oak Hill to identify their priorities for bike and pedestrian enhancements along the [Hwy.] 290 corridor," Heiligenstein said in an email. "Bicycle and pedestrian facilities will be part of every project we do moving forward."
Heiligenstein visited Community Impact Newspaper to talk about some of the agency's projects. Complete project details are at available at www.mobilityauthority.com/projects.
How would you describe the work the Mobility Authority does?
We are a planning agency to some extent, but [we're] more [of] an implementation agency. We're getting things done. Our commitment is to get more mobility for the region. Just this year alone—after a long process—we've issued the contracts for the express lanes on MoPac, from Parmer Lane down to the river and back.
What are some of the details of the MoPac Improvement Project?
This is a difficult job, and it's going to be the most complex job we do in Central Texas, construction-wise and behavior-wise.
Say you're going south [on] MoPac; right after Parmer Lane there would be a digital reader board that would say, 'Express lane ahead.' It might be 50 cents for Segment 1, which is to [FM] 2222. It might be [for example] $2 for Segment 2 down to the river downtown.
If you're in that lane, you're paying unless you're a bus or a registered vanpool. It's programmed to be pretty seamless, but there will be a little bit of turbulence. I think it's going to take a year for all the training to take place [and] for all the driver behavior [to change].
We talk about that stuff a lot—what kind of dividers we'll have for that lane. We've agonized over [do we use] a double white stripe or traffic poles? We've agonized over reader boards, over signage We have to see it the way you guys see it, not the way we see it. We see it so much, 'Oh yeah, I know what an express lane is.'
The lesson I've learned is we have to look at it from a user's standpoint, not our standpoint.
How will these tolled express lanes affect commuters?
If you got on MoPac and you choose to use those express lanes, you can get in there and go 60 miles per hour all the way without stopping. It's going to be an incredible, different experience, much more reliable. And that can be at 8 o'clock in the morning, or if you're going home, it can be at 5 o'clock in the afternoon. Just think about being able to get on MoPac and be able to say, 'I need to get somewhere,' and go 50 miles an hour.
Will there ever be a cap on how high those toll rate can go?
No [there won't be a cap]. Where they have put caps on, they've failed. You've paid $5 because that was the cap and you're going exactly the same speed as that [lane] over there. Then you can't call them express lanes. You need to call them something else because they will get crowded.
What are some other projects the Mobility Authority is working on?
The Y at Oak Hill is a huge project. [US] 183 South to the airport, we can't underestimate that. It's critical because if and when we ever start doing the express lane again on I-35, we will have to have that  open. That road needs to be done, and that's a huge project. Why? If you're coming up either direction, but particularly from the south, you're going to want an alternative. And I know [SH] 130's an alternative, but not everybody wants to go out that far.
In relation to Oak Hill Parkway, some residents have expressed concerns that there might not be as much consideration given to non-toll options. What are your thoughts?
We will have to look at all the studies. Then we have to break them down into what's finance-able. That project, if we did it all, it's a short piece but it's really expensive work, somewhere around $400 [million], $500 [million], $600 million. There's nobody who [has] that money. And even on a toll basis, it's tough. So I think we're going to have to cobble together several buckets of money for the Y [at Oak Hill] at some point. It's going to be expensive.
I've gotten a lot of good support from the environmental community for express lanes because you narrow the footprint. If that's all you do, you start narrowing the footprint from, say, 12 lanes to maybe eight.
We will look at all the alternatives and then submit those to the community. Then say, 'What's the appetite for a tax increase?' Given all the property tax [requests] that are out there in the next year, it's going to be difficult.
What do motorists consider most important?
What people will tell you [from] national surveys is that you may not be looking for the fastest route—you're looking for the most reliable one. Day in and day out, I'll take that route even though it's 35 minutes and some days this [route] is 20 [minutes] but some days it's 60 [minutes]. That's what I don't like. I don't like not knowing.