Hired as director for the Harris County Toll Road Authority in August, Gary Trietsch knows the challenges of mobility on Texas roads like few others. His 48 years in the field have included career stints as the Houston district engineer with the Texas Department of Transportation and as vice president of Dannenbaum Engineering Corp. in Houston, a public infrastructure and transportation group.
Trietsch said his first few months with HCTRA have gone well.
"I'm very lucky that I have a great staff," he said. "Everybody has been here a number of years. They know what they're doing and do a great job."
HCTRA was formed by the Harris County Commissioners Court in 1983 after voters approved a referendum to release $900 million in bonds to construct toll roads in the county. The authority manages several major toll roads in Harris County, including the Sam Houston Toll Road, Hardy Toll Road and the upcoming Tomball Tollway. As an enterprise fund of Harris County, revenues raised go back into the county.
How does working for HCTRA compare to your past jobs in transportation?
I've been in this business 48 years, so I've worked with a lot of different people at different locations. A lot of it is the same—safety and traffic operations. What's different is customer relations and dealing with outlier situations. It's surprising to find out toll roads are harder to manage than free roads, primarily due to the collection of the money. It's amazing the different issues that come up. Most people want to use the road, pay their bill and not be bothered. Those make up probably 98 percent of our transactions, but we have millions of transactions a year. Stuff happens, and [questions on transactions have] to be straightened out. That's what we do, and that's why we have a call center with hundreds of people on staff. With free roads you don't worry about any of that stuff.
What are some of the major projects HCTRA is working on this year?
The first one is the Tomball Tollway. We've been working [in March] with the Montgomery County commissioners. We both need each other. Even though there's a county line involved, the two separate projects have to go hand in hand. Phase 1— from Spring Cypress Road to FM 2920—[opened] to traffic April 12. We'll start working on the detailed plans [for the later phases] this summer or by the end of the year. The toll rates in Tomball will be set based on our current rates.
We also have the Hwy. 249 and Beltway 8 direct connector under construction. It goes right over the frontage road and we don't pour concrete with traffic underneath, so we'll have to close that off. It's not really tricky from a traffic perspective, but there are several businesses there, and we have to [provide] ways for them to maintain access during that [construction]. We hope have that open by the end of this year, but it may be early next year.
What projects do you anticipate taking a closer look at over the next few years?
One of the studies we're going to be starting this year is between Hwy. 249 and the Hardy Toll Road, primarily along the section of Beltway 8 that is managed by TxDOT. In the morning, there's a big bottleneck there at I-45. We're using that to justify trying to connect [Hwy. 249 and Hardy] together through the TxDOT section with a toll road to add some express lanes. I don't know if we'll be able to do that, but that's one of the things we want to look closer at. If we do find a way to do it, it also may be so expensive we can't afford it. [Harris County Precinct 4] Commissioner [Jack] Cagle is the one who came up with the idea and asked us if we could figure out a way to do it.
How is HCTRA's financial health?
We're in very good financial shape. Most people don't realize we're entirely financed by our operations and bonds. When you sell bonds on toll roads, it's not only about paying the bill each month, but having some reserves in case something happens. Compared to TxDOT, the [North Texas Tollway Authority] and other authorities in the state, the amount of money we bring in each year versus the number of bonds we have is probably the lowest. That affects our bond rating, which potentially [affects] Harris County's bond rating. We're just a part of the county and many people don't realize that. We're the only part that makes money.
How are plans progressing to make EZ Tags more easily obtainable?
We're hoping sometime this year to have EZ Tags on the shelves in convenience stores and places like Walgreens and Wal-Mart. It's basically what you'd pick up at an EZ Tag store, and it can be activated online so you don't ever have to go to a tag store. I refer to this as "retail sales." We've gotten the proposals in from the vendors. We're going through them right now and have not made an award yet. Part two—and the most exciting part to me—is allowing people to get an EZ Tag you don't need a credit or debit card to use. It would be almost like a cash card. [Users] can go to a Walgreens and pay cash to load up [a] card. [Users would then] get a message when balance is getting low. It's a way for infrequent users to have a tag as well. Hopefully in 2016 we can add that part to it. That all goes along with longer-term plans to convert to an all-EZ Tag format.
How would an all-EZ Tag format work?
This year we're going all-EZ Tag on the Houston Ship Channel. That's primarily a safety and traffic operations issue. People at the cash tolls back up onto the lanes, and it's a rear-end [accident] waiting to happen. Hopefully we'll have the EZ Tags in retail by that point so people can get one easily. Next year, we're going to be converting the Hardy Toll Road to all-EZ Tag. If all goes according to plan, the Sam Houston Tollway should still have cash lanes until after I leave. We're gradually working that way, but that change will not happen any time soon. The thing we will not have is pay-by-play—when [a driver runs] through a toll and [he does not] have a tag, we send [him] a bill. TxDOT and NTTA have it, but our violation rate is fairly low, thanks to stringent enforcement and having a cash option. Overall it's about 4 percent.
What other long-term plans are in place?
We have things set up now so that TxDOT tags, NTTA tags, HCTRA tags and [Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County] tags work on any toll road in the state. It's all on a server that collects information from different toll roads. We look at that information and we pay NTTA and TxDOT each month based on what toll roads our users are on.
Right now we're looking at doing an agreement with Oklahoma where [its] tags will work in Texas. [The program] probably won't be [operational] this year, but eventually we'll start adding other states. In a few years, you'll be able to drive any toll road in the U.S. and your tag will work. We're looking to provide as safe and convenient an experience as possible. Convenience and safety are really the two things at the forefront of our minds.