Gary Trietsch

Gary TrietschHired as director for the Harris County Toll Road Authority in August, Gary Trietsch knows Texas mobility challenges like few others. His 48 years in the field include career stints as the Houston district engineer with the Texas Department of Transportation and as vice president of Dannenbaum Engineering Corp. in Houston. 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 Commission- ers 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 toll roads in Harris County, including the Sam Houston Toll Road, Hardy Toll Road and the upcoming Tomball Tollway.






How does working for HCTRA compare to previous transportation jobs?


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.


What major projects is  HCTRA 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. We hope have that open by the end of this year, but it may be early next year.


What projects will HCTRA consider in 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.


What is HCTRA doing 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 [the] 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.

By Shawn Arrajj
Shawn Arrajj serves as the editor of the Cy-Fair edition of Community Impact Newspaper where he covers the Cy-Fair and Jersey Village communities. He mainly writes about development, transportation and issues in Harris County.


MOST RECENT

Peter Lake (left), chair of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, and Brad Jones, interim president and CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, provided an update on state regulators' electric grid redesign efforts in Austin on July 22. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Regulators: Texas electric grid prepared for potentially record-breaking demand next week; 'once-in-a-generation reforms' underway

The heads of the agencies in charge of the Texas electric grid met in Austin on July 22 to provide updates on their grid reform efforts.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is pleading with residents to be more vigilant, asking all residents to start wearing masks again in indoor settings and asking those who are vaccinated to urge their friends who are not to get the shot. (Screenshot Courtesy Facebook)
Harris County raises coronavirus threat level as Hidalgo asks all residents to mask up indoors

Although those who are vaccinated are very unlikely to end up in the hospital, officials said wearing masks in certain situations could help reduce transmissions to the more susceptible unvaccinated.

Harris County Emergency Services District 11 commissioners received updates on the status of its upcoming ambulances services at a July 22 board meeting. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)
Harris County Emergency Services District No. 11 commissioners discuss upcoming ambulance service

The district will take over providing emergency medical services across more than 177 square miles of north Harris County, currently being provided by Cypress Creek Emergency Medical Services, on Sept. 1.

Menu items include traditional and boneless chicken wings; hand-breaded chicken tenders; chicken sandwiches; and sides such as beer-battered onion rings, potato wedges and fried pickles. (Courtesy Buffalo Wild Wings)
Buffalo Wild Wings Go now open on Kuykendahl Road in Spring

Smaller than the typical Buffalo Wild Wings sports bar, the new concept offers pickup and delivery service as well as limited indoor seating.

Memorial Hermann has locations throughout the Greater Houston area, including Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center. (Courtesy Memorial Hermann)
Memorial Hermann visiting policies change as COVID-19 cases rise

As of July 21, Memorial Hermann has changed its visitor policy in light of a recent increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the Greater Houston area.

Houston unemployment is above state and national levels, while home sales in the region continue to be strong, according to a July 21 economic update from the Greater Houston Partnership. (Emma Whalen/Community Impact Newspaper)
Unemployment, strong housing sales mark 2021 Houston economy, Greater Houston Partnership says

While Houston job recovery lags due to the pandemic, area home sales are strong, according to the Greater Houston Partnership.

(Courtesy Blushing Ivory Bridal)
The Princess Bridal relocates, renames to Blushing Ivory Bridal in The Woodlands

The business is relocating from Old Town Spring to Oak Ridge Drive and will open Aug. 3.

In a late-night amendment addition, Harris County Commissioners Court denied an original resolution aiming to increase restrictions on nonmonetary pretrial release bonds in a split vote after hearing over two hours of public testimony July 20 for and against the resolution. The amended resolution, which was approved in a second split vote, favors focusing on criminal court backlogs and funding alternative public safety solutions. (Courtesy Pexels)
After hours of debate, Harris County commissioners oppose resolution restricting felony nonmonetary pretrial release bonds

In a late-night amendment addition, Harris County Commissioners Court denied an original resolution aiming to increase restrictions on non-monetary pretrial release bonds in a split vote after hearing over two hours of public testimony July 20 for and against the resolution.

The restaurant serves a variety of Indian appetizers, entrees and sweets. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
A1 Choice Indian Cuisine opens in Cy-Fair; Torchy's Richmond taco shop coming this week and more Houston-area news

Read the latest business and community news from the Greater Houston area, including a Ross Dress For Less store opening in Cy-Fair.

With cases, testing positivity and hospitalizations on the rise, health care experts say a fourth wave of the coronavirus is starting in Houston. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
The fourth wave: Medical Center officials talk masks, vaccines as delta variant cases pick up

The key difference between this wave and those that preceded it is who is at risk, experts say, citing data showing almost all new coronavirus deaths are affecting the unvaccinated.

Prospective school board candidates have until Aug. 16 to file for a place on the ballot in the upcoming election. (Danica Lloyd/Community Impact Newspaper)
Candidate filing now open for Cy-Fair ISD school board election, 3 incumbents running

Five candidates have already filed for a place on the ballot in the upcoming election. Interested in running? Here's what you need to know.

Diners will need to inform participating restaurants they would like to order off the Houston Restaurant Weeks special menu to trigger donations to the Houston Food Bank. (Courtesy Pexels)
4 Spring-area eateries participating in Houston Restaurant Weeks, Aug. 1-Sept. 6

Join four Spring-area restaurants in the largest annual fundraiser for the Houston Food Bank next month.