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Tolling Points

New CTRMA Toll Road is a Shining Example of Environmental Leadership

Bill Cramer

Can a tolling agency in the midst of a major construction project be a standard-bearer for environmental quality and habitat protection in the area where the work is going on?

In an era when environment and quality of life are often pre-eminent local concerns, can any agency afford not to factor those concerns into every project it takes on?

For a shining example of how to give practical meaning to the term sustainable development, look no farther than IBTTA’s 2014 president, Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA). Faced with a local watershed conservation group’s concern about an essential roadway protection project, Heiligenstein took to the pages of the Austin American-Statesman to endorse the group’s objectives—and show how the project is meeting them.

Striking the Right Balance

Heiligenstein opens his opinion piece by agreeing with the warning on the Save Barton Creek Association’s website: “If we do not protect our fragile natural resources by thoughtful, long-term planning, we are in real danger of losing all that we hold of such great value.” But he also points to the pressing need for mobility alternatives for people who grabbed affordable housing in northern Hays County, and now face a daily commute to Central Austin.

“With a lower cost of living than Austin but access to many of the same quality-of-life resources—such as higher education, health and entertainment—county officials expect continued growth,” he writes. “For roads running through neighborhoods that cannot handle the increased traffic, SH 45SW will offer an alternative.”

But “Stein”, as he’s known throughout the industry, isn’t looking for a free pass for just any kind of construction. Not nearly.

The project design includes state-of-the-art environmental protections, including water quality ponds, vegetation controls, and hazardous materials traps.

It mostly protects the “limestone-heavy landscape containing our life-giving aquifers” by using fill as the foundation for 90% of the roadway.

Texas 45 SW will affect just 0.1% of the total area of the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, and that segment will be fully protected by CTRMA’s water quality standards.

The road’s runoff protections are designed to capture 92% of the suspended solids in stormwater runoff—98% over the Edwards Aquifer—even though state rules only require 80%.

And the project avoids endangered salamander habitats and the region’s “beloved golden-cheeked warbler,” Stein writes.

Solutions Texans Can Believe In

Heiligenstein does a great job of acknowledging and welcoming the varied community voices that want a say in construction projects like Texas 45 SW.

“Central Texans care about their environment,” he writes. “The Save Barton Creek Association and other organizations give people an opportunity to participate in environmental issues; I encourage all participation in being responsible environmental stewards.”

But by the same token, “we also have a shared responsibility in how we safely and responsibly manage our growth through honest communication and transparency,” he notes. That’s why the project “has been studied from every logistical and environmental angle—and it adheres to or exceeds all state requirements and environmentally sensitive components.”

CTRMA’s careful attention to detail makes it an exemplar for the way any tolling agency can respond to environmental concerns around a major project—to address legitimate concerns, and to make common cause with community stakeholders, as a pragmatic alternative to months or years of adversity. It’s an approach that will stand the industry in good stead as the need for mobility becomes increasingly urgent, and more and more jurisdictions turn to tolling authorities for solutions that work.