Sunday, September 18, 2005

Central Texas RMA gives "tips" to North East Texas RMA while glossing over its own missteps

NET mobility authority gets tips from Central Texas group



Kilgore News Herald
Copyright 2005

GLADEWATER -- Members of the North East Texas Regional Mobility Authority (NET RMA) went to school Wednesday.

In class, they learned that Regional Mobility Authorities -- authorized by the legislature to allow local agencies to develop toll road projects as an alternative to waiting on state funding for local highway projects -- are complex and time consuming.

Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the Central Texas RMA, addressed a crowd of East Texas government officials, highway officials and interested citizens on the challenges developing a RMA has.

“You have to pull together as a region and make it happen,” Heiligenstein said. “This is especially true in the early stages when you’re trying to get it up and running.”

Heiligenstein said RMA developers face several challenges from the infancy of the project.

“One of the major concerns is the dependence on the financial contributions of local government and other agencies,” he said. “Limited resources and inexperience strain the organization’s ability to complete basic activities such as contract management, record keeping and public outreach.”

Heiligenstein the “market is thin” for qualified staff and consultants will toll roads experience.

“Finding a quality staff and experienced consultants is not easy,” he said.

Heiligenstein said the role of the RMA board is determined by financial resources and the ability to hire staff.

“As staff and consultants are hired, the board will be able to step back and assume more of a policy-making role,” Heiligenstein said.

The CTRMA (Central Texas) executive director said RMA boards must establish a vision, strategic plan, financial plan, secure bonding for directors and liability insurance and hire key staff and consultants.

“As board members, you will find yourself spending more time than you originally thought you would on this project,” Heiligenstein said.

Key personnel that will take the brunt of the work off the board include the executive director, general engineering consultant, legal counsel, financial advisor and accountant.

“The executive director is a liaison between the board and the staff and consultants,” Heiligenstein said.

He noted an executive director needs to be able to work with the board, oversee policy and “make sure it’s (the policy) applied and implemented.”

The executive director is also responsible for keeping the board up to date as well as hiring the staff.

“An executive director spends a lot to time dealing with insurance compliance and other legal matters,” Heiligenstein said, “as well as developing the organization’s budget, overseeing procurement procedures and approving contracts.”

When starting a RMA “funds and resources are critical to its success,” Heiligenstein said. “You have to find local leaders willing to provide financing, resources or provide staff support.”

Heiligenstein said developing documentation is necessary especially when applying for grant such as the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Equity Grant and other funds.”

“Bonds are not sold until a viable project is approved,” Heiligenstein said. “Local leaders must be willing to provide help.”

Heiligenstein said seed money for the CTRMA was usually set up as a grant.

“RMAs can use a combination of creative mechanisms to build (finance) projects,” he said.

Among these are tax exempt revenue bonds, federal, state and local grants, pass through and shadow tollings, private activity bonds, private investments and funds from the State Infrastructure Bank (SIB).

“As the finances evolve, there will be a need for additional financial consultants,” Heiligenstein said. “You’ll need investment bankers, underwriters, bond counsel, CPAs, auditors and trust keepers.”

Heiligenstein said the key to creating a RMA is “regional solidarity.”

He said there will be those who oppose the “innovative project.”

“Change is difficult and you’ll always have someone who objects,” Heiligenstein said.

Heiligenstein said “tolls equal choice; property tax, fuel taxes equal no choice.”

Heiligenstein noted RMA projects are designed to “reduce congestion and we will all benefit from that. We are not building ‘Lexus’ lanes for the rich, as some critics have said.”

Heiligenstein said benefits of RMA projects include: They are locally controlled, developed locally, have faster development times, reduce the burden on TxDOT and create a financial engine to fund future needs.

“This financial engine is a way to give surplus revenue back to the community,” he said. “These projects will add to the area’s economy by creating jobs, creating economic development opportunities and improving the quality of life.”

Heiligenstein said “that’s what it’s all about ... an improved quality of life ... an enhanced transportation system that creates economic development, jobs and emphasizes the quality of life.”

He said creating RMAs and their projects “is not an easy path and not for the weak of heart ... Be prepared to spend a huge portion of your early resources on public involvement and education. Make sure your efforts are above reproach and you have strong community leadership.”

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