The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is considering inviting Hays and Bastrop counties to join the transportation planning group that currently counts only Travis and Williamson counties as members.


The CTRMA was created in 2002 by Travis and Williamson counties and has since contributed $1.5 billion to toll road projects that crisscross the region. And now, in the face of a growing number of toll projects that serve Hays and Bastrop county drivers, the CTRMA board has taken early steps to forge relationships with the two smaller counties.


"There is a rationale for them being in the RMA," said CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein. "After all, the ‘R’ stands for regional."


Discussions about adding the two counties began earlier this year as the CTRMA wrapped up the Texas 45 Southwest tollway project, which connects the southern end of MoPac Boulevard to communities in Hays County. Hays County contributed $5 million of right-of-way for the project, and about 80% of the drivers that use the tollway are Hays County residents.


"They are being able to utilize one of the brand-new toll roads, but they really don’t have a stake on the board, so I thought it would be appropriate if we reached out to them," Heiligenstein said.


The case is similar in Bastrop County. The CTRMA operates the tollway along Texas 71 between Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and Texas 130, and is in the early phase of extending the U.S. 290 tollway past Manor and into the Elgin area. These two arteries are used daily by Bastrop County residents. A recent study by the Bastrop Chamber of Commerce found that about 23% of Bastrop residents work in the Bastrop area. The rest commute out of the area, primarily to the Austin metropolitan area.


"We know that there’s a strong tie between the economic engine of the city of Austin and Bastrop County," said Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape. "Over 50% of our wage earners in Bastrop County actually commute to Travis County to earn their check — that’s a lot of travel time. Then they bring that money back to Bastrop County to be spent locally."


If Bastrop and Hays counties had representation on the CTRMA board, the two communities could have more say in the infrastructure planning, toll rates and toll policies for the highways many residents use.


The proposal was first formally discussed by the CTRMA board on Oct. 9. Although board members were generally agreeable with the idea, some felt that adding two new counties could inject unneeded politics into regional transportation planning, especially when there are no projects currently in the works that are located in either county.


"To me, it’s almost putting the cart before the horse. We aren’t contemplating a big project in Hays County, much less Bastrop County," said board member John Langmore. "So, what’s the point? Especially if your starting point is fear of adding complexity to our board dialogue. … Why complicate it when there’s not a project in the pipeline?"


Creating relationships with these two smaller counties, other members said, would be an outward demonstration that the CTRMA is thinking regionally.


"I don’t think we can look at the work that we do and the projects that we build as a Travis County road or a Williamson County road, because the way our region functions and the way most regions function, people are coming from all over and using these roads and paying our tolls," said board member Nikelle Meade. "If they have an interest in engaging, I think it makes sense to allow them to engage."


The inclusion of Bastrop and Hays counties in the CTRMA would require approval each of the counties’ commissioners courts. The Bastrop Commissioners Court said they may consider the proposal as soon as next month.


The proposal would also require approval from both the Williamson County and Travis County commissioners courts, as well as from the full CTRMA board, which is composed of seven members — three from Williamson County, three from Travis County and one appointee from the governor. As currently discussed, Bastrop and Hays would each get one voting member added to the seven-member board.


The addition of the two counties would then need final approval from the Texas Transportation Commission.