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Heiligenstein Ushers In the Year of Customer Service

By: 
Bill Cramer

The Year of Customer Service. It’s exactly the theme you would expect from IBTTA’s 2014 President, Mike Heiligenstein, after his 10 years at the helm of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) and 23 years in public service.

Every tolling executive knows it. Heiligenstein (“Stein”, to his colleagues in Austin) emphasizes it: “Without the customer, tolling agencies can get very little done. Satisfied users pay the tolls that keep roads in operation. They share first-hand success stories with their friends and family, neighbors and colleagues, reaching out farther and more credibly than the hardest-hitting PR campaign.”

And when an agency needs legislative support for a new project, it helps to have a groundswell of public support to count on.

The Front Lines of Customer Service

A close connection to local users has been one of the keys to Heiligenstein’s success at CTRMA.

“The lesson I’ve learned is we have to look at it from a user’s standpoint, not our standpoint,” he told Community Impact, an Austin newspaper, last July. Even with issues as basic as the design of a lane divider or the placement of a reader board, “we have to see it the way [customers] see it, not the way we see it” as transportation professionals.

That perspective has shaped CTRMA’s approach to a rapid expansion of tolled facilities in the high-growth, highly congested Austin metropolitan area.

“What people will tell you [from] national surveys is that you may not be looking for the fastest route—you’re looking for the most reliable one,” he told Community Impact. A managed lane that guarantees a daily commute of 35 minutes will win loyal customers against an untolled road that sometimes takes only 20 minutes, but just might take an hour.

From a customer’s perspective, “that’s what I don’t like,” he said. “I don’t like not knowing.”

The Year Ahead for IBTTA

Heiligenstein’s year as IBTTA president will combine a sharp focus on front-line delivery with a concerted effort to shape federal policy. While member agencies work to maintain and strengthen their relationships with customers and communities, the association will be striving to position tolling as a more widely accepted highway funding option through the U.S. Congressional debate on transportation reauthorization.

But the connection between listening and delivering is nothing new for the executive who has led CTRMA from the day it formed.

In a December, 2012 news profile to mark the agency’s 10th anniversary, Heiligenstein admitted that “there were points when I thought, ‘Man, is this ever going to get the kind of community buy-in and acceptance that’s necessary to be successful?’”

A decade later, a county official and alternative transportation advocate who sometimes opposed CTRMA’s earlier plans is a strong supporter. “It has been run well,” said Travis County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt. “It’s been run lean.”

( Photo of IBTTA President Mike Heiligenstein via Annie Drabicky/Community Impact Newspaper)