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Austin officials look to Atlanta for South MoPac toll lane support

Chris Tomlinson has had four years to see how express toll lanes work in the real world. Or, at least, in Atlanta.

With Austin moving toward having its first such lanes on North MoPac Boulevard, and two years into a study of doing the same on South MoPac, supporters of those projects brought in Tomlinson, head of Georgia’s Road and Tollway Authority, to share how Atlanta’s first such project is doing.

Tomlinson was part of a South MoPac panel discussion Tuesday at a downtown hotel, hosted by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and moderated by Austin state Sen. Kirk Watson.

The pair of lanes on Interstate 85 in Georgia, one on each side, is doing just fine, Tomlinson said, drawing 26,000 vehicles a day to the road in Atlanta’s northeastern suburbs, despite variable tolls that average more than $4 during rush hour. The toll rate, he said, sometimes spikes as high as $11 for the entire 16 miles. The lanes are so popular, he said, that even the highest tolls, designed to discourage enough traffic to keep the lane flowing at 45 mph or more, sometimes fail to do that job.

Tomlinson said that the lanes on I-85 meet or exceed that 45 mph target 87 percent of the time.

“The lanes are more popular than ever,” Tomlinson said. “But if I could go back and change anything, I wish we had built two lanes a side.”

That testimony plays into the hopes of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which is about halfway through a $200 million, 11-mile-long project to build one express toll lane on each side of North MoPac, between Lady Bird Lake and Parmer Lane.

The toll agency is in the midst of an environmental study of express lanes on South MoPac between the lake and Slaughter Lane, a distance of about 8 miles, and the six scenarios still on the table include versions that have one lane on each side and others with two lanes on each side.

Mobility authority officials contend that building two lanes on each side is the wisest choice, both to add capacity to a highway that already has significant rush hour congestion and as a way to keep tolls lower. In express lanes, tolls vary moment to moment in response to traffic speeds up ahead, and doubling the capacity of the toll lanes would tend to keep speeds higher.

Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, told about the chamber event later, wasn’t impressed by the arguments.

Bunch likes none of the six scenarios for express lanes, suggesting instead that free-to-drive, high-occupancy vehicle lanes could be created instead “at a fraction of the cost.” Bunch also argues that South MoPac’s environmental impact shouldn’t be studied in isolation.

Highway officials, Bunch said, have made it clear in public documents that their ultimate intention is to connect the southern end of South MoPac directly to Interstate 35 by extending Texas 45 Southwest to the east. Thus, Bunch said, the entire southwest loop should be evaluated as a unit.

Tomlinson also buttressed another mobility authority talking point: Adding express lanes that maintain good speeds through variable tolling will encourage people to trade car commuting for Capital Metro bus commuting. The mobility authority, which has two toll roads operating in Central Texas, allows transit buses and registered van pools to use its toll roads for free.

The I-85 toll lanes now have eight express bus routes, said Tomlinson, who is also executive director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority. About 2 percent of the vehicles that use the lanes are buses, he said, but those buses carry an estimated 26 percent of people traveling in the lanes.

Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development, said at the chamber lunch that transit agency officials here have been talking to the mobility authority about building park-and-ride lots near Slaughter Lane and even farther south where South MoPac meets Texas 45 Southwest.

“We’re very excited about the express lanes coming because it will allow us to expand service,” Hemingson said.

Four years in, the I-85 toll lanes have been so successful, Tomlinson said, that the Atlanta area now has another 52 miles under construction.

“This is a transportation strategy,” he said, “that we believe works.”

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