Get ready for the Battle of South MoPac, Part II.
After a first-try design to add toll lanes to South MoPac Boulevard met stiff public head winds early this year, highway designers went back to their drawing boards and came up with four more options. None of these new alternatives have the flyover bridges over Lake Bird Lake that caused so much angst with environmentalists, Rollingwood residents and the Austin High School community.
Even so, as the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority prepares for an open house Tuesday night on the four new proposals, along with two versions of the original flyover approach, all of those groups remain unsatisfied to varying degrees.
“They all impact Austin High, so we’re trying to figure out the one that least affects us,” said Sara Marler, who works in environmental education and serves on the board of the school’s parent-teacher association. “We are completely focused on the safety of our students. Getting into and out of Austin High, with all the ramps, is dangerous.”
Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea, a long-time environmental activist who helped form Keep MoPac Local, has called for scrapping the ongoing environmental analysis of the 8-mile project to add toll lanes from the lake to near Slaughter Lane.
She and Save Our Springs Alliance executive director Bill Bunch have argued the traffic and environmental effects of expanding South MoPac should be considered in conjunction with the planned construction of Texas 45 Southwest, and a potential future extension connecting that road to Interstate 35.
“They’re not telling people it’s just one piece of a massive highway toll road project that would divert interstate trucks and cars from I-35 over to MoPac, adding tens of thousands of extra vehicles a day onto our local roads,” Shea said, pointing to a pair of studies projecting 30,000 to 44,000 trips a day on Texas 45 Southwest, which will connect to South MoPac.
Mobility authority officials say that their consultants have forecast that an ultimate connection of Texas 45 Southwest to I-35, if it happens, would not produce that massive influx of cars that Shea predicts. Those studies have not been made public.
Shea also said the mobility authority “did not seriously consider the cheapest alternative that’s available almost immediately with a bucket of paint: restriping South MoPac and the (river) bridge to create bus and (high-occupancy-vehicle) lanes.” She said that based on a University of Texas study her staff saw, South MoPac (including the shoulders) is wide enough to add a transit and high-occupancy-vehicle lane while keeping the three existing general purpose lanes on each side.
The middle option: Merge
Rollingwood Mayor Thom Farrell, meanwhile, has occupied the middle ground.
Farrell said he and his council are not against adding toll lanes to South MoPac, even the two on each side that mobility authority officials prefer. But he said his city will endorse one particular option that would not directly connect drivers in the toll lanes to West Cesar Chavez Street and thus to downtown. Instead, drivers in those toll lanes, set closest to the median, would have to merge across three free lanes to exit on West Cesar Chavez.
Farrell opposes an alternative to those flyovers over the lake, the so-called “wishbone” proposal that includes 25-foot-high bridges between Bee Cave Road and Barton Skyway that would allow drivers to quickly access the toll lanes southbound and, on the northbound side, get to the West Cesar Chavez exit without weaving across the free traffic lanes. That proposal, similar to bridges included in a design offered by the city of Austin, moves the potentially unsightly bridge structure more than a half mile south of the riverfront.
Farrell notes that in 2035, that weaving adds only three to five minutes to the travel time in those free lanes from Slaughter Lane to the lake, according to mobility authority calculations. And adding the bridges would create aesthetic and noise problems for his small city west of South MoPac.
“When we get down to a couple of minutes on this, let’s be realistic: that doesn’t mean anything,” Farrell said. “And when you get onto Cesar Chavez, you’re going to stop either way.”
Mobility authority officials, responding to concerns about what the project might mean to West Chavez Chavez and downtown traffic in general, this spring commissioned a study by the University of Texas’ Center for Transportation Research. That study, according to an executive summary on the project website, says that adding toll lanes to South MoPac would have little impact on downtown travel times in 2020.
The full study has not been posted on the website.
Mike Heiligenstein, the mobility authority executive director, stopped short of endorsing any particular option. But he said agency officials do not like the versions that would require toll lane drivers to merge across three lanes to reach downtown.
“Everybody in the industry would tell you that when you don’t have a direct connection, it is just horrendous,” Heiligenstein said. “It’s a safety issue. It’s a congestion issue. It’s a capacity issue.”
The mobility authority and its consultants have been working on the environmental study of South MoPac since 2013 and, early this year, thought they might be nearing its completion. But after the adverse reaction to the flyover proposal over the lake, the environmental analysis has slowed by six to nine months.
The city of Austin this summer submitted one of the designs on the table. The mobility authority has since incorporated some of those features into its other designs: tolled flyover connections from U.S. 290 to South MoPac, revamped exit and entrance ramps at Bee Cave Road and Loop 360, and an added free lane on southbound MoPac south of Bee Cave Road that should ease congestion caused by heavily used entrance ramps south of Bee Cave and Barton Skyway.
But the authority has concerns about another aspect of the city proposal. Because it adds new bridges over the lake, it would require taking almost 4 acres of Zilker Park. That would trigger a number of reviews under state and federal law, officials say, and likely would be rejected because other alternatives would not require taking Zilker acreage.
After Tuesday’s open house and the online comment period running through Nov. 20, the mobility authority likely won’t come forward with another recommended design until the spring, officials said. Then there would be a public hearing and a final version of the environmental analysis.
Officials say construction on the $300 million to $350 million project is unlikely to begin until well into 2017.
Ben Wear has covered transportation since 2003 as Austin’s explosive growth has put more strain on area roads. He has scrutinized the spending at Capital Metro, tracked the tug-of-war over plans to build Texas 45 Southwest and most recently explained why the construction project on North MoPac fell so far behind schedule.
What’s your pick?
To examine the different South MoPac options and weigh in on your favorite, visit our poll at statesman.com/mopac-poll.