The MoPac toll lane, about 10 days in, has exceeded expectations, both positive and negative.
The peak toll rate for traveling the 11 miles from Lady Bird Lake to Parmer Lane on the first Thursday of operations spiked to a startling $8.38 sometime between 5:30 and 6 p.m., including $6.28 for those who entered near Far West and took only the northern 6 miles. Those drivers — toll officials emphasize that there would have been only a few during the four minutes of that highest rate — paid a daunting toll of about a dollar a mile.
But on the upside, the northbound toll lane, despite some fleeting slowdowns where cars have to merge south of Enfield and on a curve north of Braker Lane, has maintained a free flow most of the time. And the overall volume of toll transactions peaked at 16,245 on Friday, about 9 percent above the level predicted as a first-year average in traffic studies commissioned by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority before construction started on the toll project.
“The average (speed) has been over 45 mph in the express lane,” Tracie Brown, the mobility authority’s director of operations, said Wednesday. “But it’s going to take a couple of months for the region to get used to it. It’s not going to be the same drivers every day. It’s not going to be same toll every day. Every day is going to be a separate story.”
In a first for the Austin area, the MoPac toll lane has variable toll rates that are designed to climb as more cars enter the lane to keep it from becoming clogged. The goal is to make the travel time in the toll lane reliable for cars and transit buses.
But it might not always work in practice. On Tuesday, a rear-end collision closed the toll lane’s north section for much of an hour during the evening commute. The wreck south of Far West Boulevard actually occurred in the left-hand free lane, at about 4 p.m. But the impact propelled the rear-ended car through the pylons and into the entry lane of the toll’s northern section. That part of the toll lane was reopened after the disabled vehicle was moved.
On urban highways writ large, traffic typically builds in volume throughout the work week, and that was the case with the MoPac toll lane in its first week after its Saturday, Oct. 7 opening. The average toll rate as well has followed that pattern, more or less.
The lane on Monday, Oct. 9, a federal and school holiday, saw 11,469 toll transactions at its two toll points (one just north of Enfield, the other south of Far West), which increased to 14,312 Tuesday, 14,811 Wednesday, 15,473 on Thursday and 16,246 on Friday. The two weekends so far have seen much lighter traffic in the toll lanes, averaging about 6,400 transactions a day.
The average toll rate on that first Monday during the 4-7 p.m. evening rush was just 94 cents for the entire length of the toll lane, then $1.34 on Tuesday, $3.08 Wednesday and an imposing $4.82 on Thursday. The Friday average, even with greater overall traffic, was $2.28. Mobility authority officials said the traffic was spread out over a longer period that day, which was the second Friday of the Austin City Limits Festival as well as getaway day for people going to the UT-OU football game in Dallas.
The southern section of the toll lane has tended to have about 60 percent of the toll transactions, but a much lower toll rate. Officials attributed that seeming mathematical oddity to the northern section of the toll lane having the bulk of its traffic during the evening commute, while the southern section has had steadier usage throughout the day.
“During the peak, the southern section (of the toll lane) is carrying about 1,400 cars an hour and the northern section has about 1,600 an hour,” said Jeff Dailey, the authority’s deputy executive director. “And you get above 1,600, the cars start slowing down.”
The final paving operations on the southbound toll lane are slated for this weekend, which would allow that toll lane to open on Oct. 28. Other work related to the project, including landscaping and finishing the 7 miles of sound-suppression walls alongside the highway, will continue through next summer.