MoPacalypse? Toll project starts in December

The MoPac gain, in theory, will come in late 2015. Meanwhile, get ready for the pain.

After a ceremonial groundbreaking Friday and minor preparatory work in the coming weeks, the $200 million project to add a toll lane to each side of the six-lane North MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) from Lady Bird Lake to Parmer Lane will begin in earnest in early December. Nonceremonial ground will break first in the area between RM 2222 and U.S. 183 — a large grove of trees in the median will be felled to make way for the added pavement — and between RM 2222 and Enfield Road.

In February, work will begin south of Enfield. And by April, crews will be at work in the northern few miles between U.S. 183 and Parmer Lane, according to project managers working for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority.

Drivers trying to negotiate those 11 miles during the estimated two years of construction — between 126,000 and 171,000 vehicles a day, according to 2012 counts — will have the same number of lanes as exist now, at least during the day and early evening. Officials say lanes will be closed, with very rare exceptions, only between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., other than on Sunday when, under the authority’s contract with builder CH2M Hill, the closures may start as early as 5 p.m.

But the three lanes in each direction remaining open will be flanked by concrete barriers and likely have more curves in them than is currently the case. And, assuming the mobility authority gets approval from the Texas Transportation Commission later this fall, the speed limit on MoPac will be lowered during construction from 65 mph to 55 mph.

In each section, the open lanes will be shifted either inward or outward initially, and then move the other way as work is completed on the first phase.

The mobility authority doesn’t know what all this will do to average speeds on the critical and already congested road. But it will be looking to find out.

“We’ve not modeled what to expect during construction,” authority spokesman Steve Pustelnyk said. “What we have done is analysis of current traffic conditions. So we will be able to tell people after we start construction whether traffic has actually changed. And we’ll also be able to tell them after construction how traffic has changed.

“Part of the key for us is being able to say, pre- and post-construction, has there been an improvement in conditions? We want to know whether we’ve actually been successful in accomplishing what we want to accomplish.”

Pustelnyk, formerly the authority’s communications director, has been reassigned full-time to the project and dubbed “MoPac Man” in brochures to be mailed to tens of thousands of Austinites. Those fliers, and the project’s website (, will include a 24/7 hotline for complaints and concerns, 512-270-5000, that will put Pustelnyk more or less on-call for the next two years.

Given the civic cost of jamming up MoPac, and the prospect of daily toll revenue waiting at the end, the authority’s contract with CH2M Hill contains sizable carrots, and an enormous stick, designed to have the toll lanes open by the contract target date of Sept. 17, 2015. Finish early and the contractor will get an extra $14,250 a day. Come in late, however, and the contractor will lose $73,500 a day.

That target completion could be moved to a later date by mutual agreement, Pustelnyk said, in the case of unexpectedly bad weather or if the authority mandates project changes requiring additional construction time.

Here’s what the traffic and lifestyle headaches, along with the $200 million — the Texas Department of Transportation is supplying the money, and tolls will feed a $230 million local transportation fund over the next 20 years in return — will buy:

  • A fourth lane in each direction, albeit one with “dynamic” tolls that will change moment-to-moment based on how many people are using them. More users will mean higher tolls posted on electronic signs before the lane entrances, which in theory will moderate use and ensure speeds in the toll lanes remain at 45 mph or more even during peak commuting times. The toll lanes will be separated from the three free lanes (or four in areas where there is currently an added auxiliary lane) by a five-foot striped buffer zone that will have plastic “delineator” pylons.
  • Four entrances to the toll lanes, one near West Fifth Street for northbound drivers, another north of Parmer for those southbound and two near Far West Boulevard, one in each direction. Similarly, drivers will be able to exit only near Far West, or at the north or sound ends.
  • New ramps for the entrance and exit at the south end of the project that will pass under the main lanes of MoPac. These new underpasses will allow northbound drivers to enter the express lane from West Cesar Chavez Street (but not from West Sixth Street, which will have access only to the free lanes), and likely will let southbound drivers in the toll lane get to both West Cesar Chavez and West Fifth. Access to West Fifth, which the mobility authority supports and city of Austin officials oppose, is still going through a federal environmental approval process that should be complete in the next couple of months, officials said.
  • A new coat of “permeable friction course” asphalt for all lanes over the entire 11 miles, which will be the last step of the project. That pavement type has been in place for the past few years on MoPac from the lake to RM 2222. By having larger crushed rock in the mixture, this type of asphalt tends to muffle sound by 3 to 14 decibels, according to studies, and suppresses spray when the pavement is wet.
  • Permanent concrete barriers in the median, rather than the metal and wire guardrails now in place.
  • Thinner, 11-foot-wide lanes, rather than the current 12-foot lanes, in sections south of RM 2222 where the Union Pacific tracks make expansion inward impossible and private property along the highway’s outer edges limits how much pavement can be added to the right. The shoulders, already thin in some places along MoPac, will narrow even more. North of RM 2222, where there is ample median space for expansion, lanes will remain 12 feet wide with normal-width shoulders.
  • Wider bridges at Enfield Road, Westover Road, West 45th Street and RM 2222 to accommodate the express toll lanes, and bike and pedestrian improvements at 13 cross streets. There also will  be three miles of bike and pedestrian paths built alongside MoPac and four miles of sidewalk lining frontage roads, all of it in the northern section of the project.
  • Seven miles of sound walls from near Steck Avenue to the lake. The painted concrete walls will be 8 to 20 feet high and 6 inches thick. Tom Byrum, the project construction manager with CH2M Hill, said the walls generally will be among the first pieces built in a given section, in part to suppress the sound of the construction to follow.

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