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MoPac’s express lanes will help drivers dodge congestion, but at a cost

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority says its North MoPac Boulevard project will make things better for daily commuters because it will add “express lanes” that help get commuters out of congestion – if they are willing to pay tolls. When complete, the project will add two toll lanes along the inside median, one on each side of the highway, from West Cesar Chavez Street to Parmer Lane.

The $200 million project is a year behind schedule, but the first toll lane is scheduled to open in June. The Statesman’s Alberta Phillips interviewed Mike Heiligenstein, who leads the CTRMA, about the project. Below are excerpts:

American-Statesman: Many describe the toll lanes as Lexus lanes. Does that description fit?

Heiligenstein: While the moniker Lexus lanes has a catchy ring to it, to actually put that as a descriptive label on the new express lanes being built and planned in Austin is inaccurate and has a different history in the real world. The term actually came from someone who, while concerned about the cost, used the label to also describe the premium feel the lane had, like driving in a Lexus or Mercedes.

This is about choice for those that need the extra option occasionally and giving even non-tolled drivers more capacity as some drivers choose the express lanes, thereby freeing up capacity.

How will they help address traffic congestion?

With Austin’s growth, just keeping Austin from choking on future traffic is a challenge. Peak-hour congestion is generally our issue — although that peak is growing and spreading. Providing any new lanes, tolled or non-tolled, thus adding capacity is essential to keep matters from getting even worse. Express lanes will provide an alternative on those days that a commuter needs them to avoid an economic or social cost worse than the cost of the express lane for that day. The reliability factor is huge: Today more and more of our freeways are becoming unreliable for those urgent trips we need to make, and express lanes, though at a cost, can avoid a bad outcome that is time constrained.

How will they help public transportation?

Here at the mobility authority, from the very beginning, we recognized the need for public transit (and emergency responders) to have unfettered access to our toll roads. We never charge transit buses, or registered van pools, and have piloted a carpooling experiment with Federal Highways to test moving commuters to carpools. We get that pavement isn’t the only answer, but we have to have new capacity, and designated capacity to move cars and transit. We need all alternatives on the table. If a commuter switches to (public) transit in an express lane corridor, they get to use the express lane free, no matter how expensive, and get a reliably timed trip. I believe the only incentive that will get (single occupancy vehicles) to move to pooling or public transit is time savings and economic benefit. Express lanes provide both.

What about the MoPac express lanes? From where to where will they run?

The express lanes will be located in the middle of the MoPac corridor, separated from the existing lanes by a four- to five-foot wide striped buffer zone with flexible plastic sticks. Drivers will be able to access express lanes at Cesar Chavez Street and Fifth Street, between Far West Boulevard and RM 2222 or at Parmer Lane. Signs will post the current toll half a mile before the entrance to the lanes, and once drivers are in the lane they will not pay more than the amount they saw posted.

How much will tolls be?

Express lanes could cost as little as 25 cents. However, when traffic is heavy, the toll will increase to help prevent the lanes from becoming congested. The more people that use the lane, the higher the price will be. Preliminary studies suggest toll rates will normally not exceed $4.00, but they could go higher at times of peak demand. The goal of the higher toll rates is not to increase revenue but to manage traffic and maintain free-flow speeds on the express lanes.

Also, drivers using a TxTag pay 25 percent less than those who choose to pay by mail.

Are they being created by taking pavement from free lanes?

The express lanes are being constructed by expanding the existing pavement and by creating 11-foot lanes, which are not uncommon in the Austin area.

Are express lanes being paid for solely with toll revenue, or are public dollars also being used to finance them?

Funding for the project was made possible by a unique partnership with the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Texas Department of Transportation. CAMPO and TxDOT have approved grants totaling $199.5 million to fund the project. As part of the partnership arrangement, the mobility authority will use tolls collected in the express lanes to pay more than $230 million into a regional infrastructure fund over the next 22 years. Money in this fund will be reallocated by CAMPO to fund any transportation project in the region — even including efforts to improve I-35. CAMPO will determine how to best use those funds.

How much of the traffic will express lanes carry during rush hour?

We anticipate that the express lanes will accommodate 1,800 cars per hour during peak traffic times. The goal is that these 1,800 cars will be going no less than 45-50 miles per hour, helping provide the reliable travel time commuters are wanting.

Are express lanes the wave of the future for Central Texas?

I believe … that express lanes are the best alternative in communities that have virtually no capacity for more superhighways. Austin has many geographic and structural constraints, including preserve lands, lakes, developments, etc., that prohibit the expansive building of freeways that may have been possible decades ago. That time is past. Now we have to make our existing corridors smarter and more efficient. That’s what express lanes do.

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