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New MoPac toll lanes have potential to improve commutes — if they work

That morning, afternoon or evening commute on North MoPac Boulevard could soon start to improve if there are no more delays in the opening of planned toll lanes — and if the lanes works as efficiently as planned.

Those might be big “ifs.” But officials with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority believe that they can make the next deadline — in August — to open a portion of the road project. For now, we’re keeping our fingers crossed.

At this point, the 11-mile stretch of roadway that will add two tolled express lanes to North MoPac is more than a year behind schedule. Commuters understandably are frustrated with delays and lane closures due to construction that add more misery to an already miserable commute. But there is anticipation as North MoPac’s newly paved roads and striped lanes take shape.

Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), told the American-Statesman he is “very hopeful” that there won’t be another delay of the partial opening planned for next month, a seven-mile stretch that goes from south of Far West Boulevard to south of Parmer Lane. He added that the entire project is on track to open by late November. So in a few weeks, tens of thousands of commuters who use North MoPac daily could get some clues as to whether the tolled express lanes, also called dynamic toll lanes, live up to their hype.

When complete, the project will add two toll lanes along the inside median, from West Cesar Chavez Street to Parmer. There is a lot riding on the $200 million project, which has been sold as a partial-but-significant remedy for North MoPac’s dreaded congestion. Consider that the highway handles 140,000 vehicles daily, which Heiligenstein said is comparable to portions of Interstate 35.

In building express lanes, the CTRMA is aiming to create a system that provides speed, reliability and an uncongested ride to those willing to pay. It also aims to give a big boost to public transit. Capital Metro buses and registered van pools will be able to use the toll lanes free of charge, giving them the benefit of offering reliable commutes that are hassle-free.

But will it work?

It will work if enough commuters use the new lanes during rush hour or other selective times. And it will work even better if enough commuters abandon their cars and use Capital Metro buses. It will work if the algorithm, sensors, cameras and other technology do their jobs of monitoring traffic and tolls.

What we hope won’t happen is what critics have labeled as a two-tier system with free, congested lanes for those who can’t afford tolls and “Lexus Lanes” for those who can afford them.

Tolls will be at their lowest levels when traffic is light, about 25 cents one way or 50 cents roundtrip for the entire 11 miles, CTRMA officials have said. Those rates are affordable, but here’s the thing: As sensors detect traffic volumes thickening in MoPac’s free lanes, tolls will change as often as every five minutes. And without caps, the charge will rise to whatever price point is necessary to keep traffic flowing at 45 mph in express lanes.

In other words, tolls will go up as high as necessary to control the number of vehicles entering express lanes during times when congestion is thick on free lanes. The CTRMA predicts that to be $3 during rush hour if drivers use electronic toll tags. But that is merely an estimate. And there is nothing built into the system to prevent sharp spikes in tolls. Even at $3 each way, a commuter who travels daily on the lanes could spend more than $1,000 annually on such charges.

The bottom line is that no one knows for sure how such tolls will work.

The American-Statesman’s Ben Wear recently reported that across the nation, there are about 30 urban highways that have similar forms of variable tolls. But their experiences go only so far in providing answers regarding how efficiently North MoPac toll lanes will operate because it has distinct features that set it apart from others.

As we have noted, the North MoPac toll lane system won’t have a maximum toll rate, nor offer discounts to cars with two or three occupants. And tolls on North MoPac are not designed to work on a schedule, as many other highways do, in which tolls are set by time of day. The North MoPac tolls are based on traffic flow. Also, most other roads that have toll lanes also have multiple ones in each direction, compared with North MoPac, which will have just one in each direction.

Wear also reported that most projects elsewhere separate the toll lanes from the adjacent free lanes with concrete barriers. On North MoPac, however, pylons and stripes on the pavement will be all that stand between those who pay and those who don’t. But since that will be backed by a fine of up to $200 for illegally entering a controlled access facility, there isn’t likely to be much abuse.

In addressing those concerns, Heiligenstein told us that it amounts to people making choices on when to use the tolled express lanes, which they should do selectively. Buying electronic toll tags also will help keep toll expenses at their lowest level, he said.

“People can get sucked into using (toll lanes) every day, but they aren’t meant for the everyday approach; they are meant for reliable timing on your trip,” Heiligenstein said.

No doubt the new toll lanes are not a panacea. But if commuters can at last have reliability, then that is a big improvement that might even live up to the hype.

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