Sometime in the next couple of months, the Austin area will have its first “dynamic” toll lane, a toll road within a free road on North MoPac Boulevard whose tolls rise and fall with the level of traffic on the highway.
And like anything new in transportation, what the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is calling “express” lanes will generate a lot of questions. In a pre-emptive strike against that confusion, here are some answers about the project.
We’ve all been watching the construction since 2013. But what exactly is going in there?
Basically, a single toll lane is being added on each side of North MoPac (Loop 1), from just north of Lady Bird Lake to just south of Parmer Lane. The toll lanes will be in the center, next to the median, and will be separated from the free lanes only by 28-inch-high plastic pylons spaced 12 feet apart, flanked by double white stripes.
So those pylons will be all that keeps me from getting in and out of the toll lane wherever I want to?
Those, and a fine of up to $200 for illegally entering a controlled access facility.
And it’s all about to open?
No, just the northbound lane, and only the northern 7 miles or so from south of Far West Boulevard to south of Parmer. And not until August, officials said tentatively last week, pushing back what was already an opening delayed to July.
Why only that piece?
The southern 4 miles, from Northland Drive to Lady Bird Lake, is far from being ready. The mobility authority hopes contractor CH2M, with which it has been haggling for more than a year over project delays and financial responsibility related to them, will have all of the 11-mile project ready by the end of the year.
So the authority is opening just the northern stretch of the northbound toll lane this summer. Drivers reaching the end of the MoPac toll lane going north will feed seamlessly into the free-flowing Loop 1 tollway.
It’s a different story for the southbound lane. The authority would be able to open the northern stretch this summer as well, but doing so before the southern 4-mile segment is ready would spit drivers out into an already congested area of MoPac near Northland, exacerbating the situation there. And drivers, who would have paid money to get to that congestion, would take away an ugly first impression of the toll lanes.
So when the full project is done, where will I be able to enter and exit the lanes?
On each side, there will be just two places to enter and two places to exit. Northbound, a driver from West Cesar Chavez Street or from MoPac south of the river will be able to get into the toll lane. Then, about halfway between Northland and Far West, there will be a gap in the pylons about a quarter-mile long where drivers in the toll lane can exit and drivers in the free lanes can enter the toll lane and continue north. Then there is the final exit near Parmer.
Southbound, there will be an entrance to the toll lane south of Parmer. However, to get to it, a driver will have to enter MoPac at Scofield Ridge Parkway because the toll lane entrance is north (that is, upstream) of where the MoPac entrance ramp from Parmer enters the freeway. South of Far West, there is a gap in the pylons for drivers to switch between the paid and free lanes. This one is a half-mile long, longer than the midpoint access provided on the northbound side, because there was more room for it there.
At those Far West gaps, the tolled part will widen to two lanes temporarily to provide room for merging.
Will I be able to get to and from the toll lane from Far West? How about Northland?
Yes, Far West will be accessible, although a driver exiting the toll lane northbound will have to merge across three free lanes in about a half-mile to exit. People from Northland will be able to go north on the express lane but not south.
So people who get to MoPac using roads south of Northland will be out of luck as well?
For going to and from points to the south, like downtown, yes. But they could still go north on the free lanes and then use the toll lane from Far West north.
You said the tolls fluctuate. Based on what?
Sensors will monitor traffic volumes on the free lanes and express lanes. As traffic thickens (for instance, as rush hour approaches), the tolls will tend to increase. The point is to use prices to meter the flow into the lanes and prevent them from clogging. That will make the travel time reliable not only for cars (if it works as intended), but also for transit buses. Capital Metro plans to add more commuter service from North and Northwest Austin after the toll lanes fully open.
How will I know what I might have to pay, should I choose to enter the toll lane?
About a quarter-mile to a half-mile from each of the four entrance points, large overhead signs will say what the current toll is.
But what if the toll rises before I get into the lane?
Officials say there’s a three-minute delay built into the system, along with other controls, that will ensure that you pay no more than what the sign said. However, when tolls are on the way down (at the tail end of rush hour, for instance), you could pay less than the sign said.
How high are the tolls going to be?
Most of the time, when there is little or no congestion, they’ll probably be pretty low. The minimum electronic toll tag rate, likely to be in place most of the time from midevening until dawn or so, will be 25 cents for each of the two sections, or 50 cents total.
And the maximum toll?
There will be no maximum. If enough people keep trying to enter the lane, the toll could just keep going up and up.
So this is really just a cut-around for wealthy people?
That has certainly been the reaction of some people to similar toll lanes around the country, and people with ample disposable income would certainly be better able to use them on a regular basis. But mobility authority officials argue that the lanes will be relatively inexpensive much of the time, and that even when rates go up, they will offer an occasional option for people who have a particular time crunch. Carpoolers will be able to split the cost among themselves, if they choose to, making the cost more affordable on an individual basis. Also, transit buses and vanpools will be able to use the toll lanes for free, and those serve a cross section of people.
Will veterans, or particularly disabled veterans, get tolls waived or receive a toll discount on this road?
No. State law allows any Texas toll agency to offer reduced tolls or free passage to disabled veterans and veterans who earned a Purple Heart or the Legion of Valor, and the Texas Department of Transportation waives tolls for those veterans on the four Austin-area tollways that it operates: Texas 130 (as far south as Mustang Ridge), Loop 1, Texas 45 North and Texas 45 Southeast. But the mobility authority board, citing its lack of supporting tax revenue, in 2010 voted against offering the discounts to veterans on its tollways, which include the MoPac toll lanes.
Why does the project and maintenance of the road fall under the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority? I thought MoPac was a TxDOT road.
It is. And TxDOT provided almost all of the $204 million that the authority is using to build the road. But the state agency, as it did with the 183-A and U.S. 290 East toll road projects, deputized the local toll authority to do the project and then take over all of North MoPac (up to Parmer Lane) once it is done.
What if there’s a wreck in a one-lane tollway?
The lanes will have a wide inner shoulder, and officials say there will be room to pass by if the disabled vehicles are all the way to one side. But if the lane is truly blocked, workers for the mobility authority as soon as possible will block upstream entrances to avoid people paying money for an “express” lane, only to end up sitting still behind a wreck.
What if I don’t have a toll tag?
As is the case with other Central Texas tollways, you’ll pay 33 percent more than the people with electronic toll tags. Cameras will take a picture of your license plate, and a bill will be sent to the address associated with that license plate.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
We’re hosting an online chat about the North MoPac toll road project at 11 a.m. Tuesday with Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, and his top staffers. Visit statesman.com to ask questions and follow the discussion. For previous coverage, go to mystatesman.com.