Austin looks to mitigate MoPac toll lanes’ collateral damage to Chavez


Traffic and backups have increased markedly on Cesar Chavez Street since the toll lanes opened in October.

The city’s traffic engineers say they are considering signal timing and intersection changes.

The change in Cesar Chavez Street rush-hour traffic has been unmistakable since the MoPac Boulevard toll lanes opened in October.

Eastbound backups in the morning near Austin High School. A slow slog eastward for those going all the way to Congress Avenue or even Interstate 35. And an evening westbound crawl that is even jamming up the exits of parking garages on or near Cesar Chavez.

Commuters appear to be gaining significant time on MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1), particularly southbound in the morning when what was formerly stop-and-go traffic now, on most days, flows at 50 mph or more. But at least some of those saved minutes are being spent in the final mile or two between the highway and downtown.

City of Austin traffic gurus say they’re looking for ways to at least mitigate the situation.

“The roadway simply can’t handle the number of people accessing it,” said Robin Osborne, a signal engineer at the city’s Traffic Management Center just off South Lamar Boulevard. Osborne and his co-workers there monitor more than 350 traffic cameras around the city, adjusting traffic signals on the fly and otherwise addressing road problems as they crop up.

City engineers have spent the past few weeks studying the new normal on Cesar Chavez, Osborne said. By sometime in December, he said, his office expects to have plans in place to adjust signal timing, possibly change lane striping and perhaps even reconfigure intersections to “squeeze every bit of efficiency out of this corridor that we can. Everything is on the table.”

Those potential solutions will be put in place in early 2018, he said, followed by further monitoring of the traffic and fine-tuning.

Beyond that, Osborne said the city is encouraging commuters to take a fresh look at tried-and-true routes, and even the times they go to and from work.

The city expected an increase in rush hour traffic on Cesar Chavez when the toll lanes opened, Osborne said. The northbound toll lane entrance can be reached, at least for those coming from downtown, only from West Cesar Chavez. And southbound drivers in the toll lane can head for downtown only on East Fifth or Cesar Chavez streets.

“And a lot of people have changed over to those managed (toll) lanes,” Osborne said.

That has the effect, he said, of directing onto Cesar Chavez a somewhat greater percentage of traffic because it now gets some people who otherwise have used West Sixth Street, Enfield Road or Windsor Road. People using MoPac’s three free lanes in each direction, of course, still have the option of using any of those streets.

Osborne declined, given the multiple times of days and directions involved, to say how much extra traffic Cesar Chavez is getting or what percentage has been added to traffic times.

“It hasn’t doubled things, that’s for sure,” he said. “But it is significant.”

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