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Austin’s ‘variable’ tolls put to the test on MoPac

If I had anyplace I really needed to be Saturday at 8:45 a.m., then 25 cents would have been a heck of a deal.

Well, actually, maybe not so much, because the cars on northbound MoPac Boulevard’s general purpose lanes were going pretty much the same speed as I was in the new toll lane, and they paid nothing. Even MoPac is uncrowded early on Saturdays.

Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority officials, who somehow have retained a sense of humor despite battles with their construction contractor and a project more than a year tardy, consented to a scheme (of my American-Statesman colleague Ken Herman’s devising) to let this transportation reporter be the first paying customer on the piece of the MoPac toll lane project that opened Saturday morning.

I think they’ll forgive me if I point out that we got going about 45 minutes later than predicted, which seemed somehow appropriate. After Ken and I entered the toll lane, workers removed a set of orange barrels and the hoi polloi were allowed to follow us down the 5.8 miles. Several hundred thousand Austinites have been watching that new asphalt get built for the past 19 years — OK, really, it’s been only the past 34 months or so.

Through my toll tag, I paid a quarter for the ride (although I jokingly gave a construction official an actual quarter, which I think he kept), which is the minimum for each of what will eventually be four sections of MoPac toll lanes, two pieces northbound and two southbound. But for now, and at least the next six months, only the northbound section from Far West Boulevard to near Parmer Lane will be in operation.

The rest of the 11-mile project from West Cesar Chavez Street to Parmer won’t be done until at least April, mobility authority officials said, but they cautioned that could very well change. The authority’s contractor CH2M has had trouble meeting milestones.

But, for now, one section is open.

Will people use the toll lane (and later, lanes) in numbers? Will the variable tolls, tied to traffic volumes, really keep the toll lanes uncongested and moving at 45 mph or more? Will a fourth, pay-to-drive lane on each side of North MoPac discernibly improve traffic in the three free lanes alongside? And just how high will those toll rates go during rush hour?

THE BACK STORY: What went wrong on the delayed MoPac expansion

The initial toll transaction figures won’t provide a complete answer about how Austinites will react to what is sometimes called “dynamic” tolling. But, given some weeks or months to settle out, drivers’ use of the lane will shed at least some light on that question. And, MoPac aside, this answer matters because variable tolling is under consideration for new lanes on South MoPac, Interstate 35 and U.S. 183 in Northwest Austin between MoPac and Texas 45 North.

So, how is this supposed to work? I took a comprehensive look at that in the Statesman in July, and I’d urge you to read that.

‘Dynamic’ tolls on MoPac to gauge how Austinites value their time

But here’s the short version: The toll for each half of traveling MoPac toll lanes (when the whole thing is open) will be, at minimum, the 25 cents I paid Saturday. This rate, likely to pertain overnight and other times that currently have little or no congestion on MoPac, essentially covers the cost of processing an electronic toll.

But as traffic begins to pick up in the free lanes, and then in the toll lane, a computer algorithm will kick in and begin to raise the toll (at most every five minutes) in an effort to control the volume in the toll lane. There is no ceiling on how high that toll could rise because there could be times — for instance when there is a wreck in the free lanes — when the toll lane becomes an incredibly inviting option. The idea is that every driver has a price — tied to his or her pocketbook and the urgency of getting to the destination — at which the toll lane would cease to be an acceptable option.

Drivers would see an overhead sign, about a half-mile before they have to make a decision about whether to enter the toll lane, telling them what their toll would be, and that price would be locked in for them.

So, if the algorithm works, traffic in the toll lane would continue to flow at that magic 45 mph or more. Each toll lane would handle up to 1,800 cars, transit buses and registered van pools per hour, guaranteeing them a quick trip.

If it works.

As I said in the July story, there are about 30 roads in the U.S. with variable tolls. But many of them vary the toll rate based on the time of day, with a set schedule, rather than changing spontaneously in response to traffic. Many allow drivers with at least one or two passengers to use the toll lanes free of charge, driving along with the paying customers, but that won’t be the case here. Most of them have two lanes on each side, and often there is a concrete barrier separating the toll lanes from the free lanes rather than plastic pylons and stripes that will be on MoPac.

And those are different cities, with traffic problems, road networks and community mindsets unique to each.

The ingredients in the potion, in other words, vary from city to city. That can likewise change day to day, with weather and other conditions (such as school being out for the summer or holiday break). And officials told me that it will also take a while for Austinites to make up their mind, giving it a try, seeing their toll tag bill and then deciding if the cost is worth it to them.

“That’s the great unknown: How much demand is there in the marketplace?” Mike Heiligenstein, the mobility authority’s longtime executive director, told me back in July.

Traffic in Austin is that nagging ache that never quite goes away, with regular intense flare-ups, a community affliction and handy conversation starter. And MoPac is about as bad as it gets.

We’re about to find out how much people will pay to ease that pain.

Correction: In the map with this article, the key should have indicated the northernmost part of the northbound toll lane opened Saturday, and the rest of the toll lanes are slated to open next April.

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